You’ll notice a new look to maps on the foursquare website today â€” they’ve ditched Google Maps in favor of the newly launched MapBox Streets. The data behind the new maps comes from the Creative Commons-licensed Open Street Map project.
Google Maps have appeared on the foursquare site since it began in 2009. Last October, Google announced they would begin charging for maps access for developers serving more than 25,000 maps per day (foursquare clearly exceeds that cap). In his goodbye to Google Maps, StreetEasy’s Sebastian Delmont said hisÂ costs under Google’s new pricing scheme reached $200,000 to $300,000 a year, so ditching Google Maps should offer a significant annual savings to foursquare.
MapBox Streets is a new offering from MapBox, the makers of TileMill (which foursquare has used extensively in creating maps for infographics, among other things). It is intended as a “fresh alternative to the ubiquitous default Google Maps.” They’ve paid particular attention to the design of streets and names to make everything easy to read and understand.
We’re pretty excited about them, but we also know that they’re not quite perfect (yet!). Any feedback that you can provide to help us improve the map coverage in your area would be super helpful.
UPDATE: After reading the comments and a lot of the things that have been said elsewhere about this change, I wanted to add my two cents instead of just leaving the quick announcement post (which was written a few days before the change actually went live).
The bottom line is that these maps from MapBox and OpenStreetMap aren’t ready for prime time. They look nice, but they’re missing the detail and finesse that Google offered. Foursquare, though, needed to get away from Google. Cost aside, the two are competitors now. No, I’m not referring to the Latitude leaderboards, but to foursquare as a local search engine. Their eventual aim is to go head-to-head with Google in that arena, which would be complicated if foursquare was tied to Google’s maps (and paying them for the privilege).
Foursquare could’ve chosen to wait six months for MapBox to become a more finished product, but the reality is that MapBox (and OSM) will be much more complete in six months with foursquare’s backing than they would be had foursquare waited. Now that they appear on foursquare’s site, these maps are going to get a significant number of new eyeballs to spot problems and potentially even new contributors to fix them. Foursquare had to take this leap now to ensure that the maps will be up to snuff a year from now.
The move isn’t without its drawbacks. The biggest is the loss of satellite view (OSM doesn’t have a source for them), which was a necessity for properly placing map pins for superusers. Foursquare is already trying to find a workaround, but it will take time to develop and likely won’t be as easy to use as the old system.
Luckily, most of the other problems are fixable. Some areas, especially outside the US, suffer from a complete lack of coverage. This will come with time, but presents a problem for the time being. There aren’t enough detailed zoom levels, but a fix for that, too, is in the works.
Beyond those issues, the first priority for foursquare and MapBox should be getting roads properly labeled. The current system is absolutely terrible, making it nearly impossible to identify the place you’re looking at even with intimate knowledge of the area.
Compare the two images above (click to view each one larger). They show roughly the same area and the same zoom level. MapBox is on the left, Google is on the right.
The MapBox map labels exactly three roads â€” two of them by names that are almost never used. The rest are just squiggly white lines that could just as easily be anywhere on Earth. The Google Map labels many of the roads by name, but most importantly, they include the highway numbers as well. I-275, which is what everyone calls it, is labeled as such. Same goes for Routes 32 and 125.
The problem gets even worse when you look at the zoomed in map that appears on venue pages. Again, compare MapBox on the left and Google on the right:
MapBox doesn’t label a single roadÂ in this view. It looks like a generic clip-art map, with any sort of identifying detail removed. It’s not useful in any way without at least the major roads labeled. If you move the map, you’ll find a label for Ohio Pike about 3/4 mile out of this view, but it really isn’t very helpful unless it’s in my current view.
After the roads are labeled, attention should be paid to their weights. In the zoomed-out view above, every road (that’s not an interstate) and neighborhood street shares exactly the same weight, making the map hard to decipher. Additionally, neighborhood streets aren’t necessary at that zoom level and just introduce additional clutter. Notice how Google smartly leaves many of them out until you zoom in further.
As I’ve said, some of these shortcomings will be fixed with time, while others can be fixed by MapBox’s talented team of designers.Â Bottom line, foursquare had to make the move now to help build a good map provider for the future. It’s something they’ll need as they prepare to take on Google in the local search arena.