Timothy Lord:Serge, last week you wrote an article that got quite a bit of play about why the world needs OpenStreetMap. What did that article come out of? What’s the background, and why does the world need OpenStreetMap?
Serge Wroclawski:Well, I wrote this blog post about three weeks ago after meeting with an old family friend and answering the same question over and over which is: “Why do we need OpenStreetMap where there are all these providers, especially Google Maps?” The question that I would get is: “Why do we need OpenStreetMap when we’ve got Google Map?” “Why do I need OpenStreetMap when there is TomTom or any of those other products?” Normally in the OpenStreetMap community, we answer this by talking about the pragmatic benefits of OpenStreetMap. But I thought it was a good time to really talk about the ethical issues and the personal privacy issues associated with these mapping providers and contrast them with OpenStreetMap.
Tim:Give some examples of where there is a privacy issue that OpenStreetMap becomes a superior alternative for someone who is going to plan a route or mark a location—what are some examples of that?
Serge:Sure, so anytime you use—and I am just going to use Google as an example—anytime you use Google Maps you are giving Google information about where you are, where you want to go. When you use Google on the phone, the Google Maps on the phone, it knows exactly where you are and knows what speed you are traveling for example—you give all that information away. With OpenStreetMap you can download all of the map data for where you are, where you are going beforehand and then use that route. So you don’t have to give any external provider any information, not even OpenStreetMap.
Tim:So when you create a mapped point on OpenStreetMap you are revealing a certain amount of information but it is not in the same way?
Serge:Well, you don’t have to actually give OpenStreetMap any information about where you are going. You can just download all that data onto your phone, or onto your computer, display that data and work on it locally. As opposed to a provider where they could store all the data themselves.
Tim:Serge, between a provider like Google Maps or another commercial provider, all the information in OpenStreetMaps is provided by public sources, by participants. How does the data stack up right now? What is the criticalmass? Is it as usable as Google Maps, or more so, what is the depth of the data that you have for the actual mapping information?
Serge:That is a great question, and it greatly depends on where you are. So if you are in a country like Germany the OpenStreetMap data is far superior to what you are going to get from another commercial mapping provider. If you are in a country like the UK it is roughly on par or slightly better. If you are in a country like Haiti, OpenStreetMap is the absolute best provider of mapping data. If you are in the United States, we have a little bit of work to do but depending on the location, we are slowly coming on par.
Tim:Now the tools that someone uses to add map data, how at best are they right now? Is it easy for someone to take a phone and just walk around, and say, “Here’s my street” and contribute to the database. How does someone know what information is needed?
Serge:That’s a great question.The way that someone would know what was needed is they would look at a display on their phone, or tablet or computer and they would see that ‘Gee, this data here is either missing or it is wrong,’ and they could absolutely use a phone to collect that data and either upload it when they get home. Or there are mapping applications that work directly on the phone. Or they can collect that data with a GPS, we have paper maps that you can draw on and scan into OpenStreetMap. So there are a variety of methods to collect that data from users.
Tim:You mentioned that one of the places where the OpenStreetMap data is actually richer than the commercial providers is a place like Haiti. So in a poor country like that, what are the opportunities to take part—how are the actual map data points added there? Is it mostly by NGOs, is it by volunteers who are on the site for that reason? How does that work? How do you get all the information?
Serge:Well, the way that works is that in 2010, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I believe, thousands of volunteer mappers from around the world came together to map the damage that was caused. Since then, an organization has grown called the Humanitarian Open Street Map team. And Humanitarian Open Street Map coordinates mapping efforts in various developing nations. They do all the ground mapping there with locals, and they also encourage people from all around the world to contribute to the map using public data resources.
Tim:And the maps they create, it sounds like are much more useful than whatever is on hand, owned by the Government entities that are already on the street.
Serge:That’s right. We’ve been complimented by organizations such as the Red Cross, the United Nations and others for the depth and how current our maps are. So our maps are more detailed, more accurate, and just generally better. Not only for their accuracy and depth but also you can download an OpenStreetMap map, put it on a GPS that doesn’t have the internet connectivity, and walk around with it. That’s not something that you can do typically with these other mapping providers.
Tim:Now on the other end of the spectrum, you are sitting right now in one of the most heavily populated, heavily dense, and heavily mapped areas in the entire world. What happens with a place like Manhattan when it comes to a project like OpenStreetMap? What’s the worth and what’s the use of mapping a place that has had people living on it for so long and in such close proximity? What do you get out of OpenStreetMap in New York?
