Foreword

(or skip this and jump straight to the actual content)

‘Free’ is an interesting word in English, particularly when pertaining to software and services. Although the original meaning of the word was pertaining to the concept of freedom, it has gained extensive use as a short form for “free of charge”, i.e. gratis, without requiring any (direct, obvious) payment.

Now, while context can usually help clarify which meaning is intended in modern usage, there are situations in which one of them is intended but the other is understood. For example, the sentence “that slave is now free” can mean that it has attained freedom, or that it is being given away (to another slave owner.)

A context where the ambiguity cannot be resolved automatically is that of software and services; in fact, the duplicity of the meaning has been plaguing the free software movement since its inception, which is why now the FLOSS acronym is often used: Free/Libre Open Source Software. The Libre is there to clarify what that Free is supposed to mean.

Of course, free (as in freedom) software and services tend to also be free of charge (and thus gratis), which is what makes them appealing to the large public who is not particularly interested in the ideology behind the software freedom movement.

And specifically to highlight how important the difference between the two concepts is, I'm going to discuss two distinct approaches to making worldwide maps available to the public: one which is free (as in gratis), but essentially closed, and the other which is free (as in libre), and open.

An introduction

Recently, Google has started offering “tourism boards, non-profit, government agencies, universities, research organizations or other entities interested” the possibility to borrow Google's Street View Trekker to help extend Google Maps' Street View.

To clarify, Google is “offering” these subjects the opportunity to expend the subjects' human resources to expand Google's own database. A company whose business is data gathering is giving other entities the “opportunity” to contribute to their data gathering efforts —for free1.

In simpler words, this is a bank asking people to donate money to them, but spinning it as an opportunity.

Google Maps

An objection that I'm sure will be raised is that this is not really like a bank asking for monetary donations, because banks' services are not free (of charge). For example, they loan money at a cost (the interest rate). By contrast, Google's services (and particularly Google Maps and its Street View feature) are free (of charge).

The objection is deeply flawed by the misconception about what Google services are, misconception driven by the inability to realize the difference between Google's consumers and Google's customers.

Google's consumer services (most publicly known Google services: Search, Mail, Maps, Picasa, now Plus) are as much a service as the cheese in a mouse trap is a meal. Their purpose is not to provide the service to the consumer, but to gather data about him or her.

Google is in the business of data gathering. Gathering data about people, gathering data about things people might be interested in. Selling this data to its customers (directly or indirectly) is what Google makes money off: the main income stream is advertisement, targeted advertisement that relies on your usage of Google's consumer services to see what you might be interested in. (And I'm not even getting into the NSA debacle because that would really steer us off topic.)

The key point is understanding who owns and controls the data, which in the case of Google Maps and Street View is Google. While the data is (currently) being made available back to Google's consumers free of charge, in post-processed form, that data remains solidly in the hands of Google, that may choose to use it (or not) as they see fit.

To the potential question “why would Google ever not make the data accessible?” (through its consumer services), the correct answer is, sadly, why not.

Google is in fact (in)famous for discontinuing services now and then, the most recent one being its Reader feed aggregator, the upcoming one being the personalized iGoogle page. But there is in fact one service that was discontinued so silently most people even failed to notice it got discontinued: wireless geolocation.

Google and wireless geolocation

Wireless geolocation is the computation of the location of a wireless device based on which wireless transmitters (of known location) it sees and the strength of the signal. This is typically used with cellphones, for example, based on which cell towers they see and the respective signal strength. It can be used with WiFi devices (laptops, smartphones, tablets, whatever) based on which wireless routers are visible —provided you know the position of the routers.

Now, as it happens, when Google was driving around in their Google Street View Cars snapping pictures for their Street View consumer service, they were also gathering information about wireless routers. The data thus gathered could be used by another Google consumer service, the geolocation API: you could ask Google “where am I if I see such and such routers with such and such signal strengths?” and Google would provide you with an approximate latitude and longitude.

(And let's skip the part where Google was collecting much more than the information needed for geolocation, something that got them in trouble in Germany, although it only led to a ridiculously low fine.)

The wireless geolocation service was available to the public, but that access has been discontinued since 2011, and access to a similar service is only available for business (essentially to allow Android to keep using it), with stricter controls on the its access. So Google still has the data, it still uses it, but the services based on it are not available to the general public anymore. What would you think if something like this happened to data you were “offered” to contribute?

User contributions

In fact, Google interest in external contributions is not limited to the recent offer to use a Trekker: Google Maps now has a number of options to allow users to contribute, ranging from changes and fixes to the map itself, to geotagged panoramic photos publicly shared on Picasa (which can be used for Street View).

I suspect that Google has learned from the experience of OpenStreetMap (which I will discuss later on) how powerful ‘crowdsourcing’ can be, while requiring much less resources on the company's side.

So you can contribute to make Google Maps better. The question is: should you? Or rather, would you? If you're willing to spend whatever small amount of time to contribute to global mapping, why would you do it for a company for which this is business?

