Since the dawn of civilization, maps have been among the most important catalysts for economic development and the pursuit of knowledge.

Today, the majority of the world can be navigated online with Google Maps, and more of it is continually being photographed at ground level for Google Street View.

However, cities without Street View are at the whim of Google as to whether the company brings its photo-capture technology to their region or not. And cities with Street View are faced with the challenge of the imagery going out of date.

Here’s the link where Google shows where it’s sending its Street View cars, bikes, trolleys, snowmobiles, and Trekker backpack cameras.

Some communities don’t want to wait. For them, there is another option to create photo mapping similar to Street View that they can control, and equally important, update on a regular basis.

Mapillary is an open-source website and app where anyone can upload geo-tagged, creator-identified photos of their city streets to a searchable global map, somewhat like Flickr. The platform’s machine-learning software then stitches the imagery together to create a relatively seamless and digitally navigable urban or countryside panorama.

Since the company launched in 2013, community mappers have uploaded almost 92 million photos representing more than 1.3 million miles of photo-mapping. Most of the content was captured with smartphones, action cameras like GoPros, and amateur 360-degree cameras.

To understand how and where Mapillary fills a void in the online map world, there needs to first be an understanding of Google’s mapping ecosystem.

Google Maps are created using data collected from myriad sources, including satellite and aerial imagery developed for Google Earth, and individuals who supply data via Google Map Maker and Google My Business. Launched in 2007, Google Street View is layered over Google Maps to provide an on-the-ground visual reference from the end user’s point of view.

The imagery is created primarily by Google contractors, but due to such a resource-intensive process, there are still many places in both the developed and developing worlds without Google Street View.

For example, as Skift reported in June, the Visit Faroe Islands tourism board developed a “Sheep View” initiative to advocate for Google to bring its Street View team to the North Atlantic. Google responded by sending a few of its Trekker cameras, which were modified for the sheep to use.

The Mapillary framework, meanwhile, is built atop the open-source OpenSteetMap (OSM) platform that launched in 2004. OSM is a continually evolving online map of the world created by more than 2 million community mappers who’ve uploaded data covering the places they live and visit. OSM was originally inspired by the success of Wikipedia that proved the viability of a global, open system of crowdsourced information created for public use.

Companies like Apple, Flickr, Foursquare, and Craigslist all use OSM to varying degrees.

“For a lot of people, they have to realize that Google will never get there,” said Mapillary co-founder and CEO Jan Erik Solem, who lives outside Malmo, Sweden where there’s no Google Street View. “The reason people want this is local pride. They’re proud of their town and they’re frustrated that they can’t show the street where they live. It’s people saying they want to put their city or neighborhood on the map.”

In August, Peter Neubauer, another co-founder of Mapillary, photo-mapped the Faroe Islands without using sheep. The company also integrated all of Visit Faroe Island’s existing Sheep View content that had been captured to date.

Neubauer wrote on the company blog:

“My son Oskar wanted to take a road trip for our holiday week this year. We were thinking of going to Jotunheimen, in Norway, when we read about the Faroe Islands’ petition to bring Google Street View to their streets, and the resulting Sheep View project. ‘How cool!’ we thought — that’s exactly the Mapillary spirit! We realized that there was only one Mapillary user active on the islands — lifo in Torshavn. Oskar and I decided that we wanted to help him show the world the beauty of the Faroe Islands through photo mapping! The day we read about the islands we booked the tickets, and after the weekend we set off to drive as many of the roads of the beautiful Faroe Islands as we could manage in five days.”

Driving Tourism Development

Google Maps is a foundation piece for much of the rise of the digital platform economy and the future of mobility in travel. From a tourism development standpoint, Google Maps provides contributes to innumerable sharing companies and review sites such as Airbnb, Yelp and Uber, supporting incalculable economic activity.

Complementing that, Google Street View provides supplementary data for hospitality and tourism companies to promote the geographic locations of their products and services. Airbnb users, for example, can explore the neighborhoods surrounding potential listings. Google’s impressive Rio: Beyond The Map microsite was developed with Street View technology just before the Rio Summer Olympics to show life inside the city’s favelas.

However, when the Skift team traveled to Havana this past summer, there was no way we could explore the city’s famous Malecón waterfront boulevard in Street View before we visited. Or anywhere else in Cuba, for that matter.

Mapillary, on the other hand, does provide a virtual drive down the seaside esplanade. Viewers can move through the scene using navigation arrows, just like in Street View, or there’s a play button that delivers the imagery in an immersive POV (point of view) video.

More than 160 miles of Havana’s streets were photo-mapped by local Cubans and Mapillary staff this year, motivated in part by the International Free Software Conference in Havana in April, known as “Cubaconf.” In October, area residents mounted phones to their bikes and a rental car to capture 36,000 photos, enough to cover much of Old Havana. The goal is to eventually continue building that image inventory up to 140,000 photos.

“Now the government is talking to us to see how they can leverage the mapping for tourism purposes,” said Claudio Cossio, who heads up user growth for Mapillary in Latin America. “Airbnb hosts are already sharing Mapillary maps with their guests.”

Similar community-directed events have happened in other cities across the globe from Catalina Island, California to Helsingborg, Sweden.

Mapillary engineer Christopher Beddow posted on the company’s blog last week about working with Catalina firefighters this year to photo-map the island using LG 360 cameras. The island has never been in Street View. The team also added and updated data of local businesses on the OpenStreetMap platform.

“The learning curve for using Mapillary isn’t too steep — everyone received the five-minute walkthrough of how to pair the cameras with their smartphones, link them to the Mapillary mobile app, and start photo mapping,” wrote Beddow. “By sunset, our group had captured more than half of Avalon on foot.”

Looking ahead, as more cities launch official open data portals and visual search platforms, there’s more demand from city governments and civic organizations for Mapillary imagery.

“We build services on top of this for cities who are trying to maintain their infrastructure and improve urban planning, and we charge a fee for that,” Solem said. “There is also demand for commercial use of our data, and we charge a fee for that too.”

In March, Mapillary secured $8 million in Series A funding led by Atomico to open a new office in San Francisco, in addition to its headquarters in Malmo.

Photo Credit: You can't see imagery of Havana's famous Malecón waterfront boulevard in Google Street View, but you can on Mapillary. Bryan Ledgard / Flickr