A new map war

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A new map war

In 2001, the state-run National Geographical Information Institute digitalized a precise map of Korea. The map’s scale was 1:5,000, meaning that one unit on the map represented 5,000 units on the ground.

From 1993, the government spent over 100 billion won ($90 million) to complete the map. Less than 10 countries have such precise cartography technology. The United States and Japan have the most advanced technology with map scales of 1:10,000.

The data becomes a geographical information system (GIS) when buildings, subways, gas pipes and traffic details are added. Various location-based services paving the way to the fourth industrial revolution can be sourced from GIS data. Some predict the winners in the 21st century will be the countries with the most advanced web mapping technology.

Eight years ago, Google asked for access to the local GIS data. The institute turned down the request, citing national security concerns. The Internet giant doesn’t enjoy taking no for an answer. In 2011, it nagged the institute for its new street name data. Last June, it asked again for full access to the GIS data.

The government created a council among eight government offices to discuss whether it should allow the access. The ministries of defense, unification, interior and the National Intelligence Service were opposed. The ministries of foreign affairs, trade and future planning and science thought the measure could help foreign policy, tourism, and industry. A financial decision will be made on Aug. 12.
The general consensus is to turn down the request. The government considers the industrial gains not big enough to justify the security risk. The trade and industry ministry did not have much to say during the first meeting.

But Korea can hardly block Google’s access to geographic information forever. The Internet giant shares its mapping data on the globe for free. Google Maps is the very basis of such new inventions and industries like the augmented reality game Pokémon Go and car-hailing service Uber. Google’s ecosystem has become a norm for the world. Fledging inventions and new industries like self-piloting and driving vehicles and the Internet of Things become easier and faster using the Google platform — and clumsy and cumbersome when not. Google claims its use of Korean digital mapping data could help bolster tourism and startups to aid the overall economy. That’s an argument that is not entirely wrong.

Why is Google so eager for Korea’s map? First of all, Korea’s GIS data is of a top standard, and Korea, as a powerhouse in information technology, is the optimal location to test location-based services and industries. The country’s fast Internet, dense population and urban spaces makes it an ideal place to test self-piloting ground and air vehicles.

The infinite stock of big data is another appeal. When combined with self-learning artificial intelligence technology, the applications could be explosive. Technology-savvy Korea is already a lucrative market. From apps alone, Google is estimated to earn nearly $3 billion a year from Korea, the highest after the United States and Japan. With access to our map, it can earn a lot more from advertising and coupon services.

Google desperately needs Korea, and export-driven Korea cannot neglect the external market. To prevent falling behind in the fourth industrial revolution, Korea will inevitably have to get on the Google-led bandwagon.

Seoul will have to open up its map data. It could condition the access by banning locating individuals and personal data, blocking security-sensitive infrastructure, protecting local servers, and levying taxes on the income the company earns in Korea. But Google won’t likely accept the terms.

In the longer run, we need to create a homogenous web ecosystem. Uber recently announced that it was investing in its global mapping project to lessen and ultimately end its reliance on Google Maps. The ride-hailing service primarily runs on Google Maps to allow drivers to pick up passengers and take them to their destination. It has become a company worth more than 70 trillion won. But it now believes it will have no future if its services entirely hinge on Google.

Maps paved the way for the imperialist expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Europeans used them to explore new discoveries on the globe.

Map data will also guide us into the new world of automation. We can share our maps. But we cannot share our society. We must not forget who’s the owner.

JoongAng Ilbo, August 4, Page 34

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yi Jung-jae
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