Live Maps in China: An Interview with Vincent Tao (O’Reilly)


[Editor’s note: Somehow I missed this December announcement for Microsoft’s new street map service for China. The entire interface is in Chinese characters but the functionality is the same as the English version. Zoom into Beijing and check out all the Olympic sites or plan your next visit by launching the ditu “world” map via Microsoft Local Live maps (view). This street map geometry is much more complete than the normal Local Live map site (view). Thanks Yifang!]

Republished from O’Reilly Radar on Dec. 13th 2007.

Earlier today [December] Microsoft’s Live Maps launched in China (Radar post). Dr. Vincent Tao, founder of Microsoft-acquisition GeoTango and now Senior Director in the Virtual Earth org, led the project. I sent over some questions about the release (114 cities), future plans (an API) and Chinese data policy (strict). Vincent kindly responded.

See the full text of the interview below: 
vincent tao
Can you tell us about coverage? What exactly launched today? What’s the difference in the platform between VE China and VE everywhere else? 

[VT] The China release demonstrates our success in deploying our first VE data center remotely. We now have an in-country data center offering the better system performance and greater user experiences. This distributed mapping architecture allows us to grow the international markets in a scalable way. In this first release, VE China covers both tier-1 and tier-2 total 114 cities with very rich local contents (millions of POI/YP). In addition to most VE features in USA, China release offers the public transit feature for bus and train commuters. We understand that this is the most demanding feature for China users when concerning maps. We cannot afford not having this feature even for v1 release. 

Getting access to Chinese geo data is notoriously hard. Who are you getting the data from? Is it handled via a joint-venture? Where are your servers located? 
[VT] Our road map data is coming from AutoNavi, a Chinese leading data provider for on-line and navigation maps. We have a distributed system architecture but our mapping data is served from our MSN JV company. 

China is the only country mapped. Is there a reason that US or UK streets aren’t available? 
[VT] I guess that you are referring to site. The release is focused on Chinese speaking users. We are working the design of multi-language mapping system. 

Who are your local competitors? 
[VT] There are no serious local competitors out there in the mapping vertical, though Baidu and Google have some good presence in the market given its strong market share in web search. 

There’s been recent issues with the Chinese government redirecting traffic from Microsoft and Google to Baidu. Do you have any concerns about being blocked by the government? 
[VT] We have worked closely with the Chinese authorities from day one when building our VE services for China. We follow the government regulations carefully and also proactively exchange our ideas on some of their data policy issues.

What’s coming in the future? Will there be an API? Will there be aerial or satellite imagery? Why is there satellite imagery of China in the US version and not in the Chinese version? 
[VT] We have our roadmap for China VE services both in B2C and B2B. Our VE API will be available for enterprise and mashup users in a not too distant future. We are looking into the image solutions. So far there are some issues, not technical, about on-line image publishing in China. 

Was the data allowed to leave China? What other restrictions were placed on the data and its use? 
[vt] The map data is not allowed to leave the border. Some other countries also have the same regulations (Korea for example). In China, maps can only be provided by the licensed map data providers. Also the on-line publishing maps need to go through a ‘encryption’ process whereby map coordinates are transformed to an unknown coordinate system (not in Lat/Long). This is mainly for the national security reason as far as I know.

What are the issues surrounding showing images? Why would they be more concerned about their own population seeing them? Is blocked in China? 
[vt] The same reason as above. In general, mapping is a highly regulated area in China and so on-line mapping services. Given the incredible opportunity in China commercial mapping market and the coming Olympic event, the China mapping agency is actively developing and examining their data policy and regulations. I was using when I was travelling China. Our site is running just fine.

Today, we have two good news: China Virtual Earth release and MultiMap acquisition. We are on our way to our international roadmap!

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