Aurora Magazine

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In conversation with Adeel Hashmi, Head of TPL Maps

Updated 23 May, 2017 05:52pm
The challenges and opportunities of launching a street view mapping app in Pakistan.

TPL Trakker Limited recently launched a feature called ‘Street Vision’ for their TPL Maps app, with the purpose to provide users 360-degree views of various areas of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. The feature was launched earlier this year in Islamabad, followed by Lahore and Karachi in April.

AMBER ARSHAD: What was the objective of launching this feature and who does it target?
ADEEL HASHMI: Street Vision lets users digitally walk through the streets, zooming in and out and getting a 360-degree view of the streets. It targets not only individuals who can view their favourite spots on their mobile screens, but also serves as a research tool for urban developers, architects and planners. It is also a great resource for students residing in various cities of Pakistan who do not have the luxury to travel intercity.

AA: How do you think TPL Maps and its various features can help start-ups and businesses?
With more and more local companies launching location-based apps, TPL Maps lets these businesses use its platform; which in turn provides immense localisation that is not offered by any other digital mapping service. Secondly the TPL Maps’ API is free for all start-ups and incubators for the first year, hence giving them access to one of the largest GIS (Geographic Information System) dataset in the country.

AA: Google Maps is the most commonly used mapping app in Pakistan. How do you plan to compete with the giant?
Localisation is the core differentiation strategy for TPL Maps; we are not only working on Urdu Maps, but also on an Urdu navigation and routing feature. We also offer ‘Housing Addresses’ service – individual users, cab drivers, delivery persons etc can locate any apartment, house or building address on the map, as each location is geo-coded. This is a service that no other mapping app offers in Pakistan.

AA: What is the process to collect and map data for Street Vision?
The pictures for Street Vision are captured via high-end 360 degree cameras, mounted on bikes and other vehicles. Drones are sometimes used for geo-fencing (creating a virtual geographic boundary) of limited areas. We have also heavily invested in training local surveyors and developers to create a customised software which further enhances these images and ‘stitches’ them together. We have a separate R&D team that is working on AI, machine learning, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), Radar and even drones for mapping rural and urban Pakistan.

AA: What have been some of the challenges?
Our country is densely populated, so getting clear pictures, with minimal traffic, is a challenge. Our teams usually do the coverage early morning to overcome this. Getting permissions from the local city government to map certain areas, especially when it comes to visual mapping, is a challenge. Also, certain cultural and heritage sites require five to six steps of permissions and processes before we can send in a team for mapping. No company is allowed to conduct any sort of mapping activity unless they have permission from the Survey of Pakistan, Ministry of Interior and the Government of Pakistan.

AA: Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, all three cities have certain ‘high-risk and high-alert’ areas, which are cordoned off for general public. How do these appear on the maps?
TPL Maps is the only digital mapping service licensed by the Survey of Pakistan. Working closely with the authorities, TPL’s mapping team is well-informed on the dynamics of sensitive data, and therefore we cannot disclose further details about the process.

AA: Do you plan to crowdsource images in the future? If so, what can be some of the pros and cons of crowdsourcing?
Mapping is an ongoing process, and updates are constant. We have mapped 95% of these three cities, including housing addresses which are not available on any other platform. And yes, our vision is to map the entire country which we cannot do alone. Therefore, we have been working closely with universities, bloggers, travelers, start-ups and corporations to source credible, authentic and reliable data. Crowdsourcing generates huge amount of data in a short period of time, but definitely comes with reliability issues. To deal with this, we have our quality assurance team who reviews the data before it is added to our database.

AA: Do you plan to make Street Vision an offline feature in the near future – especially considering that Pakistan still faces a lot of internet-related issues?
TPL Maps is not a very heavy app when it comes to usage. We understand the local challenges, but we have seen great traction in terms of download and usage of maps since the advent of 3G and 4G in the country. The situation is improving and with more internet users via mobile we are confident that the next generation will be hooked on to local maps for navigation. Consumer behaviour is moving towards keeping data online. Hence it only makes sense to keep the data on our servers and provide a seamless online maps experience to our consumers.

AA: How are you promoting the feature?
TPL Maps has a dedicated in-house digital team which focuses on creating visibility on all digital platforms. Apart from digital marketing, more conventional platforms like newspaper and radio are also being touched upon. However, our biggest win is the ecosystem that we are developing at a very high pace. From start-ups to academia to private businesses to MNCs and large-scale companies, TPL Maps is gaining traction at all levels.