The big news in the geospatial world at the moment is Facebook’s acquisition of Mapillary. For those unfamiliar, Mapillary is a darling of the mapping world and one of the highest-profile geospatial startups of the last decade—launched in 2013, their mission was to create a global street-level imagery dataset to rival Google Street View.
Mapillary was the prototypical “venture-scale” business — preposterously ambitious, technically impressive, inarguably valuable for the world, and plausibly monetizable. What Mapillary accomplished in a short seven years is simply staggering. Google, with an enormous head start and untold resources at the ready to support Street View announced last year that they’ve collected over ten million miles of street imagery. Mapillary, on the other hand, crossed three million miles of mapped streets in 2018 and has more than doubled the number of images in their catalog in the years since (to over one billion!), putting them squarely in the same conversation as Google. That’s an insane accomplishment for any company, let alone a startup who, over its lifetime, raised ~$25M or about half of the annual compensation package for a typical member of Google’s C-Suite.
In addition, they’ve created some stuff I deeply admire as a member of the broader open source geospatial community. Two quick examples:
OpenSfM, a popular computer vision engine for stitching together overlapping images to reconstruct places in 3D.
Vista, a free 25K image dataset labeled for semantic segmentation — one of the largest such open datasets in existence.
What is Facebook Up To, Exactly?
If you predicted Facebook would acquire Mapillary, congratulations — you are probably alone. Apart from a public image that stands in cartoonish opposition to Mapillary’s ethos of grassroots community building and radical openness, Facebook doesn’t really do maps, do they? Google, Apple, and Microsoft have invested billions into consumer mapping applications and acquired numerous companies to support those efforts. Any of those three behemoths would have felt like natural landing spots for Mapillary. But Facebook? What’s that about?
Unless you are already tapped into the seedy underworld known as the “geospatial industry,” you can be forgiven for not knowing that Facebook actually does do maps. In this incredible paper¹ released j̶u̶s̶t̶ ̶l̶a̶s̶t̶ ̶m̶o̶n̶t̶h̶ just over a year ago², researchers found that Facebook has contributed over 800,000 kilometers of mapped roads to OpenStreetMap (if you’re unfamiliar, it’s one of the largest crowdsourcing projects in history). They rank third in kilometers mapped behind Mapbox/Development Seed (1.69M) and Apple (1.64M).
And beyond directly contributing cartographic features to OSM, they’ve publicly released an open source, AI-assisted road mapping tool called RapID that is an impressive thing to witness in action. They also support the OSM Foundation at the highest corporate giving level and have had a formidable presence at the annual OSM conference the past few years.
Still — the mere fact Facebook has dipped its gargantuan toes into the mappy water doesn’t explain why they would bother with acquiring Mapillary.