Suri Nurani has had it with Google Maps.
A scooter driver in Jakarta with Indonesia’s ride-hailing company Go-Jek, she earns a living by getting from points A to B in the quickest, most efficient way possible.
While you might think the launch of digital map services like Google Maps and Waze would be a godsend for her, Nurani prefers to ask directions from people on the street. She’s been burned one too many times by the smartphone apps, both owned by US tech giant Alphabet.
On one occasion, Nurani was delivering food to a house in one of Jakarta’s many labyrinthine neighbourhoods.
She followed Google Maps to the exact place where the familiar blue dot had appeared on her Android smartphone, but it was obvious to her she was nowhere near where she wanted to be.
In a rush to deliver the meal while it was still hot, she called the customer, asking for nearby landmarks. She finally found the house – but not until she had asked countless passers-by for directions.
“Google Maps has often guided me farther away from my destinations. I’ve had to call my customers, which means I have to keep buying phone credit just so I can pick-up passengers or deliver their packages,” Nurani says. “My income is not that big and I can’t keep wasting my money on phone credits.”
Nurani isn’t alone. Many drivers with ride-hailing companies in the Southeast Asian nation are less likely to rely on digital navigation tools than their Western counterparts, as online maps can be full of glitches and lack short cuts for two-wheelers – a common mode of transport in the region. Weak internet connectivity also causes headaches for drivers, something that Agus Saputra, another Go-Jek driver in Jakarta, is all too familiar with.
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“One time I was following Google Maps, and suddenly it just stopped because I lost the signal, I was confused because I didn’t know where I was,” Saputra said.
Inaccurate maps, digital illiteracy, especially among older drivers, and a lack of training from ride-hailing companies have all proved problematic. That’s a rare bit of bad news for an industry that’s seen strong growth in recent years, including in Southeast Asia, where the ride-hailing market is projected to reach more than US$20 billion by 2025, a four-fold increase from 2015, according to a report by Google and Singapore’s state investment fund Temasek. In this region of 600 million, ride-hailing companies such as Go-Jek, Singapore-based Grab, and Uber raked in US$5 billion in revenue last year, the report said, thanks to increased internet penetration and disposable incomes among the rising middle-class. When the maps that the industry relies on are imprecise, the possibility of cancellation, and frustration, is higher.
“Sometimes I have to explain where my [flat] is two, three times to the drivers, and they still ask me questions,” says Gentur Adiutama, a civil servant in Jakarta. “Why don’t they read the map? When I’m not in a rush I can understand that some of the drivers are technically challenged, but it’s truly upsetting when I’m in a hurry and they can’t find me.”
The stress is also felt among expatriates, who also have to overcome a language barrier since few drivers in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy speak English.
“I have directions saved to my place in [Indonesian] in my phone, so I just copy and paste that and put that in the chat, but it’s pretty one-sided because as a foreigner it’s hard to understand [the drivers],” says American Fritz Gheen, a bar manager in Jakarta.
One of the reasons online maps work better in the United States, Australia and Europe is because of highly accurate mapping databases, says Mark Graham, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute. “Online maps always rely on back-end databases. In some parts of the world, these databases are fairly up-to-date and accurate, in part because of a broader ecosystem of good quality geographic data,” Graham says. “However, in other parts of the world, there is far less existing digital geographic data to work with. Sometimes, data is more likely to be non-digital or unavailable for commercial purposes, which means firms have less digital raw material to work with.”
Companies are already starting to address the problem. Google last month launched directions for motorcycles in Indonesia, where two-wheelers outnumber cars seven to one. It also tweaked maps to accommodate Jakarta’s traffic laws such as roads that are closed on “car-free days” and other quirks.
“Providing [routes] for motorbikes was the number one most-requested feature by Indonesians. It took around 12 months to go from concept to finished idea,” says Shasa Sunu, product marketing manager at Google Indonesia. “Previously, motorbike riders would often do a mental calculation to estimate their arrival times based on a combination of walking and driving routes.”
Google isn’t the only tech company that has tinkered with their digital maps to adjust to Indonesian streets. Hyperlocal mapping data is among the reasons why Grab has gained ground over Uber in the region. The San Francisco-based ride-hailing giant announced on March 26 that it had pulled out of the region and sold its ride-sharing and food delivery business to Grab, in exchange for a 27.5 per cent stake in Grab, which has been valued at US$6 billion.
The secret to Grab’s success can be traced back to two years ago when the company deployed resources to improve mapping data.
This effort resulted in more than 3,000 new, precise pick-up points across Southeast Asia.
These in-house, localised data complement existing data provided by commercial maps that Grab uses such as Google Maps, Foursquare, and Nokia’s HERE, among others. Grab also has created algorithms to help drivers obey traffic laws, for example, like an odd-even car licence plate rule in Jakarta that sees vehicles take to the road only on alternate days and a regulation in Hanoi that bars contract cars with fewer than nine seats from 11 roads during peak hours, says Ajay Bulusu, regional head of map operations at Grab.
To tackle language barriers, the company launched a chat feature for its app which enables drivers and riders to communicate directly, reducing cancellations by up to 30 per cent, the company said.
Before ride-hailing companies think of developing their own maps, Oxford’s Graham cautions that features that work in developed countries may not function in underdeveloped regions.
“All maps are inherently selective representations of a place, this means that features and algorithms developed in the US might not translate that well to other parts of the world, like Southeast Asia.” ■