Mapbox: Empathy and Fire

Q&A with Robert Ames, director of government business and technology strategy


Q: When did you begin working at Mapbox?

I joined Mapbox in March. Prior to that, I spent six years at In-Q-Tel—a technology innovation channel funded by the government. Before that, I spent 11 years at IBM, where I was deputy CTO for IBM Federal.

Q: Even though Mapbox employees don’t have official titles (and you made up one for the purposes of this interview), is yours a new position within the company?

It is a new position, recognizing that government is a big part of Mapbox’s business. I bring experience in inserting technology and innovation into government missions, and I bring a deep understanding of technology and mission problems that can be addressed by the emergence of mobility and the richness of location data.

Q: How has mapping fundamentally changed in the last decade, and what role has Mapbox played?

In the past five to 10 years, maps have gone from being this very fixed, stagnant, paper concept—a hard-to-consume medium, like pulling an encyclopedia off the rack—to being highly dynamic, responsive, and customizable. Today’s maps fuse contextual information such as what restaurants and friends are nearby.

Q: How is Mapbox preparing for the future of GEOINT?

In three important ways. First, we’re developing the mapping platform for the future. That platform is going to be critical in the mobile world. When you think about people deployed with limited connectivity, making these maps accessible at a low bandwidth is an area we’re taking forward for GEOINT.

Second is this notion of context—how do I understand what’s going on around me, in the past and currently, and how do I optimize my experience or outcomes?

Third, we see a future in which users can interact with maps in the space around them through augmented reality. Imagine being able to interact with a three-dimensional representation of the Earth that moves with you. This isn’t happening in the distant future, but soon.

Q: What do you consider most compelling among Mapbox’s projects?

Definitely the virtual reality space and its implications for mapping and GEOINT. Another exciting area: We want to bring machine learning and artificial intelligence to augment everyone’s understanding of their surroundings and continue to enrich people’s context around a map. We see our competitors moving in this direction, and we are actively investing in this area. Look at Snapchat’s SnapMap, which Mapbox helps power. It maps geo-tagged snaps that users have decided to share. If I’m interested in what’s going on in Dupont Circle or Trafalgar Square in London, or anywhere people are actively creating content, I can open SnapMap and see that content as a hotspot. It’s completely customizable, and the interface is intuitive and fun with this cartoony, emoji feel. But it is a very powerful and rich example of the future of context.

Q: What is surprising about Mapbox?

People are often surprised about our breadth and depth. We are the people that often enable the mapping you use, but you don’t necessarily know it’s Mapbox. Our maps are installed in approximately 4,000 applications worldwide.

Q: Your hiring strategy is somewhat nontraditional. According to your company website, “empathy” and “fire” are two traits Mapbox looks for in its employees. Can you explain this?

The company was founded by Eric Gundersen. He was inspired to create Mapbox when he was struggling with inferior maps while trying to monitor elections in Afghanistan. His intention was clear—to help make the world a better place. That’s led to the ethos of finding people who are passionate, no matter what their professional history. I’m an example of that. Before I got into IT, I was a professional opera singer.

Q: What results from cultivating a workforce with myriad backgrounds?

Mapbox has a diverse set of employees who come from rich and varied backgrounds. I believe this leads to an understanding that people interact with maps and information in very different ways. We believe it’s important to customize maps, the experience to the user, and the environment with dynamic styling. Cartogram, for example, allows you to upload a picture, and the application will style your map to match that picture. I took a picture of my cat, so I have my cat map. We just released a mapping style a week ago that looks like comic books. Things like that are the results of having folks from all backgrounds.

Q: What’s most exciting to you about the modern GEOINT space?

What’s interesting is that GEOINT is everywhere, because we all want to know what’s going on around us. Because of that, innovation is pouring in. I’m taking my daughters to Rome in a couple weeks. My entire search on activities and sites in Rome is a GEOINT-type application. I use such tools as Foursquare, which is powered by Mapbox, to identify interesting places. So if I want to take a tour, I find out where it is, what’s around it, and I read reviews—but it all starts with a geo-query. Then you go to social media and say, ‘I’m visiting this area, what should I do, what shouldn’t I do?’ and you get recommendations about places. We’re all thinking GEOINT without knowing it.

Featured image: Robert Ames (standing) speaks with colleagues at Mapbox’s D.C. office. (Credit: Marissa Fullord/Mapbox)


Beyond the Status Quo

Accenture applies new thought processes to improve efficiency