Serge:Well there are two answers to your questions. The first is that on a personal level, yes, people have been mapping here, and there are very accurate detailed maps from other mapping providers, but there is no one cohesive pre map resource of the city that includes all the street data, all of the building data, all of the addresses, all of the shops, everything at once. Nothing exists like that other than OpenStreetMap.
So we are really the only mapping resource of that kind even in a place like New York City. I also want to add that in a place like New York City, we have a ton of change—not only do we have shops opening and closing, we have buildings that come down, new buildings are constructed, and we have a lot of road work that is being done especially as the city becomes more bike friendly.
That data is not updated on other maps as quickly as it can be on OpenStreetMap. When the city put in a bike lane on my street, I could add that data, and in fact, I did, on just that day. So I looked down, saw that someone in the city had added a bike line, and that bike line was on OpenStreetMap in just a few minutes. That’s not what any other mapping provider can do at this time. The advantage for a commercial entity is that they can have access to this data completely free.
And that is a really big advantage in a market where these giant entities whether they be corporations or governments, have typically had monopoly over this data. So it reduces the barrier of entry for a company that would like to display maps on their website, or use maps in their applications. Whatever they want to do, that barrier goes from maybe from tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars down to zero.
Tim:Now that raises a question that I think people ask often about Wikipedia which is essentially: What’s in it for you, when businesses can use and repurpose this kind of information?How do they bring enough to the OpenStreetMap project in so doing to make it worth, that people like you to keep contributing?
Serge:Well, we have several companies that are contributing to OpenStreetMap directly. We have companies that map directly. In OpenStreetMap we have companies that will negotiate with governments to try to get us access to data resources. We have companies that will support us financially. So these companies have a role in it, to make sure that this resource is available to everyone. It is essentially the open source model but applied to mapping data.
Tim:Now one thing too, when it comes to things that are crowdsourced is that lots of people can contribute data.Sometimes there is going to be disagreement, whether it is pure mistake or difference of opinion. So what happens when someone labels the same point in a different way or wants to overwrite someone else’s description?
Serge:Well, I wrote a blog post on this just about a week ago actually, where I discussed the issues of edit wars in OpenStreetMap. The fact of the matter is that edit wars are very uncommon in OpenStreetMap unlike in a place like Wikipedia where they are extremely common. In OpenStreetMap, the measure of quality is the measure of truth and accuracy. If I can go down the ground, and look at a feature and see: Is that store here? Is there a building here?
Is that address correct?-there is very little to dispute. Somebody else might disagree that it is a building, but if it is clearly a building then is really no argument.So we don’t typically have those kinds of issues of edit wars. We do have new people who make mistakes, and we do correct them. People like myself and others monitor areas, and encourage new users to correct their edits when necessary. And we occasionally have vandals, and vandals are usually dealt with pretty quickly by enthusiastic members of the community who see their work being damaged, and they step in and correct it.
Tim:One thing I am curious about as OpenStreetMap which is now in its tenth year, has obviously gone from 0 data points 11 years ago, I guess, to enough that you can now navigate large parts of the world with it. What about the depth of the data that is contained on those maps, now that you can navigate from place to place in huge stretches of the world? Google Maps has added things like three-dimensional pictures of buildings and overlays. In OpenStreetMap, do you anticipate incorporating other sources of information, things like the current temperature, can you look at a weather map and overlay it on your OpenStreetMap based map?
Serge:Well, there are a couple of issues. I want to correct you just on one small point which is that OpenStreetMap is coming up to its tenth anniversary this year—we are currently nine years old. But to your larger question about adding external data sets to OpenStreetMaps such as temperature, that is absolutely possible. OpenStreetMap allows you to download the data and mix it in with other data sets.
So it would certainly be possible and not very difficult at all, to take OpenStreetMap and project a weather map on top of it. Or to take OpenStreetMap and to use it as part of your research—it is very easy. We want it to be easy to do such things. That’s why OpenStreetMap allows you to download the raw geographic information, and not just access it as a map. A common misconception about OpenStreetMap is that we are not just a visual map like Google Maps. We are actually a full geographic data set which allows you to analyze each element of the map. So you can take a road and look at its component parts, take a building apart, and see how it is constructed in terms of the map.
