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Do-it-yourself mapping project empowering people to come up with data in their own local region

18 October 2006 – “Trap” streets, phantom churches, and typos are just some of the dangers travelers might face when navigating the streets of Great Britain. That’s because, unlike in the United States, the British government holds copyright on the data it produces—including maps—and it licenses that data mostly to corporate buyers.

In rare cases, corporate map producers have added a ghost or two to the government’s data: nuggets of false information known as Easter eggs that serve as clues for protecting copyrights. Earlier this year London’s Guardian newspaper cracked one such Easter egg—a trap street identified as the nonexistent cul-de-sac of Lye Close—in the A-Z Map Company’s street map for the English city of Bristol. After the report was released, an A-Z representative promised to delete the fake feature in all future maps.

But such tactics are just one of the reasons that critics such as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, say that government-monopolized data stifles innovation and hinders the public good. “There’s a moral argument that says, for a well-run country, we should know where we are, where things are, and that data should be available,” Berners-Lee told an audience at Britain’s University of Oxford in March.

In response to this charge, some map enthusiasts are doing for geography what the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has done for reference books. Armed with the latest global positioning system (GPS) technology, volunteers are creating a wholly user-generated alternative to commercial maps.

The results so far are no match for the depth and breadth of government and corporate products. But industry innovators say they just need time to grow. “Imagine the early days of Wikipedia,” said Steve Coast, founder of the OpenStreetMap project. “You’d find amazingly good articles on obscure computer stuff. But you [wouldn’t] find anything interesting on Winston Churchill.”

OpenStreetMap is a Web-based project that aggregates hundreds of users’ personally collected GPS data into master files that trace out thousands of streets and byways, primarily around the United Kingdom.

The two-year-old project is an extension of the open-source software movement, a community of enthusiasts who believe that relevant programs and data—such as online maps—should be freely accessible to the public for use, modification, and distribution.

“When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves,” the nonprofit Open Source Initiative says on its Web site. “People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.”

To create their open-source maps, OpenStreetMap volunteers travel through a region on foot, by bike, or by car with a handheld GPS transponder that logs their route. When a traveler returns home, he or she downloads the GPS data to a computer and uploads the raw file to OpenStreetMap’s Web site.

Contributors can also add detailed information, such as street names and the kinds of streets or roads being mapped. The results initially look like a child’s cartoon scribbles, with gray lines delving in all directions and often doubling back on themselves. The GPS traces are then compiled into a digital street map that can be viewed, edited, and shared by anyone with an Internet connection.

Currently the OpenStreetMap road map of Great Britain isn’t anything that would give the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, much competition. A few regions’ streets are now more or less fully traced out, such as the Isle of Wight and the city of Bath (U.K. photos, maps, music, more). But the vast majority of U.K. roads, highways, and paths remain uncharted.

Still, Ed Parsons, Chief Technical Officer of the Ordnance Survey, says he welcomes OpenStreetMap and their open-source mission. “I know the people behind OpenStreetMap very well,” he said. “We often meet with them and have a chat and a beer. “They’re coming at the needs of a particular group in the marketplace that really Ordnance Survey doesn’t fulfill,” he continued.

“We spend all our time capturing this really detailed large-scale data. From that we derive smaller scale, less detailed, less current products. “But because of our nature as a trading firm, we have to license that commercially for everybody.”

Most government map data are intended—and priced—for industrial and corporate applications, not everyday consumers. Licensing a high-resolution topographic map of Great Britain for a year, for example, can cost about 4.9 million British pounds (9.4 million U.S. dollars).

And financial barriers aren’t the only issues facing digital mappers worldwide—many are also hindered by a lack of technological compatibility. Frank Warmerdam of Ottawa, Canada, is president of the newly formed nonprofit Open Source Geospatial Foundation.
He says that OpenStreetMap could one day help with the pervasive problem in the map world of synching up data produced by multiple countries’ mapping agencies.

“People in many parts of the world are dependent on what we call VMap0 data, which is basically … the lowest resolution data that the U.S. military uses,” Warmerdam said. “For many people in many countries, it was the only way they could get provincial boundaries, things like that, because to get them out of their own native mapping agencies was a big nightmare.”

OpenStreetMap could provide a potentially useful alternative to VMap0, Warmerdam says. But it too would have its limitations. “I don’t really see [OpenStreetMap] as being a good universal solution, but I think it’s a locally empowering solution for people to come up with data in their own local region that isn’t otherwise available,” Warmerdam said.

“I don’t see this as being a replacement for fixing government policy,” he continued.
“But boy, it’s nice that at least in a local community, you can just go ahead and do what you need to do and not be dependent on the government to help you.”