Facebook gives CMU hikers $25,000
Facebook has landed a new mapping platform, thanks in part to a Carnegie Mellon alumnus. Andrew Johnson (Tepper ’03) and co-founder Anna Hentzel received one of Facebook’s first fbFund grants for their application TrailBehind, mapping software people can use to plan hiking trips. While Johnson and Hentzel are concentrating on hiking now, their software has the technical capability to map any location in the world.
The grant they received is part of the fbFund, begun this past July, through which Facebook plans to award $10 million to application developers. Johnson and Hentzel’s platform was one of 25 to be granted money on Oct. 15. They were given $25,000 to develop their platform and turn it into a Facebook application.
“[Anna and I] have been thinking of this for a long time. We go backpacking every or every other weekend,” Johnson said. “We’re both Facebook users and it was always in our plan to make a Facebook application.”
Johnson and Hentzel are both avid hikers with computer programming backgrounds.
Johnson previously worked at the Carnegie Mellon start-up SureLogic while Hentzel worked at Google.
Johnson and Hentzel registered the company domain, (TrailBehind.com), last October, but they really got started on the mapping platform this April.
TrailBehind will not only map trips but will act as a social platform on which hikers can share advice, compare paths, offer trail opinions, and allow users to map out and share particular paths they have taken.
Johnson and Hentzel began with big parks like Yosemite National Park as well as areas they were familiar with, particularly in Pittsburgh and California. They are hoping that they and the users can expand the coverage.
Steve Schmitt, a member of the board of directors at TrailBehind, CEO of SureLogic, and a Carnegie Mellon alumnus (Heinz ’96), spoke on the prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook.
He cited June 2008 statistics from Comstar, one of the major web tracking companies. Out of 860 million unique visitors to the Internet, 580 million went to social networking sites, and Facebook was by far the most visited.
“What we’re seeing is a transformation of how people across the globe get information,” he said. “CMU is part of that story and it is very exciting.”
Schmitt, in addition to being a CMU alumnus, was Johnson’s boss at SureLogic. Johnson was Schmitt’s first hire and the two worked together for two years.
Schmitt said Facebook is now making the transformation from a website to a platform, adding that it eventually will become like an operating system, putting every function into one place.
Johnson and Hentzel compared the particular role of TrailBehind to a Wikipedia of hiking and an interactive mapping pinboard, as a place where users can collaborate on hiking trails, compare opinions, and share any insights they have on their past trails.
“What makes [TrailBehind] different is that we’re aggregating data,” Hentzel said. “We have algorithms that merge trails between user points and rank popularity.”
Hentzel added that the information shared on TrailBehind can only be gained from other people, not from governmental or national park websites.
Johnson expressed similar sentiments as Hentzel, addressing the more complete and efficient nature of TrailBehind.
Johnson said that while a map of all the national parks in the Eastern region of the United States could cost about $150, a map from TrailBehind would be free.
“We know where all the parks are and their basic shapes and sizes. When people add information, our maps become more complete,” Johnson said.
Johnson spoke excitedly of the possibility of eventually expanding the mapping platform to specialize in more areas than hiking as the technical capacity already exists.
“If you want to know about where to take your dog, hotels that are dog-friendly, finding malls, or social networks, we can help you with that,” Johnson said.
Charles Johnson, Andrew Johnson’s father and Managing Member of Verve X3, a graphic design firm, who helped with the software development, spoke on the challenges TrailBehind will face once they expand their services.
“We’re talking about competing with companies like Google Earth,” Charles Johnson said. “There [are] a lot of mapping platforms already out there.”
Charles Johnson spoke about what sets them apart from their competitors.
“This is a more social environment,” he said. “It’s not just getting from Point A to Point B, but what to expect along the way.”
Charles Johnson said that he has already seen a trend in people wanting to know about the journey, from people wanting to know weather hour by hour to constant traffic updates.
Johnson and Hentzel both spoke on the importance of their application and on their enjoyment of their work.
“For me, the most exciting part is doing something I like,” Hentzel said. “We already use it on our camping trips.”
Johnson dreams of the site being the top hit on Google for mapping of all kinds.
But for now, the focus remains on hiking.
The application, TrailBehind, is available on Facebook. More information can be found at TrailBehind.com