FOAM puts geospatial data on the blockchain–without GPS

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FOAM is a company that specializes in protocols, applications and standards that connect geospatial data to the blockchain. FOAM is also the name of an open protocol for building a consensus-driven map of the world. This map will provide the basis for to-be-developed new applications in a range of verticals that can benefit from blockchain, a technology that focuses on decentralization and does away with intermediary parties.

The reason for combining blockchain and mapping technologies is twofold. FOAM wants users to be able to own and control their own personal location information, as well as whom they want to share it with. At the same time, they see connecting blockchain and geospatial data as a way to generate a dynamic, community-generated map with verified and trusted information that can be monetized by different industries and verticals.

Smart contracts

The blockchain platform on which FOAM bases its offerings is Ethereum, which is known for its smart contracts and distributed apps. (This is a different technology than Bitcoin.) A central part of FOAM’s protocol is “smart contracts,” pieces of software that act like vending machines in that they help blockchain application users exchange anything of value in a transparent way and avoid the service of a middleman. Essentially, a smart contract is a bit of code that monitors for when all conditions of the contract are met, and then executes the contract automatically, without the need for a mediating party.

FOAM also developed a web app that enables users to query and display these contracts on a 2D map from Mapbox. The process is comparable to mapping POIs (points of interest) with Waze and Google. The result has been called a “mash-up between a Bloomberg terminal and Google Maps” by CTO and co-founder Kristoffer Josefsson.

As a result, the protocol combines Ethereum smart contract addresses with corresponding addresses in physical space that can be accessed by decentralized applications. These combinations are called “Crypto-Spatial Coordinates” and are based on geohash, a public domain geocoding system that encodes a geographic location into a short string of letters and digits. The effect is that geospatial coordinates can be used as a condition in blockchain smart contracts, without the need for GPS.

An added benefit of connecting geospatial data and the blockchain is that it offers a process for reaching consensus on where something is at a certain point in time and space, so that geospatial data is trustworthy and accurate.

Risks

In a sense, FOAM combines best practices from the current mapping industry in a different context. The way it sources POIs through community submissions to a web app echo what Waze, TomTom and Google are doing, while the creation of a consensus-driven static map is similar to OpenStreetMap’s efforts. If this map gets created, it can be very interesting to other verticals using Ethereum blockchain technology.

But because FOAM’s map is ultimately a community-based effort, adoption by the community will define its success. By not relying on current GPS technology for verifying spatial data, FOAM is taking a big risk as its alternative, a process for reaching consensus on a location through the community, still requires a technological hardware solution for determining where something happens and with a certain accuracy. The solution offered by FOAM, described in a recent white paper, is radio hardware that is used to establish zones where activities can be monitored and validated. These, however, can only be established if a large community is willing to invest in such technology.

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About Author

Eric van Rees

Eric van Rees is a freelance writer and editor. His specialty is GIS technology. He has more than nine years of proven expertise in editing, writing and interviewing as editor and editor-in-chief for the international geospatial publication GeoInformatics, as well as GIS Magazine and CAD Magazine, both published in Dutch. Currently, he writes about geospatial technology, programming and web development.

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