March 25, 2019
By Munsif Vengattil
BENGALURU (Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc is six months into a major mapping project that fills holes in its coverage of Middle Eastern cities ahead of a possible takeover of regional rival Careem Networks and this year’s hotly anticipated initial public offering, according to a source with knowledge of the project.
A team of 28 engineers and other staff, working for Indian tech sector outsourcer Wipro, are on the verge of completing detailed mapping of businesses and public buildings in Saudi Arabian cities and have been asked to accelerate work as the company eyes a stock market launch in April, the source said.
The team in the Indian city of Hyderabad has also recently been entrusted with mapping Egypt and is under pressure to speed up the work, the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The costly and time-consuming exercise is vital to moves to scale up in what has become a crucial market for Uber, with the takeover of Dubai-based Careem and progress there a litmus test of Uber’s global ambitions after ceding other Asian countries to local competitors.
It may also have served to bolster the company’s position in talks on buying Careem, which other sources told Reuters on Sunday may announce a $3 billion takeover this week.
Mapping is a largely manual process done one block and one neighborhood at a time, requiring heavy investment, and the data must be updated regularly. Maps are the foundation of ride-hailing apps that shuttle passengers from one point to another via a navigation app.
Careem, which operates in the Middle East, Africa and southern Asia, had said previously it was 45,000 miles into mapping the region, saying that shortfalls in Google Maps in the Middle East coverage had forced it to spend on the project.
Normally Uber uses a mix of mapping resources, relying heavily on Google Maps and augmenting its knowledge of streets and pickup points using its own mapping cars and equipment carried by Uber drivers in their vehicles.
Uber’s website says its dedicated mapping cars are currently working only in Canada and around a dozen U.S. states, having previously mapped the UK, France, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Columbia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Brazil.
Uber said the team in India was curating “Places” mapping data in Saudi Arabia to back up the necessary field work as it seeks to create its own set of locations against which it can easily search for pick-ups and drop-offs. It is different from vector mapping data and is a database of trip destinations, the company said.
Uber said it had not started work in Egypt.
According to the source, the process at Wipro is threefold; beginning from validation of existing data, to verification of new data collected from fieldwork and finally manually tagging each business and establishment on the proprietary map.
The fieldwork is done by Uber’s people on the ground, who go from business to business and take pictures from all the exterior sides of a building, a requirement in tagging the location of an establishment. Workers at Wipro use official websites and social media handles, as well as other resources, to fact-check data, the source said.
Wipro said it does not comment on specific client engagements. It was not clear whether Uber had agreements with other outsourcers for mapping the region.
In the run-up to its initial public offering next month, Uber is expected to tout its global reach and strong overseas markets to investors as a differentiation from U.S. rival Lyft.
An Uber purchase of Careem, after it gave up on markets in China, Southeast Asia and Russia in the face of strong local startups, has put the Middle East at the heart of that narrative.
A tie-up with Careem would also allow both companies to stop spending so heavily on infrastructure, as well as subsidizing rides for passengers and poaching drivers with bonuses, which have generated losses for both firms.
(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Heather Somerville in San Francisco; Writing by Patrick Graham; Editing by Dan Grebler)