The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'openstreetmap'


In other recent news, Apple launched the latest gadget yesterday, to much-anticipated adulation. There were few surprises in the overt details: the retina display showed up as everyone predicted, and the CPU and camera were also bumped up; oh, and it does LTE, which explains the enlarged battery.

The launch included a presentation demonstrating the new iPad and some new apps for it. Buried within the demonstration of a photo editing package was a bombshell: a fragment of a screen, seen briefly, showed a street map which looked distinctly unlike Google Maps (the mapping system used by iOS since the first iPhone), suggesting that Apple are about to move away from Google Maps to a different platform. Such a move wasn't entirely unanticipated; relations between Apple and Google have been icy recently, so it was only a matter of time until Apple moved to a different mapping system; Apple's acquisition of several mapping-related companies, which promptly disappeared beyond the Cupertino event horizon, suggested that Apple would roll its own system. The only questions were when and what form would it take.

More clues emerged when the iPhoto app became available: (examination of internet traffic from iPhoto revealed that the map tiles were being loaded from a server named, and soon, someone rigged up an unofficial web-based map viewer using the tiles. Finally, it was revealed that Apple are using data from OpenStreetMap for their maps, though rolling their own tiles. The service seems to be in its early stages so far; the resolution stops a few zoom levels short of street-map level and the data they're using is based on a slightly old snapshot of OpenStreetMap, though it's still pretty big news.

Apple's move to OpenStreetMap is the latest in a wave of defections from the once-ubiquitous Google Maps (FourSquare moved a few weeks ago and other sites have been moving to it, propelled by the carrot of OpenStreetMap's high-quality (and rich) data set and the stick of Google moving more aggressively to monetise their maps. As for other mapping services, they don't seem to be getting much of the action; Microsoft's Bing has Facebook, probably because Microsoft own 1% of Facebook, and Flickr still uses Yahoo!'s own mapping system. However, neither looks set to steal the crown from Google, as there isn't likely to be a crown to steal soon.

It looks like online geodata may have approached the tipping point that electronic encyclopædias reached with Wikipedia and UNIX on commodity hardware (remember commercial PC UNIX?) reached with Linux: the point beyond which it makes no economic or business sense to go it alone, and where proprietary products are an evolutionary dead end.

It'll be interesting what the UK's Ordnance Survey, for long the dog in the manger of geodata, will make of the new shifting environment it finds itself in.

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Meanwhile, it looks like OpenStreetMap may be on the verge of doing to commercial, closed mapping services (such as Google Maps and Microsoft's Bing Maps) what Wikipedia did to Encyclopaedia Britannica's previously unassailable position. Wikipedia's David Gerard suggests that mapping and geodata may be the next dinosaur to sink into the tarpit; now that Google are moving to squeeze more revenue out of their popular Maps product, some businesses are finding that it makes more sense to use OpenStreetMap, and invest in improving it where it falls short:

I think that someone at Google got their pricing wrong by an order of magnitude. Large companies might be willing to pay that kind of licenses, but this is not the CMS market in 1998, where people would pay half a million for a Vignette license and another million for Oracle. There are so many open source options out there that the value of proprietary solutions has come down dramatically.
And no less a publication than Wired has an article on switching to OpenStreetMap:
Since Nestoria made the switch to OSM, he says, the company has received almost no complaints about the change in its map background. Some users in remote areas of Europe, he adds, have even praised the new interface for the details it provides on their little towns. What’s more, in making the switch to OSM, Nestoria gained some flexibility it never had with Google.
Among the takeaways from the article: old-school mapping company MapQuest (remember them? they were around in the ancient NCSA Mosaic days when slideable maps didn't exist, and you had to click on one of eight arrows to move to the next square), once vanquished by Google Maps, having been reborn as a frontend and contributor to OSM. Which suggests that OSM has achieved the sort of critical mass that going it alone to compete with the dominant vendors makes as little sense as Google's in-house Wikipedia competitor Knol (which they euthanased a year or two ago).

