How the On-Demand Economy Works Where Google Maps Gets Lost
Companies like Uber want to capture emerging markets, but some consumers aren’t on their map.
Image: Jose Nicolas/Getty / Composition: Ankita Rao
This is how I order an Uber in New York City: Put in the address of where I am, put in the address of where I want to go. Confirm and wait.
This is how I ordered an Uber in Mumbai: Summoned an Uber to my GPS location. Called up the driver a few minutes later as he got closer. Gave him three landmarks (usually the gym that was next door to my apartment and the nearest highway) and walked outside to wait.
On-demand services—whether deliveries or rideshares—are touted for disrupting the way we live and work. But they still have to grapple with existing infrastructure, whether in rural America or Kenya. The maze of streets and alleys in many towns and cities across the world—even the very concept of a street address—is as diverse as the countries and cultures that tech companies are hoping to capture. And to do so they either have to learn to navigate new territory, or fall victim to local, savvier enterprise.
"My address reads more like special instructions than mailing locations," said Rajiv Golla, a journalist who lives in Nairobi, Kenya. "Along the lines of 'Behind the Thai restaurant next to Brew Bistro on Ngong Road.' I recall a few visa applications for the region asking for nearby landmarks."
Golla, who has written for Motherboard, told me he always calls his Uber driver on the phone to give directions, and doesn't depend on the app's GPS system to find him since it's not always accurate. Because of his address he never uses Amazon's delivery services or any online ordering—instead relying on the local bus system to ferry packages from other cities if needed.
Google Maps, frequently used by on-demand services, isn't foolproof in Nairobi and many other cities across the world. It doesn't always account for road blockages, smaller thruways, or unmarked buildings. And I remember it was almost useless when guiding one of my drivers in Bangalore, an Indian city notorious for its traffic, leading me to alleyways that were too small for cars, where we were forced to U-turn.
"Oftentimes, places that lack infrastructure and institutions like post offices simply have fewer official resources to draw from or the resources aren't high quality enough to incorporate into Google Maps," a Google spokesperson told me.
Cities are rarely just organized grids. Mumbai, for example, has a large unorganized sector, and a numerically ordered row of homes or businesses is rare in these neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, companies like Uber and Amazon have taken off across the world, working around—or in consideration of—the different ways that cities have developed. The smart ones adjust to the local mores: Uber accepts cash in Brazil, as does Amazon in India. Some establish central pick-up points or lockers so that packages can't get lost in the navigation process, and most learn from homegrown tech companies.
"The jury is still out, but you can argue the local players have usually come with innovative models," said Lourdes Casanova, a senior lecturer at Cornell University's SC Johnson School of Business. "Things move sometimes very rapidly. And definitely in parts of Latin America. The earlier players have been extremely successful."
China's tech companies, she pointed out, are more popular than foreign competitors. Didi Chuxing, China's rideshare app, beat out any semblance of Uber competition in the country. Baidu has a stronger hold than Google. And Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce company, is much larger than even Amazon there.
"You can argue the local players have usually come with innovative models"
In India, Amazon had to compete with Flipkart, a massive delivery company that had established its reign before the US multinational started pumping money and resources into the country—now they both constantly battle to get ahead, though Flipkart retains the current advantage. But Casanova pointed out that Amazon is also competing with more local delivery systems—small, independent shops in big cities will bring groceries to your door after you establish a relationship with the shopkeepers.
I reached out to Uber but did not receive a response. An Amazon spokesperson told me they work with a variety of carriers. And in the case of the company's Prime Now app—which is meant to deliver goods within two hours—the courier gets a map of the customer's address, and their phone number for further clarification. In my experience with delivery companies in India, this means calling and explaining your address as well.
In Brazil, Marina Lopes, a friend and journalist living in Brasilia, said Uber is ubiquitous in the country, and often deemed safer than local taxis because you know the driver's name, and the GPS system helps keep drivers accountable. But Google Maps can sometimes backfire. "Google will take you the most direct route and that can sometimes mean you cut through dicey neighborhoods taxis would never go into," she said.
And the apps often struggle to recognize her address. "Brasilia has the strangest address system I've ever seen," she told me. "The navigation works fine, but figuring out how to type in a block and section number so that Google recognizes it can be difficult. If I use the wrong caps or type out [the word] block it has no idea what I'm saying."
In Dubai, one startup is hoping to circumvent the issue of confusing addresses altogether with an app called Fetchr, which allows people to send and receive packages by using their phones as the main location and sending the driver notes through the app.
Google Maps has its own plans to bridge these gaps. It has features like Local Guides, for example, where people living in the area can input destinations and addresses that Google Maps will then absorb. And "using Street View and recent advances in Deep Learning, our teams have added or improved significant numbers of addresses using automated systems," the Google spokesperson told me. These improvements could impact companies like Whatsapp and Airbnb that rely on its APIs.
The issue is not relegated to emerging economies, Casanova pointed out. Amazon's drone delivery initiative, for example, was developed because delivering to rural areas can be bungled by long roads and poor cell service. And, as Kaleigh Rogers wrote recently, it has been a double-edged sword in remote towns. Meanwhile, Uber covers at least 75 percent of the US, but isn't available in many smaller rural communities.
As tech companies deploy fleets of airplanes, drones, and rickshaws to reach their customers, they will have to figure out how to dissect the seemingly simple, but globally inconsistent, idea of someone's home address. But given their rapid pace of growth, Casanova said it's unlikely infrastructure can stop them.
"We have moved to another world and we have developed other systems."
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