Should the “3D Map of the Globe” be a Public Good?

Public Goods

One of the best classes I took in grad school was a macro class in the Department of Food and Resource Economics. The course was a dive into public goods, externalities and failures — both market and government. The concept of public goods was a fascinating one. A good could be non-excludable and non-rivalrous. In short this means you can’t restrict access to the good and one person enjoying the good does not limit its availability to another person. A classic example is a sunset.

What Kind of Good is Global Localization/3D/VPS

Currently, the efforts by at least a half dozen companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Snap and Niantic) to create a 3D map of the world are squarely private goods. Each firm is creating their own 3D maps of the world, which are private property and excludable. By definition of there being at least six worlds there are rivalrous elements. On the continuum of economic goods we are currently on the opposite end from a public good like GPS. Yet, there are so many parallels between VPS and GPS in both purpose and structure. Like many digital goods the cost of replication for a 3D feature database is low and perpetually getting lower. So, it is difficult for one user to decrease the value of the good for another user. This means it is arguable that the excludable gates placed around a 3D map of the globe are artificial. While this is the case for many digital goods it opens up some interesting opportunities.

Could Club Goods be the Future

Fortunately, we aren’t limited to just private and public goods. There are also common goods and club goods. Common goods are non-excludable goods that are still rivalrous like forests or fisheries. They are open but exhaustable, so not a good fit. Club goods on the other hand are closed but inexhaustible. Classic examples are cable television, cinema and copyrighted works. Club goods are often associated with the concept of artificial scarcity since they have zero marginal costs once built. Like GPS or cable TV, a 3D map of the globe certainly has a big infrastructure investment to make, but once up and running additional incremental user cost is relatively negligible.

How do You Start a Club?

I immediately think of dimly lit backroom deals involving cigars and big tech companies. The reality is likely far more pedestrian. Even with the success of OSM creating a 2D base map — a shared 3D feature database of the world isn’t going to happen overnight. We can start with a shared language. There is no standard for a global feature database that would make this data interoperable. Creating a standard would be an excellent place to start. This is not my observation or idea, and has been discussed independent of this post/concept. A standard would bring interested parties together and start to establish trust and a common cause.



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We are building a multi-source 3D map of the globe one image at a time.