As the Geohack template used by Wikipedia for geographical locations attests (see Paris for example) there are many map publishing services on the Web. But almost all of them rely on an oligopoly of geographical data suppliers among whom AND, Navteq and Teleatlas dominate and absorb a large proportion of the profit in the geographical information value chain :
“If you purchase a TomTom, approximately 20-30% of that cost goes to Tele Atlas who licenses the maps that TomTom and many other hardware manufacturers use. Part of that charge is because Tele Atlas itself, and the company’s main rival Navteq, have to buy the data from national mapping agencies in the first place, like the Ordance Survey, and then stitch all the information together. Hence the consumer having to pay on a number of levels”.
And yet, geographical data is a fundamental pillar of our information infrastructure. A few years ago the realm of specialized geographic information systems, geography is nowadays a pervasive dimension of about every sort of service. When something becomes an essential feature of our lives, nothing short of freedom is acceptable. What happens when that freedom requires collecting humongous amounts of data and when oligopolistic actors strive to keep control and profits to themselves ? Free software collaboration and distributed data collection of course !
“The tremendous cost of producing the maps necessitates that these firms have very restrictive licenses to protect their business models selling the data. As a result, there are many things you can’t do with the data.
[..] The reason why OpenStreetMap will win in the end and likely obviate the need for commercial map data is that the costs and risks associated with mapping are shared. Conversely, for Navteq and TeleAtlas, the costs born by these companies are passed on to their customers. Once their customers discover OpenStreetMap data is in some cases superior, or more importantly – they can contribute to it and the license allows them to use the data for nearly any purpose – map data then becomes commodity”.
The proprietary players are aware of that trend, and they try to profit from the users who wish to correct the many errors contained in the data they publish. But why would anyone contribute something, only to see it monopolized by the editor who won’t let you do what you want with it ? If I make the effort of contributing carefully collected data, I want it to benefit as many people as possible – not just someone who will keep it for his own profit.
Access to satellite imagery will remain an insurmountable barrier in the long term, but soon the map layers will be ours to play with – and that is enough to open the whole world of mapping. Like a downhill snowball, the OpenStreetMap data set growth is accelerating fast and attracting a thriving community that now includes professional and institutional users and contributors. Over its first five years, the Wikipedia-like online map project has delivered great results – and developed even greater ambitions.
I have started to contribute to OpenStreetmap – I feel great satisfaction at mapping the world for fun and for our common good. Owning the map feels good ! You can do it too – it is easy, especially if you are the sort of person who often logs tracks with a GPS receiver. OpenStreetMap’s infrastructure is quite impressive – everything you need is already out there waiting for your contribution, including very nice editors – and there is one for Android too.
If you just want to add your grain of sand to the heap, reporting bugs and naming the places in your favourite neighbourhood are great ways to help build maps that benefit all of us. Contributing to the map is like giving directions to strangers lost in your neighbourhood – except that you are giving directions to many strangers at once.
If you are not yet convinced, take a look a the map – isn’t it beautiful ? And it is only one of the many ways to render OpenStreetMap data. Wanna make a cycling map with it ? Yes we can ! That is the whole point of the project – we can do whatever we want with the data, free in every way.
“OpenStreetMap has better coverage in some niche spaces than other mapping tools, making it very attractive resource for international development organizations. Want proof ? [..] we looked at capital cities in several countries that have been in the news lately for ongoing humanitarian situations – Zimbabwe, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For two our of the three, Mogadishu and Kinshasa, there is simply no contest – OpenStreetMap is way ahead of the others in both coverage and in the level of detail. OpenStreetMap and Google Maps are comparable in Harare. The data available through Microsoft’s Virtual Earth lagged way behind in all three”.