Mapping apps enable our digital infrastructure: Anup Jindal
India-headquartered geospatial technology and solutions provider RMSI Pvt. Ltd. — which is developing digital maps for Apple Inc. after working on such projects for Google and TomTom — is designing mapping solutions through which machines can understand one another and make sense of space. CEO and joint managing director Anup Jindal said a good map today would make all the difference for the success of an entity. Excerpts:
How relevant are maps in today’s context and what are the latest trends?
All of this shared-economy [companies] like Swiggy, Zomato, Uber, Ola, would not have been possible if there were no digital maps and if the maps were not supported by a digital platform that facilitates dynamic routing, the information interchange around the map interface. In future, maps will be at the heart of any digital infrastructure.
The digital infrastructure itself, whether it is of a federal government, State government or a municipality… the map will be at the heart. We see how critical the map is [for such agencies], how they manage their property taxes, their rural payments, subsidies and how they deliver services to their citizens.
Maps are also critical for large utilities, like gas or electric, to manage their entire operations. So, the map has become the enabler of the digital infrastructure, which creates new business models, which also enables the digital services from government agencies. The second [opportunity] is maps for machines. As we opt for more autonomy and robotics, all of these machines have to understand and make sense of space, where they are, where they have to go. So maps will also evolve in the sense that [they] have to be coded in numbers, so the machines can understand them more efficiently and do their job. That is also a huge opportunity.
The third is creating a digital twin of this world. There is computing capability and mapping is evolving to the extent that we can now create an actual digital twin, which has fundamental implications for how we go about our work.
When we have a digital twin, I can simulate a natural phenomenon better. Take the example of earthquakes, floods and other catastrophes. Now we can simulate how solar energy and wind and clean energy can be tapped better and we can better manage our natural resources.
Why have maps become a big differentiator for businesses?
In the last few years, businesses have been competing on maps, which has become a big differentiator.If you are a Swiggy or an Uber or an Ola, you can actually improve your profitability and customer service significantly if you have a good map. That is a gap we are helping these large companies address. So all of these big clients engage with us on how to improve their maps.
Why do you need to constantly upgrade maps? And, how can a good map help improve the bottom line?
The map is now another virtual nervous system. The digital nervous system has to have that kind of responsiveness and reach.In earlier days, there were paper maps where the applications were very simple. It was okay when you drive and ask your way around and read [the map] somewhere. In a digital world, it’s all real-time, and you’re part of a system. If you are an e-commerce company, then the entire network is part of your system, where every component has to respond and there is feedback coming from every component in the system. So maps now have to be able, they have to be very digital, they have to be very responsive, they have to continuously — on a minute-by-minute basis — adapt to the information which you’re getting from your clients or from your delivery partners.
If you just have a map and your delivery partner goes and delivers somewhere, and you’re not capturing the location, you’ve missed an opportunity to update the address and the location in the map in one instance.
Today the map is a form of living digital content which is constantly being updated by all the users who are participating in that map. In the future, this is only going to get even more involved and this will therefore become kind of an open portal. If you look at the Apple photos application, or any other such application now, one common way of searching for your data is to look for the location. So you go to a map, then you click and then you see the photos at that location, then you go in deeper and you find more and more photos for that particular location.
So the map has evolved from just a secondary or ancillary app, to your purpose, to the core component of your whole digital strategy. And because of the map, new business models are becoming possible.
What has been your engagement with global majors in map-making?
We had developed maps for Tele Atlas, which was later acquired and became a part of TomTom [personal navigation device]. Then, we helped Google with their [open web-based platform] map development initiatives in India. And now, most recently, we were the ones who started Apple Maps development in India, which is one of the largest map development programmes in the world currently. Apple had come up with their own new maps and RMSI was at the heart of it.
Right now we are providing Apple Maps all the services related to map development, maintenance, and working with them in the rollout of the map. Today, we have thousands of people working on the project and we continue to support Apple in all their mapping programmes across the world. The new Apple Maps has been [well]-received by consumers and even during COVID times in the last few months, we have started our onsite operations in the U.S. for Apple Maps. In California and Seattle, we have now about 150 people who have started this programme. We are also working with Facebook and Amazon to help improve their mapping apps. Since the mapping industry began evolving from the early ’90s, RMSI has been at the forefront of supporting some of the largest programmes in the world and continues to do that today.
Want is the size of your map business and global presence?
It’s a fairly significant business for us and has been growing fast over the last year, despite COVID issues. We are forecasting to grow 30% this year [globally]. Next year, we are projecting even higher growth. We are growing very fast in terms of not just operations in India, but across the world. We have more than 5,000 people in the company. Last year, our onsite presence in the U.S. increased. In the U.K. last year, we added 50 more people, and then in India, we have recruited about 1,500 people during the pandemic. We are benefitting by the digitisation of the global economy, there is more focus on better digital content, which means in our case better maps, which is a great opportunity and we see more of that going forward.
What are the growth opportunities?
One avenue of growth for us is our business with big tech clients that we already have, and we see that there is a lot more we can do with them. We are working in the area of mapping but we also now want to offer them digital outsourcing services. As a company, we understand digitisation and the need for specialised services to support the digitisation. So, we are talking about digital services that support AI and ML, like specialised labelling, specialised annotations, mark-up services. Also, there is a need for specialised content management services, which we arestarting. This will be a big growth driver for us.
The next growth driver is driven by the evolution of mapping. We are spending a lot of time on studying the gaps in the maps for India. We still feel that the maps in India are not sufficient, they are not of the quality needed for a country like India. We have set up a specific group which will lead our initiatives for maps in India, you will hear more about it.
The third big growth area is around sustainability for which we see potential in agriculture, clean energy and disaster management, and for all the three important drivers, we have specific propositions.
The fourth driver is the transformation of networks. Whether it is utility or telecom networks, they are also becoming increasingly digital and with digitisation, they are creating new opportunities for growth, from data management, to analytics, and even software solutions.
What plans for India are in the pipeline?
We do most of our businesses outside India. And the areas in India that we are focussing on the new generation of maps for India and the second is this whole idea of sustainability in which we are working in the area of disaster risk reduction, Agri tech in the Indian market. In the coming years, we do see India also as a big growth driver for our business.
What kind of talent do you hire? What is the hiring programme?
A lot of hiring happened in India. Typically we hire people who are editors, or who are young engineers, then we also did a lot of hiring outside India in markets where we were starting large engagement with clients onsite. Also, we’ve hired a lot in business roles, for expansion of our business across the world. So we’re investing a lot now in sales and marketing.
Elaborate your expansion plan
We are going to invest in the U.S. and Canada, because that continues to be the largest market for us. In the U.K., we already have an office. We will look at expanding in continental Europe. We are already present in Australia and there is still more opportunity to expand the local operations. Southeast Asia is of great interest to us. We want to establish our base in one of the Southeast Asian countries and Middle East is also where we have started investing. We are looking at Saudi Arabia from where we want to target the African region, where we see huge opportunity.
What is lacking in neighbourhood maps in India?
In India, we are working on how to make maps available for localities that are thought to be unmappable because the next big opportunity in India is going to be not in colonies, which we are mapped already, but these are going to be in highly dense urban regions, where there is no map.
Imagine a situation where in the delivery boy just phones somebody and says, ‘You come outside and meet me and I’ll give you your packet because I can’t come inside, I don’t know where your address is’. So those kinds of problems we have started addressing through our specific initiatives.