Google may not be taking the market for their mapping product being commodified lying down: there are reports of someone polluting OpenStreetMap data, coming from the same IP addresses belonging to a Google unit in India who were earlier caught trying to rip off a Kenyan crowdsourced business directory. (Given that Google have in the past contributed to OpenStreetMap, this seems somewhat out of character; unless the gloves have come off and "don't be evil" has been declared a non-core promise.)

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Google Earth scores another scalp; thanks to its satellite imagery, a group of amateurs has been able to build up a comprehensive picture of North Korea, thwarting the hermit kingdom's hermetic borders. The picture is, as one might expect, not a pretty one:

Among the most notable findings is the site of mass graves created in the 1990s following a famine that the UN estimates killed about 2 million people. "Graves cover entire mountains," Melvin said.
The palaces housing dictator Kim Jong Il and his inner circle, clearly shown on the maps, contain Olympic-size swimming pools with giant waterslides and golf courses.
The data is available as a Google Earth layer, peppered with detailed landmarks, from the project's web site. While Google Earth was crucial to it, other information sources, from sketches by defectors and escapees to the North Korean state press's own carefully circumscribed reports of the God-Emperor Dear Leader's visits, has helped to put labels on it.

The authors of the data have notified North Korean embassies about it but, for some reason, received no response.

Meanwhile, OpenStreetMap has actual maps of North Korea (sometimes even with labels); here, for example, is central Pyongyang.

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Britain's local councils and government departments have started to embrace web-based mapping technology, and using systems like Google Maps to display geographical information, from the locations of public toilets and recycling facilities to crime statistics. Of course, the Ordnance Survey, that troll under the bridge of UK geodata, doesn't like this one bit, and has started making threatening noises at local councils, warning them that they are prohibited from putting any data that has ever touched Ordnance Survey data on Google Maps. Of course, they might be willing to take a more agreeable line if the councils (and consequently, the taxpayers) paid them more to license the data (which was gathered using taxpayers' money, and subsequently privatised in line with Thatcherite-Blairite ideology) for web-based maps; in the meantime, they have offered the councils their own Google Maps substitute, which comes with its own poisonous licensing conditions:

The move also seems to block most of the winners of Cabinet Office's recently completed £80,000 Show Us A Better Way competition to find innovative ways to use government-held data. The winner of that competition, a site called Can I Recycle It?, would rely on locating local recycling centres - which OS could argue has been derived from its maps if a council keeps them with any sort of geographical referencing. The same would be true of another winner, Loofinder, which aims to make locations of public toilets available in a map online, just as described above.
Although OS issued a press release congratulating the competition winners and offering them "full access" to its Google Maps-like OpenSpace system - which has similar programmability - the OpenSpace licence limits the number of viewings allowed per day, and bans any use by business, central or local government. Furthermore, OS claims ownership of any data plotted on an OpenSpace-derived map. And the use of derived data would break its licence with authorities.
However, this time this may have consequences the OS weren't anticipating; some councils are now making noises about buying a few GPS units and paying people to go around, collect coordinates of boundaries and facilities, and plug them into OpenStreetMap, essentially telling the Ordnance Survey to go jump.

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A few years ago, a few geeks in the UK, displeased with the Ordnance Survey's hoarding of taxpayer-funded mapping data, decided to do something about it, and so OpenStreetMap was born. Based on the same principle as Wikipedia, it used the power of internet-based grass-roots organisation to allow people to make their own maps, walking roads with GPS units, uploading the traces and giving them names. Out-of-copyright vintage maps and donated satellite data, among other things, helped a bit.

As you can imagine, in the early days, it wasn't much to look at. There were networks of roads, though most of them weren't named, and a lot were missing. You could sort of make out where you were, if you knew the place well. The interface was also somewhat slow and clunky, compared to Google Maps (a variation on whose draggable-tiled-map theme it was).

