Big Tech's maps led ride-sharing giant Grab astray

It now builds its own and says it has become the largest contributor to OpenStreetMap in Southeast Asia


Grab – the Singaporean ride-sharing app that beat Uber on its home turf – decided to develop its own maps because Big Tech's simply weren't up to the job, the company's head of product said at a conference in Singapore.

The decision to do so came after several incidents made it clear that mapping services were not sufficiently localized, explained Samir Kumar, speaking at a panel on the process of product development at the Asia Tech x Singapore conference (ATxSG).

Grab previously integrated Google Maps with its own platform, and has also used HERE Technologies, to determine estimated times of arrival (ETA).

Kumar told the conference that's changed.

"Anytime you see an ETA – all those estimates in the app are powered by our mapping platform," he said.

The company changed direction because off-the-shelf maps had not considered local conditions – most were car-centric in a region where many delivery drivers use two wheels instead of four.

"Large map vendors tend to focus on car base, which works well in North America but not Southeast Asia, so we saw an unarticulated unmet need," said Kumar.

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US and European companies also appear not to have considered tropical rains.

"What about rain? When does someone take a bike instead of a car?" pondered Kumar. Southeast Asia undergoes monsoon rains roughly from June through October. Singapore experiences an average of 167 days of rain a year.

Kumar detailed another incident in which an off-the-shelf map offered an incorrect location for an airport drop-off point. Once it was determined that this was the cause of frustration and cancellations for ride-share bookings, the team requested a correction from the map vendor.

That fix took a month to implement.

Grab now uses its own maps in seven out of eight of the countries in which it operates – which brings complications of its own.

"Building maps means solving for eight different addressing systems on different scales of maturity," lamented Kumar. In Singapore, a location can be easily determined using a six-digit code, but this isn't the case in every country.

Grab uses open-source OpenStreetMap (OSM) and Kumar said the company has become the largest contributor to the project in Southeast Asia.

To further localize the maps, Grab has done things like sending engineers on ride-alongs with drivers in Indonesia.

That investment is worth it, given the the huge market on offer. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country after China, India, and the United States, and its capital, Jakarta, is the most populous city in Southeast Asia.

Local relationships have powered Grab's success. When Uber expanded into southeast Asia, Grab was already entrenched and ended up beating the ride-sharing pioneer at its own game. Uber sold its regional operations to Grab and then invested in the Singaporean company.

But not everything has been rosy for Grab. The company recently recorded a net loss of over $1 billion for the fourth quarter of 2021.

And back in 2018, Grab reportedly hired software firm GlobalLogic to help with the mapping on OSM, only to have it "correct" local map details in Thailand using outdated satellite imagery, earning it the hashtag #WhatInGrabsNameIsThis on the platform. Grab eventually suspended GlobalLogic's work in Thailand in response to furious OSM forum posts.

The superapp also had a deeply underwhelming debut on the NASDAQ stock exchange in late 2021.

After that disappointment, Grab CEO Anthony Tan told reporters he was doubling down on building better digital maps of the area in which it operates.

"We invest in mapping because it's a very local technology: Local technology on the drivers' side, merchants' side and consumers' side gives us an edge versus other peers," explained Tan.

Uber's investment in Grab also soured. A net loss of $5.9 billion by Uber in the first quarter of the calendar year was attributed, in part, to $5.6 billion losses on investments.

Despite not operating in Singapore, Uber has its Asia-Pacific headquarters in the city-state. The US giant has said it will stay put until at least the end of 2022, and is even hiring – an interesting strategy for Uber considering Grab's obsession with localization. ®


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