To your question about 3-D mapping and other features, we often get questions about: Can we do 3-D maps? Can we do StreetView or more advanced things, or more interesting, I shouldn’t say interesting but certainly more fancy products? Can you build it over OpenStreetMap? OpenStreetMap is currently designed for 2-D maps. We’ve found that 2-D maps are easy to work with and get you the data, but we have been adding 3-D features. So for example, we can say in OpenStreetMap a building is this tall. Or a part ofthe building is this tall. Or this building has so many floors. Through that, you can construct 3-D maps.
There are people who had taken OpenStreetMap data and added it to for example, flight simulators. And they are creating 3-D maps out of OpenStreetMap data. You can also take external data sets like elevation, and construct more accurate representations of the earth based on OpenStreetMap 2-D data set along with the topology data.
Now as to questions about things like is OpenStreetMap something like OpenStreet view? We’ve had a couple of projects based on OpenStreetMap that have tried that. It is something that I think there is a lot of interest in. There are some technical hurdles that we need to overcome. But I do believe that if not OpenStreetMap, you will see a project like OpenStreetMap going forward that will have that.
Tim:The way that OpenStreetMap is used right now, as you say, there is this huge depth of data points that are available, but one thing I found is thatI put an OpenStreetMap in one of the many viewers that are available on my phone, and I found that it wasn’t all that satisfying. What sort of recommendations do you have if people want to use OpenStreetMap for purposes of actual day-to-day navigation—are there any tools that you recommend to people?
Serge: In regard to mobile applications, OpenStreetMap doesn’t officially create any mobile applications for displaying or navigating.What we have is we provide the geographic data set, and we allow third parties to create applications based on that. Some of those applications are proprietary. Some of those applications are free and open source. There is a variety depending on the platform you are using. Whether you are using iPhone or Android or Windows Phone there are a variety of mapping applications and a variety of navigation apps. I don’t want to make any particular recommendations because new ones come out all the time, and they are each very good at one particular thing. So my recommendation is to ask around, there are plenty of questions on Help Desk, openstreetmap.org and look at our Wiki at wiki.openstreetmap.org for recommendations, and try a few out, and see which one you like.
Tim:Well, Serge, what are you using? What is your typical as a power user what sort of tools do you use to interface with the project yourself?
Serge:I personally have an Android phone so I use OsmAnd for navigation. It does offline maps, so I can download a city or even a whole country at once, and use it for navigation. It even does voice navigation so it will tell you when to turn. For mapping I use a variety of applications—Jeez, I can’t remember the name of it now—but I use a variety of mapping applications for actual data collection. I use some that to collect tracks, I use photos, and I use my GPS, and I combine all that when I am actually out on the street mapping.
Tim:It seems like that there is a lot in common, it seems to me, with amateur radio, in that you can take part just by gathering some points and taking part even if you are not contributing anything significant, that is to say, ona world global scale, to adding to the data set. If people want to look at it that way, and start actually adding their own data points, where would you first send them?
Serge:So the first thing I would do if I were starting up an OpenStreetMap is I would start just by zooming into where I live, or where I work, and start looking for things that I know are there. So for example, if my favorite restaurant isn’t on OpenStreetMap I would add it. If a road doesn’t look quite right, or there is a road that’s missing, I would add that. If somebody wants something a little more structured there are applications that run on top, or that use OpenStreetMap data such as MapRoulette which is a program, it is a website that lets you look at the map, and it gives you a problem to solve, some kind of geographic issue or error in the map, you can correct that, and just keep playing and see how many of these things you can fix.
For those starting on OpenStreetMap for the first time, the way I would do it is, I would start by zooming into the area that I live or work, seeing if there was anything wrong with the map, so correcting any mistakes, but also adding anything that’s missing. So if there are stores that are missing that I frequent, restaurants, if there is a bike trail that’s missing, or even if there’s a road missing, I would start by adding that in. It is filling out features that might not be there in OpenStreetMap. We are looking for things that might be wrong, and need correcting.
If I wanted something a little more structured, there are websites like maproulette.org which provide you with an OpenStreet land map and show you various errors or problems or questions about the map that you can try to edit; gradually you get more and more challenges, and you fix the map one problem at a time. That’s fun for an afternoon, but I really recommend that people go outside, collect data with their phone, collect data with their GPS, and really learn about the area they live in and contribute to OpenStreetMap directly by map survey.