Uncharted no more: How Grab built its mapping tool GrabMaps

Photo by Kseniia Ilinykh.

Similar to an adventure game that starts with only a partial map, super app Grab had its own blind spots when it launched as a ride-hailing service over a decade ago.

Evolving from a single-city operation in Kuala Lumpur in 2012 to its current presence in eight countries across Southeast Asia, Grab credits much of its success to its partnership with Amazon Web Services or AWS.

During the ASEAN segment of the AWS Summit, Philipp Kandal, Chief Product Officer at Grab, discussed how the company utilised data to improve their customer experience, among other insights.

“Our mission is to create economic empowerment for everyone in Southeast Asia. We achieve this by establishing a trusted marketplace where both entrepreneurs and consumers can participate and thrive,” he said.

Dealing with data

Currently, Grab operates in more than 500 cities in Southeast Asia and boasts over 5 million drivers and 4 million merchants in its community.

Managing such a volume of data daily is no small feat, making the company’s partnership with AWS invaluable.

“We’ve leveraged Amazon Neptune, SageMaker, RDS, and S3 to consolidate our user data, location data, and payment data. This enables us to predict the safety of a ride and intervene if necessary, ensuring that our customers have a secure and excellent consumer experience,” Kandal explained.

Furthermore, Grab collects data from its partner vehicles and feeds it into its AWS data lake. This way, the company can forecast variables like weather, which in turn affects food delivery patterns and the estimated arrival times of vehicles.

“AWS has truly enabled us to generate data insights more quickly than would have otherwise been possible. It’s at the core of every application we build at Grab. Every business decision is data-driven, so we’ve heavily relied on modern infrastructure and architecture to move at an accelerated pace,” the executive added.

The road less travelled

Since the effectiveness of Grab’s services hinges on the precise location of pickup and drop-off points, the super app decided to leverage data to develop its own mapping tool—GrabMaps.

“In 2017, we found out that the cities we served were undermapped. Many places were missing, and the refresh rate of traditional maps, often spanning years, couldn’t keep up with the dynamic development in Southeast Asia. So, we figured out that none of the existing solutions were good enough for us,” Kandal recalled.

Philipp Kandal, Chief Product Officer at Grab. Image courtesy of Grab.

Almost immediately, Grab began developing a hyperlocal solution, enlisting its drivers and motorcycle riders to map the region.

“To build our maps, we used data from our consumers. We also leveraged our driver and merchant partners to provide us with up-to-date information on road closures, business changes, and anything else that’s happening. We incentivise our drivers by offering them an opportunity to earn additional income,” the Chief Product Officer shared.

Kandal cited an example in Jakarta, where a Grab rider successfully navigated narrow alleyways, thereby mapping previously uncharted areas.

“There’s no way our business can function without having each of these addresses and roads on our maps. This is core to our advantage in terms of being hyperlocal for Southeast Asia. Through our program, KartaView, we enable our drivers to increase their income by becoming gig mappers. We equip them with our AI-powered cameras, which they mount on their motorcycles or helmets, and compensate them for the data they provide,” he explained.

Going the extra mile

Taking a step further, Kandal revealed that some of Grab’s partners have even formed mapping communities to serve the most undermapped areas in their neighbourhoods.

“When I talk to them and listen to their stories, they do this to take control of their earnings, upgrade the motorbikes, or pay for their kids’ education. And if you ask me, that’s the reason why I entered the technology sector — to create a positive impact on people’s lives. That’s why maps personally matter to me,” he said.

In collaboration with Amazon, GrabMaps will be made publicly available via Amazon Location Services.

“This allows people to use the APIs for easily adding maps, points of interest, geocoding, routing, tracking, or geofencing to their applications. This is especially valuable for anyone seeking high-quality, last-mile accuracy across all emerging markets in Southeast Asia,” the Chief Product Officer concluded.