Meet Beeline – the startup that is reinventing the compass for the digital age with its connected navigation device
Thanks to GPS/GNSS, we are all habituated to using our smartphones to navigate from A to B. When you are a pedestrian this approach quite well most of the times but imagine riding a bicycle and trying to look at your phone to figure out which direction to go. Yup, it is harder. In a sense, it just takes the joy out of riding a bicycle.
Wouldn’t be great is if we had a device to point us in the direction that we want to go i.e. Jack Sparrow’s compass repurposed for navigating from A to B, if you please! Such a device sounds like a “great idea” but is there a real business case here?
At a time where (successful) hardware startups are hard to come by, Beeline, a London-based startup believes that they have a product that we would all need – a connected navigation device that makes it easier for us to navigate and make journeys fun again. I had the pleasure of chatting with Tom Putnam, the co-founder of Beeline to learn more about their vision, the challenges of running a hardware startup and life in London. Read on!
Q: Tom, thanks for taking the time! Beeline is a hardware company that is reinventing the compass for the digital age! When did you decide that you want to start your own startup and what were the events that lead you to decide to take the plunge into entrepreneurship?
A: I think I’d always had it in the back of my head that I’d like to start something myself. Certainly at least since I started my first job which was interesting but it made it clear I’d much rather be doing something myself. That was a full suit and tie corporate job so it would have been a bit of a plunge to go straight into entrepreneurship. So I took the baby step of working for a well funded Rocket Internet startup in Kenya for a couple of years to learn the ropes first. I was ready at just the same time my good friend Mark was ready – so we jumped together and set up Beeline.
Q: Your first product “Beeline for bicycles” is basically a simple, connected hardware that makes it easy for cyclists to get from A to B while enabling them to share their journey with family and friends. Care to convince us why we need a gadget to do this instead of using an app on our smartphones?
A: Too easy! Let’s assume you agree with me that continuously pulling your phone out of your pocket to check is far from ideal. The alternative then is strapping your £/€/$1000 smartphone (and extension of your arm) onto the front of your bike to take on the rattles of potholes, the weather gods and the sticky-fingered thieves of the city. Quite a gauntlet. That’s before we consider how long your phone’s battery will last on full navigation.
Q: The “Compass Mode” on Beeline is just brilliant. It’s definitely one of those things that is so simple yet none of our navigation apps have it (to the best of my knowledge). Were you riding your bicycle with a compass? How did this feature end up on beeline?
A: We arrived at that by starting with the concept of a compass and making it smarter rather than taking a satnav and making it dumber. As experienced cyclists, we felt that a compass was almost enough most of the time and if only if locked on to your destination (rather than north) it would be the perfect tool – hence Beeline (and the original compass mode) was born. Although we’ve now added much more sophisticated routing, this is still my favorite way to ride. It’s so much more explorative. By picking your way through back alleys and opening yourself to serendipity you find that places you thought you knew are full of surprises.
Q: Navigation and routing play an important role in your product. You have the “route mode” that gives people a route that is optimal for riding a bike. What’s next? Have you perhaps thought about the safest route, the greenest route, and all the other possibilities?
A: Absolutely. Up to now, we’ve been using Google Maps’ API which leaves a lot to be desired for cycle routing. So we’re building our own routing engine which will allow much more flexibility in how it’s optimized. Allowing people to prioritize, as you say, things like safety, speed, efficiency or maybe even just “niceness” of the route based on the feedback of others.
Q: I can imagine that all the crowdsourced cycling routes is a data scientist’s treasure. Could you perhaps tell us more about your plans there and what is in store for your customers?
A: I can’t share everything, but as you can imagine there’s a whole wealth of insight to be drawn from looking at where people choose to cycle when only loosely guided. For our data scientists it is indeed a treasure trove – not just digging into trends and patterns, but thinking about what does all this mean in terms of decisions humans make. From the users’ point of view, the end result should be cycle routes that simply feel great – without feeling the complexity of all the work that’s going on ‘under the hood’
Q: Beeline uses Google Maps and your routing algorithms. Could you perhaps tell us more about your tech stack? What programming languages you use, etc!
A: Sure, here is a quick overview of our apps and website.
A: They were really excited actually! Hardware is a really hard sell to VCs as they’re looking for billion-dollar exits, fast. There are of course hardware companies which have done this, but as a general rule, they take longer to scale and are less likely to blow up overnight. Friends, family, and Angels, however, aren’t tied to such rules and get excited by real products that solve real problems they feel themselves. So I think for them, this was much more interesting than had we been building some Fintech B2B SaaS platform!
Q: You are based in London – the home of Geovation! Are there many startups like Beeline that are building their own hardware product? How’s the startup scene there in general?
