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Why Mapbox Acquired The Team From Mapzen’s Valhalla

The start of 2018 shows the demand for real-time navigation and routing is as hot as ever.

Mapbox’s latest purchase is an “acqhire” of the engineers who have powered Valhalla, the open source routing software from Mapzen that is key to the needs of entities as varied as smart city planners to self-driving car companies to to social media networks.

In a Medium post earlier this week, Mapbox CEO Eric Gundersen said the deal, terms of which were undisclosed, was part of the company’s plan to “double down” on its navigation offering for “key auto and logistics customers in 2018.”

The purchase of Valhalla came as four-year-old Mapzen announced it would shutter its business by the end of this month. Valhalla is open source routing software using open source data — primarily Open Street Map. As such, that should make it easy for its clients to collect their respective navigation resources as they look to companies like Mapbox to enhance their location data.

The New York-based Mapzen, which was backed by Samsung Research America, was headed by former MapQuest executive Randy Meech.

For Mapbox, as Gundersen explained, bringing in Valhalla formalizes an existing relationship.

“For the past three years, this team has been working on Valhalla at Mapzen, building a flexible routing engine that can be customized at the time a user makes a request,” Gundersen wrote. “Adding Valhalla to our navigation stack gives developers the ability to write custom logic to prefer or avoid certain roads dynamically based on specific use cases. This makes it possible to build products like electric vehicle routing that dynamically routes to recharge stations when fuel is low, and elevation-based routing — important for bicycles and electric vehicles.”

Last fall, Mapbox’s plans to boost its technical and marketing capabilities came after a $164 million third funding round led by Softbank. Less than a month after that, Mapbox purchased Mapdata, a Belarus-based startup up focused on using artificial intelligence for use in augmented reality products.

As Mapbox has been crucial in helping build features like Snapchat’s Snap Map, which lets Snapchatters show and see what’s happening around their friends.

As opposed to most social media uses of location, Snap Map is not about where you are and directions for how to get somewhere. A visual “Heat Map” within the feature can be used to point other users to a special event or breaking news at a particular place and are sorted through Snap’s algorithm.

That may seem like a fairly trivial use for location and navigation. But brands are seeking to push the envelope on understanding consumers’ online and offline behavior, and reach them at the best place and time, tools that mix geo-data with AR/VR and social media-based commerce. And as advertising and marketers seek alternatives to Google and Facebook, tools like Mapbox’s are being regarded as fairly essential — as well as difficult and costly to do in-house.

In heralding the capital infusion, Gundersen outlined three areas.

  • Building out an automotive unit, including in-car navigation and autonomous driving by investing in our deep learning and vision capabilities.
  • Expanding our AR/VR/Gaming platform, specifically by growing the Unity Maps SDK team.
  • Accelerating our global expansion across Southeast Asia, China, and Europe.

“Every day we collect more than 200 million miles of anonymized sensor data, and process it in real-time, making continuous updates to the map — from live traffic, to adding new roads, to updating satellite imagery,” Gundersen has noted. “The more apps use Mapbox, the greater the network effect across 350 million users every month.”

With the addition of Valhalla’s team, Mapbox will not only be keeping pace with rivals in the location space, it further enhances its position as a potential partner to its competitors as well as it moves forward trying to capture their business.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.