After a year or two, I looked at OpenStreetMap again today, and the story couldn't be more different. Where once was a slow, unusably incomplete tangle of rectilinear spaghetti, now there are street maps, as comprehensive and neatly rendered as Google and Yahoo!'s efforts, animated with a fast, responsive JavaScript interface (nothing you won't be familiar with if you haven't used Google Maps). Scrolling around the UK and zooming in on London brought familiar street plans, albeit in a new rendering. In fact, the (rather nifty) real-estate search mashup Nestoria even have a parallel version of their site which uses OpenStreetMap; the user experience is virtually identical to the main, Google Maps-based one. (For what it's worth, Nestoria uses something called Mapstraction, a browser-side JavaScript library that allows different mapping providers to be used interchangeably, but I digress.)

And as cool as a free-as-in-libre map of Great Britain might be (to one who lives there: pretty cool; your mileage may vary), that's not the extent of it. The OpenStreetMap project's scope is global; the developers created a canvas the size of the Earth's surface, with land masses and the locations of cities filled in, and allowed volunteers to contribute to it, wiki-fashion. Soon, OpenStreetMap had maps for Europe, North America and Australia like the commercial competitors. More interestingly, places which, to the big boys, are terra incognita often show up (in varying degrees) on OpenStreetMap.

Some are impressively comprehensive; for example, OSM's maps of Reykjavík (and, indeed, Iceland's second city, Akureyri) and Buenos Aires are as thorough as anything you'd expect from Google, were they to bother. Harare, whilst looking quite sparse, is more detailed than on Google's maps, and the Papua New Guinean capital of Port Moresby seems fairly comprehensively drawn. Even Pyongyang has a surprising amount of detail (though one probably can't blame OpenStreetMap for most of the streets being seemingly unnamed); I imagine that as soon as North Korea allows unrestricted tourism, long before the first McDonalds goes up, tourists will be dragging cached OpenStreetMap tiles on their jailbroken iPhones as they negotiate its broad Stalinist boulevards.

Being based on free data, OpenStreetMap has other advantages over its commercial cousins. Each map comes with an Export tab, which lets you grab the displayed area in a variety of formats, from rendered pixmaps to SVG or PostScript to the actual raw data. With it being under the Creative Commons, you are free to do as you like with the data (subject to a "share alike" proviso if you commercialise it). And with it having the agility of the Wiki age, OpenStreetMap is starting to steal a march on its competitors; for example, it was the first map to show Heathrow Terminal 5 correctly.

Of course, OpenStreetMap is by no means perfect. parts of the world are still uncovered (much of the Russian interior), or only covered with major roads (much of Africa). And their rendering algorithm doesn't seem to do Chinese or Japanese characters, rendering most of China's place names as rows of boxes. (If one is picky, one could request transliterations of foreign character sets; perhaps this could be done as user-selectable layers.) There is no route-finding capability (of the sort that Google Maps has). But all in all, OpenStreetMap is very impressive, and a spectacular success.

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In Britain, there is little free map data. There is an excellent map of the whole of Britain, assembled by the government's Ordnance Survey, but, in line with Thatcherite-Blairite ideology, which holds that not extracting the maximum profit is a grievious dereliction of duty, this is commercial and expensive. (In contrast, the United States Geographical Survey's maps are in the public domain, the reasoning being that, as they were assembled with public funds, they belong to the public.) A group of mapping geeks and free-culture activists under the banner of OpenStreetMap are working to reverse this by creating their own maps; they have a wiki-like system to which volunteers with GPS units can upload traces of streets they have walked down and such. This weekend, they are having a working bee of sorts, intensively mapping the Isle of Wight. More than 30 volunteers will descend on the island, walking its many paths with GPS units and uploading their traces to the wiki; of course, the more the merrier, so if you have a GPS unit and a belief that information wants to be free.

It is hoped that this project, and the OpenStreetMap project in general, will force a sea change in the ownership of geographical data in the UK, much in the way that the Sanger Institute's human-genome sequencing effort in Cambridge made it unfeasible for Celera Genomics to exercise proprietary control over the human genome.

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