Category Archives: Reviews

The State of Mobility: MaaS Consolidation on the Horizon?

Mobility is a complex and important topic in geography, planning and technology. My research only touches on a small part of the field, namely automated micromobility services (aka micro-MaaS?) such as bikeshare and escootershare, so it’s always interesting to see a wider viewpoint.

As such, I was interested when an acquaintance at HERE Mobility, an autonomous part of HERE Technologies (a major location platform provider), mentioned a new report they’ve recently published, the State of Mobility 2019. While there’s a myriad of information sources on mobility, which has evolved rapidly the last few years, with increasing urbanisation and big technology players funding driverless car research, a single document is a helpful read to keep track of what’s going on.

I’ve used the report to frame some of my own observations of the mobility space, as it stands, rather than a simple review of the report. So, to see HERE Mobility’s own take, you’ll need to download the report (signup link above).

Mobility + Cities = MaaS, Right Now

The report is clear that Mobility as a Service (MaaS) is the current driver of mobility research. That is, shared assets are the way of the future. When living in a dense city of the future, only the lucky few will have space for a car, an electric bike (and easy access to a workshop to fix it). Moreover, even if you do, parking it at the other end of your journey will be increasingly tough.

As a personal example (not in the report), 22 Bishopsgate in London, a tower under construction in the City of London, will have a daytime population of 12000, but will have 4 disabled car parking spaces, no regular ones, and 1700 bicycle parking spaces. The other 80-90% will arrive by public transport. Great – but the trains and tubes of London don’t have much in the way of spare space for the extra people at this and other developments. So, MaaS will become increasingly important in such an environment. You need a bike or would prefer a private ride to a meeting? A fleet of cabs or electric bikes are at your service. The system is patchy now, with rival operators of both modes not particularly integrating well – but the options are there and will only become more important – and their integration is crucial for a useful system that serves all. This is an obvious point but also one that HERE Mobility’s business is staked on – as it aims to become an honest broker of MaaS services rather as a provider itself.

The report emphasises that while MaaS technology is going to have to get smarter – we are going to have to get better at utilising the newer ways of moving through the urban environment, too. The report points out too three technology components of MaaS – the backend crunching big data to create a smart fleet and smart usage of it, a mobile app so the user can get information on MaaS options and perform transactions, and the asset itself having technology, being aware of what it is, where it is, and what it is capable of doing – a so called Internet of Things (IoT) platform. For example, your electric bike (aka pedelec) needs to have a good idea of its remaining battery range and whether it is inside an allowed operating area.

Design Globally but Think Locally

Another key point as that the US is not Europe (and neither are Asia, I would add) – and so MaaS solutions in one of these regions is not necessarily going to ride in the other. Another personal example would be bikeshare.

In Europe, we had Asian-origin bikeshares arriving in 2017-8 (Ofo, Mobike and oBike to name but three) but European and Asian cities and city cultures are fundamentally different. European cities tend to not have the huge pavements of Asian cities or huge roads of American and Asian cities, but we do tend to have a problem with vandalism and theft at a level that is less seen certainly in much of Asia. So, a one-size-fits-all bikeshare is not going to work here.

Similarly we are currently having a wave of US-origin bikeshares and escootershares (Bird, JUMP and Lime). Again, narrow pavements may struggle with the physical equipment, although at least technologies have improved to secure assets more effectively.

HERE Mobility’s report uses the example of the fundamental difference of European and US transport networks – with US cities typically being more car-designed, with wider, straighter roads, while European cities have often had a bigger focus on public transport, such as bus lanes or subway networks. If MaaS is going to come in and act as a complement to both types of cities, then it has to be adapted accordingly. Regulatory differences in the regions are also a factor – while the US has been keen to lead on autonomous vehicle research but introducing sections of public roads in some cities an states where such vehicles can be trialled, European cities often restrict cars of all sorts from large parts of their city centres.

The report’s most interesting section disseminates a survey of over 20000 people, around 50% in each of the US and Europe. Within Europe, they split out northern Europe (UK/Scandinavia/Netherlands) from the big continental players (France/Germany/Spain).

