Crowdsourcing local data the right way

In How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will, Wired’s Kevin Poulsen sympathizes with local businesses trying to represent themselves online.

Maps are dotted with thousands of spam business listings for nonexistent locksmiths and plumbers. Legitimate businesses sometimes see their listings hijacked by competitors or cloned into a duplicate with a different phone number or website.

These attacks happen because Google Maps is, at its heart, a massive crowdsourcing project, a shared conception of the world that skilled practitioners can bend and reshape in small ways using tools like Google’s Mapmaker or Google Places for Business.

No, these attacks happen because Google Maps isn’t based on the right kind of crowdsourcing. The Wired story continues:

Google seeds its business listings from generally reliable commercial mailing list databases, including infoUSA and Axciom.

Let’s back up a step. Where does infoUSA get its data? From sources like new business filings and company websites, and follow-up calls to verify the data.

Those calls shouldn’t be necessary. The source of truth should be an individual business owner who signs a state registration form and publishes a website. Instead, intermediaries govern what the web knows about that business. If that data were crowdsourced in the right way, it would flow directly from the business owner.

Here’s how that could happen. A state’s process for business registration asks for a URL. If data available at that URL conforms to an agreed-upon format, it populates the registration form. If the registration is approved, the state endorses that URL as the source of truth for basic facts about the business.

Of course the business might provide more information than the state can verify. That’s OK. The state’s website might only record and assure the name and address of the business, plus the URL at which additional facts — not verifiable by the state — are provided by the business owner. Those facts would include the hours of operation. The business owner is the source of truth for those facts. Changes made at the source ripple through the system.

The problem isn’t that information about local businesses is crowdsourced. We’re just doing it wrong.

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6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing local data the right way

  1. I like the data gathering approach suggested but it is not crowdsourcing. It is not the crowd providing the data. What is needed is a verification of the crowd sourced data. The verification might itself be crowdsourced. In any case, without a trusted verifier the verification step would require multiple verifiers.

    1. Each business owner is in theory, and should be in practice, authoritative for his/her own data. Collectively they form a crowd. I know this isn’t what we usually mean by crowdsourcing, but it’s a meaning I want us to envision.

  2. I again thought of this article this weekend; I was looking for a bakery in the area and though I know there’s one around the corner the mapping programs had no idea it’s there. The map did show me another one — that is not there. What’s going to compel a business owner to let the data collector know when they go out of business, I wonder, or should/could we have this registration be something to be renewed yearly. Or perhaps we could tie it to something else, like their telephone or power account, that automatically gets turned off when they stop paying.

  3. “should/could we have this registration be something to be renewed yearly”

    Vermont pings its registered businesses, every six months I think, to validate the data. So yes, that’s another benefit of leveraging the state’s business registry.

  4. Now if you can just get Yelp to analyze customer reviews better, so the single disgruntled and out-of-line customer review doesn’t have more prominence than dozens of satisfied customers.

  5. This isn’t crowd sourcing though. This is the government making itself useful. You would think having an authoritative list of all registered businesses would be a very basic thing for a government to provide. But one suspects that our friends in the phone book publishers (remember those? Yes, they still exist) have historically fought against this. But that’s just a guess.

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