A: And proud! Yes, there’s a pretty good hardware scene here. For example, our industrial design agency partner, Map Project Office, has been involved with at least 5 other London hardware startups in just the last two years. It’s a good community. That said, it’s small enough that it feels like we all know each other which is very different from being a London software startup.
Q: As the founder of a startup that builds its own hardware, you are even more unique than the other companies we’ve interviewed on #TheNextGeo. What’s your advice to budding geo-entrepreneurs wanting to build their own product?
A: Tough one. I think my biggest bit of advice would be to keep on sense checking as you go. Building hardware takes a lot of money and a lot of time – your time. So you want to be sure you’re building something people want and not let yourself be deluded by your own love of what your making (assuming you need customers!) Kickstarter is great for that as it validates the demand. Even before that we *tried* to be unemotional about it. For example, back in 2015 we tested our first prototype with 10 people and said that if the majority of them didn’t like it we’d can the whole thing. Luckily Beeline is still here today though!
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More than a crowdsourced map: How OpenStreetMap is becoming a mapping standard, and why you should care
Standardization can have a profound effect on industries and the people they interact with. Done right, standardization can shift innovation of entire industries. Whether we talk about a USB-C as a port standard for devices or containerization in the shipping industry, standards have allowed companies to focus on what they’re good at rather than how they play with others. A similar shift is taking place right now in how we create and consume digital maps.
Standardization in mapping shouldn’t come as a surprise. The demand for location-based services has shot through the roof in recent years. Designers and developers now consider location as a given in many of the services they’re building. This goes for more obvious cases, like Uber and Lyft, but also for platforms like Facebook and fitness apps like Strava. More than ever before, maps are in demand—both the raw data behind them and the visualizations they enable.
There’s also greater pressure in terms of what’s expected from a map. Until recently, all a new business cared about was to be listed in the Yellow Pages. Now the concern is whether or not they exist on major mapping platforms. The location, opening hours, contact information, and description of services are most easily retrieved via a map-based application. Navigation data like the direction of travel, speed-limit, surface-type, and transport networks are equally important elements of a modern map. The cost of acquiring and maintaining this data is huge, but the industry is pragmatic and channeling efforts towards a neutral platform and database which also serves as the foundation for the standardization we’re now seeing: OpenStreetMap.
What began as a crowdsourced map curated by volunteers has evolved into a diverse ecosystem of players with a shared interest in collecting and consuming map data. In fact, it seems that everyone uses OpenStreetMap. Corporate giants like Apple, Facebook, and Uber all use OpenStreetMap. Individual volunteers used the service to map villages in the Philippines before the typhoon season, while a Microsoft team used it to mapping bodies of water in Australia. In the past, such mapping took place independently on offline paper maps and closed databases. Not only has the cost of these approaches excluded many, but the advantages of using OpenStreetMap as a base map have also become more significant. A ride-sharing company launching in Tanzania tomorrow could take advantage of the incredible flood resilience mapping by the Ramani Huria project throughout Dar Es Salaam. The flood mapping included locations of businesses and health clinics, as well as tedious details of the road network. This data is just as relevant for a ride-sharing company as it is for flood resilience work, even without direct collaboration. When OpenStreetMap is lacking features, a key advantage is that the map is readily compatible with other services such as OpenTraffic, Mapillary, or TripAdvisor. At the end of the day, all of these players benefit from an improved OpenStreetMap.
On the engineering side of things, OpenStreetMap is becoming an obvious standard foundation when people and organizations want their location data to be displayed on top of a map. Because of OpenStreetMap’s open structure to storing data, companies and organizations are able to build other applications on top of it quite easily—keeping the bits they like, and simply removing the bits they don’t, while combining it with data they’ve gathered elsewhere. This approach is taken by giants like Microsoft, but also by much smaller organizations like the offline map platform maps.me.
It isn’t just humans that are impacting the way the map changes. Companies like Mapbox are collecting over 400 million kilometers of data on driving patterns which are being analyzed with machine learning to estimate the speed limit of a road, direction of travel and where construction might be taking place. Existing OpenStreetMap data can then be validated and updated at a greater frequency than human volunteers can achieve alone. Similarly, Mapillary applies computer vision and machine learning to the 385 million images on our platform. This helps to identify over 33 billion map features—all of which we’ve committed to making freely available to the OpenStreetMap community. These automated methods are producing a flood of data that human mappers can use as sources, guides, and evidence, noting the fact that all OpenStreetMap data must be added and verified with a human touch as a final step.
This is where the community continues to play a defining role. OpenStreetMap volunteers make extraordinary additions to maps from perspectives that don’t always matter to commercial players. The fact that these divergent groups of individuals, companies, governments, and organizations can each contribute to the one platform is a powerful thing. It means that the value shifts towards the applications that can be built with the map data rather than who controls it. The result is better maps everywhere.
OpenStreetMap is more than a crowdsourced map—it’s turning into a mapping standard, and we’re all better off because of it.