The differences between US, northern Europe and southern Europe are noticeable. Unsurprisingly the car dominates as the “primary” transportation mode in all three regions. In Europe a significant minority use public transport, and in continental Europe in particularly, micromobility also makes an appearance, indicating that Germany, France and Spain are ahead of the game not only with respect to the US but with their more northern neighbours. The other modes in the survey: car rental, ride hail and rideshare, have very low usages throughout the surveyed regions. The survey also breaks down by age group across each region and mode type, with the only significant difference being the youngest group (18-24) using public transport a lot more than the other groups – and US 18-24 year-olds using rideshare/micromobility noticeably more:

Transport App Consolidation

As mentioned above, HERE Mobility is aiming to be a “neutral” MaaS marketplace and so the final part of the survey focuses on the current situation on many people’s mobile phones – multiple apps needed for utilising all the transportation options in a city, along with measuring the desire for such a consolidation for service discovery and payment:

The final part of the report summarises the survey looks to the future. The authors note that it’s not all about price and that a more expensive but higher quality commute, if suggested by an app, might win out. Users generally also are not going to keep multiple transportation apps on their phones although they may try them out for a limited amount of time. And finally, private car usage is very much expected to continue to decline. The report sites Whim, a Helsinki based system that integrates all MaaS modes, from multiple providers, into a single app, is resulting in some very positive outcomes after only its first year of operation.

Here in London, and again focusing on the bikeshare services here, we are seeing some limited horiztonal and vertical consolidation, but we are a long way from rival services sharing their provision data. In terms of apps showing multiple services:

  • Uber has its JUMP bike service, and Transport for London (TfL)’s open data public transport information, integrated into its main app.
  • Google has included the TfL public transport data along with TfL’s (open data) bikeshare (through an ITO data brokerage agreement) and Lime bikeshare, and Uber and a couple of other cab and rideshare servies, into its app, although not Uber’s bikeshare. Apple Maps is similar.
  • CityMapper has Mobike, Lime and Santander Cycles bikeshares, but not Uber’s JUMP, along with TfL data but no cabs.
  • TfL’s own journey planner just includes its services.
  • A number of smaller services (e.g. London’s Beryl Bikes) have started to publish location information in open data formats but these are generally below the radar of multi-option aggregators and so have not yet been adopted.
  • Transactions (i.e. payment) involve, in almost all cases, the user getting redirected from their planning app to the providers app, with the notable exception of CityMapper and TfL services – but if you are signed up for their “CityMapper Pass”

So, a long way to go in London and – indeed – the rest of the world.

Thanks to HERE Mobility for sending me a copy of the report.

Testing Map-Based UIs for Self-Driving Cars: HERE’s Knight Rider

I was kindly invited, earlier this week, to take part in “insideHERE” in Berlin, a small event run at the HERE HQ in Berlin. HERE, being born out of the ashes of Navteq and Nokia Maps, is now owned by a consortium of German car companies. For the special event, HERE’s developers and engineers opened up their research labs and revealed their state-of-the-art mapping and location services work. HERE Auto is making a real play to be the “Sat Nav of the future”, competing directly with Google and Apple to create, manage and augment data between your smartphone and your car. Tomorrow I’ll outline the general visualisation work I saw that demonstrates their high-precision spatial datasets, but first, today, I mention one particular research project which shows how maps will be continue to be a crucial part of driving, even when cars drive themselves.

“Knight Rider” is a test rig, built to simulate a car, where the engineers and UI/UX designers can try out different configurations and locations of controls and maps on a dashboard. They key aspect being tested is how much trust the user can place in the car, based on what they can see and information that is displayed. Testers can sit in the “car” and drive it, to experience map/control designs and, crucially, how it feels to give up the steering wheel but continue to have the confidence that the journey will proceed as planned! Large exterior screens, fans and a windshield provide some depth of realism. The intention is not to create a realistic driving simulator, completely with fully photorealistic buildings and roads, but instead to get the tester as comfortable as possible to evaluate the designs effectively, before they are put in a real test car on the road.

When we saw the rig, it was configured with maps in three places – a short but wide one that wraps across the dashboard, a circular map that sits just to the right of the dashboard, beside the steering wheel, and finally a heads-up display (HUD) that reflects in the windshield, this achieved by a carefully angled screen pointing upwards.

The dashboard map shows a single map, behind the regular digital numbers/dials you would expect on a normal dashboard. The map here switched between a general 3D overview of the journey ahead, when “cruising”, to a more detailed, but still a “helicopter” 3D view, when carrying out manoeuvres such as approaching a destination or a complex junction:

dashmap1

dashmap2

The panel alongside typically shows an overhead map, in a circle with your location on the centre, it rotates as you move:

circlemap
It is also the main drive control panel when not steering, for example if you want to tell the car to overtake a car in front, the AI having decided not to do so already – you are not steering that car here, but “influencing” the AI to indicate that you would like it to do this, if safe:

circlemap2

Finally, the HUD necessarily does not show much information at all, apart from a basic indication of nearby traffic (so that you are reassured the computer can see it!) and any indication of hazards ahead. You mainly want to be looking though the window for the traffic yourself, of course:

hud

The key interaction being tested is changing from human to computer controlled driving, and back. The first is achieved by listening for the comptuer voice prompt, then letting go of the steering wheel once asked to. If you don’t retake control of the car when you need to, for instance as you are changing onto a class of road for which autonomous driving is not available, and you have ignored the voice prompts, then then the car will park up as soon as it’s safe to do so.

