Exploding the Phone Book: Spatial Data Arbitrage in the 1990s Internet Boom

Will B. Payne, David O’Sullivan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This article examines 1990s Internet firm Zip2 as an early case study in the political economy of location-based services (LBS) and “smart” cities in the United States. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s first startup, Zip2, combined digital maps built using public spatial data with computerized Yellow Pages listings to create city directory Web portals for daily newspapers. Examining the technical affordances, labor practices, and revenue models of the company’s two key data providers, NavTech and American Business Information, reveals the conditions that enabled Zip2 to successfully employ data arbitrage as a corporate strategy. Despite its significant limitations as a consumer-facing technology, Zip2 was acquired by Compaq for $300 million in 1999. The company’s founders leveraged government investment in digital mapping, fortuitous shifts in copyright law, and anxiety among newspaper publishers about missing the Internet boom into a business that prefigured many of the use cases and revenue models of contemporary LBS and Web maps. Key Words: computer navigation, data arbitrage, location-based services, smart cities, web mapping.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)391-398
Number of pages8
JournalAnnals of the American Association of Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 3 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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