Drivers Report That Google Maps Isn’t Reliable in Indonesia

Resty Woro Yuniar, writing in the South China Morning Post:

“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.

“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.

I’ve been travelling around Indonesia for the past couple of weeks — though not to Jakarta — and I’ve seen similar issues. Google Maps frequently doesn’t display local businesses, and it hasn’t always shown roads accurately: sometimes they exist in reality but aren’t shown on the map, while others aren’t correctly shown as one-way streets. And that’s Google Maps, in well-populated areas of a country where Android has a market share of over 90%. I’ve barely opened Apple Maps on this trip because it makes the country’s second-largest city look like a ghost town.

But, as Yuniar explains, maybe there’s an advantage to the biggest Silicon Valley firms so far failing to accurately map Southeast Asia:

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.

A recurring point I’ve made on this website for a couple of years now is that giant American companies often have too much influence over other countries’ communications and web infrastructure. I still think that’s the case, but their blind spots can help encourage local development. Given the size of the largest American tech companies, though, that also makes these smaller businesses prime acquisition targets; I wouldn’t be surprised to see an offer made for Grab.