It’s an impressive simulator and crucial to shaping the UI of the autonomous cars which are starting to appear on the horizon, in the distance, now.

Photos and video courtesy of HERE Maps.

Book Review: GIS Cartography (2nd Ed)

GIS software is used by many professionals to process spatial information, but the results are often poorly presented and the resulting map can be unattractive. GIS packages, such as QGIS, are increasingly including a broad range of cartographic styling and map design options, to present synthesised spatial data attractively, but it remains all too easy to produce a map without due consideration for its presentation. The old, non-geospatial approach produces beautiful maps in regular graphic applications, e.g. Illustrator, but these lose the data linkages and spatial analysis capabilities of GIS that produce the data to be mapped in the first place. Then there’s the new “slippy map” online map websites that provide a whole new set of tools to allow anyone – be they a geospatial professional or not – to create maps. It can however be all to easy to produce maps with these tools that are unhelpful, look ugly, are difficult to interpret or worst of all are downright misleading.

GIS Cartography, by Gretchen Peterson, is a book that seeks to address these problems, seeking to guide GIS software users and web designers alike to produce maps that contain good cartographic design, harking back to when maps were produced by a dedicated “offline” cartographer. The book does this by taking a structured approach to the elements of data-driven maps, and examining and commenting on each of these in detail.

The book is largely technology-agnostic, not detailing operations for specific GIS software or online mapping APIs but instead outlining the basic concepts of good digital maps that users of such software should normally be able to implement. Peterson is not afraid to espouse her opinion – her experience in the field means that her view is a salient and sensible one. For example, the author has a distinct dislike for the use of logos on maps – arguing for them to be minimised – or ideally dropped altogether, while making the creator’s name more prominent than is often the case. I particularly liked the discussion on fonts and the display of text – perhaps not an area traditionally dwelled on by GIS-focused map makers. For example, different kinds of text halo application are demonstrated well, with a set of excellent graphics. One section of the book that I felt was overlong however was the section on the colour palettes for feature types. Gretchen is attempting to cover all common types of GIS maps (from political to soil) but the detail is overwhelming. By contrast, the section detailing colour blindness issues with maps (which I frequently get caught out with) was succinct.

Online cartography is dealt with in the last chapter “Zoom-Level Design”. This section reflects the recent rise of online mapping software (Google Maps, OpenLayers, Leaflet, etc) used by non-professionals, with the core part of the book solidly focused on the regular desktop GIS (ArcGIS, QGIS, MapInfo, etc). The section focuses on the issues of scale and generalisation for maps designed to be viewed rapidly at multiple zoom levels. Ideally the book would integrate the online and offline (or “slippy map” and “GIS window”) worlds throughout its length rather than addressing online mapping in a single chapter. Of course, many of the aspects presented in the main part of the book – particularly relating to colour and adornments – are also applicable to this kind of mapping.

One slight irony is the variable quality in the design and reproduction of the illustrations in the book itself. Many of them are rather traditional looking, and some are quite pixellated. The generic look is likely because of the desire of the author to keep the book as neutral and platform-independent as possible.

Overall this is an excellent and comprehensive guide to ensuring high quality cartographic output from GIS users and slippy map creators. If you read it from cover you’ll build up an excellent set of guidelines for maps with a rigorous high quality. Alternatively you can dip in to it from time to time when you need advice on specific aspects of your mapmaking, such as tips on how to do scale bars or inset maps well. Even if you are already experienced with mapmaking from GIS software, you’ll quite become aware of design aspects you hadn’t previously considered. If you regularly create online maps, or find yourself increasingly using a GIS to create and output maps straight for presentation, this is an essential book in your professional collection.

GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design (Second Edition)
Author: Gretchen Peterson, Publisher: CRC Press. 299 pages. Out now.

Further information on Amazon.

Thanks to the Society of Cartographers for arranging a review copy. This review may appear in the society’s Bulletin in due course. I am happy to accept copies for review of other books in this and related fields – send to Oliver O’Brien, Dept of Geography, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. Review copies can be returned on request, if an SAE is included.