Open Street Map

OpenStreetMap (Wikipedia article) was born in 2004 in the UK with the aim of providing a free (as in freedom) map of the world.

It's important to note right from the start the huge difference between how OSM is free versus how Google Maps is free: the latter provides a service that is available to consumer free of charge, the former provides mapping data which is not only available free of charge to anybody, but the use of which is also subject to very little restrictions (the actual license is the Open DataBase License, which, as explained here, essentially, allows anyone to access, modify and make derivatives of the data, provided proper attribution is given and derivatives are shared with the same liberal terms).

So there are two distinctive differences.

The first difference pertains what is made available. Google Maps provides a front-end to Google's data: the visualization (and related services), available mostly through their website and smartphone applications. By contrast, OpenStreetMap provides the actual mapping data, although a slip-map to access it in human-usable form is also provided on the website.

The second difference pertains the terms of use of what is made available. Although Google allows (in fact, encourages) embedding of the maps in other websites (free of charge within certain limits), the Terms of Service are otherwise pretty restrictive. By contrast, the license under which OSM data is made available is quite liberal, in that it only prevents misappropriation of the data, or the imposing of further restrictions on its use (I debate the paradox of restricting restrictions elsewhere in Italian).

OpenStreetMap, as any other collaborative effort for a knowledge base, is such that it benefits from anybody's contribution, but in perfect reciprocity anybody can benefit from it. This is in contrast to situations (such as that of Google Maps) where there is one main entity with dominant interests and control on the data (Google benefits from user contributions, and Google again benefits from consumers using its services, and it can arbitrarily limit their use by third parties).

There are commercial interests in OpenStreetMap. While some are essentially unidirectional (Apple, for example, used OSM data in its photo application for the iPhone —at first without attribution, thereby actually violating the license), others try to build a two-way relationship.

For example, at Flickr they use OSM data for (some of) their maps, and they also introduced OSM-related machine tags that can be used to associate photos to the places they were taken at. Yahoo (the company that owns Flickr) and Microsoft allow usage of their satellite and aerial photos for ‘armchair mapping’ (more on this later). MapQuest (formerly, the mapping website) has an Open alternative that relies on OSM, and they have contributed to the open-source software that drives OpenStreetMap (the renderer, the geocoding and search engine, the online editor), and they have funded the improvement of the actual data.

In some nations, OSM data comes (partially) from government sources, either directly (government-sponsored contributions) or indirectly (through volunteer work from government data). In some ways, it's actually surprising that governments and local administrations are not more involved in the project.

Considering that OSM contribution is essentially voluntary, the amount of information that has been added is actually amazing. Of course, there are large inhomogeneities: places that are mapped to an incredible detail, others where even the most basic information is missing: this site maps the density of information present throughout the world, showing this discrepancy in a spectacular fashion.

Why use OSM

Many (most, likely) end users are not particularly interested with the ideology of a project, nor with the medium and long term consequences on relying on particular vendors. For the most part, what end users are interested in is that a specific product delivers the information or service they seek in an appropriate manner.

In this sense, as long as the information they need is present and accessible, a user won't particularly care about using OpenStreetMap or Google Maps or any other particular service (TomTom, Garmin, Apple Maps, whatever): they will usually go with whatever they have available at hand, or with whatever their cultural context tends to favor.

On the other hand, there are a number of reasons, ranging from the ethical to the practical, why using an open, free (as in freedom) service such as OpenStreetMap should be preferred over opting-in to proprietary solutions. (I will not discuss the ethical ones, since they may be considered subjective, or not equally meaningful to everybody.)

On the practical side, we obviously have a win of OSM over paid proprietary solutions: being open and free (as in freedom), the OSM data is available free of charge as well.

But OSM also wins —somewhat unexpectedly— over other free-of-charge services such as Google Maps, as I found out myself, in a recent discovery that brought me back to OpenStreetMap after my initial, somewhat depressing experience with it over four years ago: the Android application for Google Maps does not offer offline navigation.

Finding that such an otherwise sophisticated application was missing such a basic function was quite surprising. In my case (I own a Transformer Infinity without cellphone functionality) it also rendered Google Maps essentially useless: the application allows you to download map data for offline usage2, which is useful to see where you are even when you can't connect to the Internet, but the functionality to get directions from one place to another is not actually present in the application itself: it's delegated to Google's server.

I was amazed by the discovery, and I'm still wondering why that would be the case. I can understand that optimal routing may depend on some amounts of real-time information, such as traffic conditions, that may only be available with an Internet connection, but why would the navigation features be completely relying on the online service?3

Since the lack of offline navigation meant the Google Maps app on Android was useless for me, I started looking for alternatives, and this is how I found out about, and finally settled for, OsmAnd, an open source4, offline navigator for Android that uses open data (from OpenStreetMap, but also e.g. from Wikipedia).

The existence of applications such as OsmAnd is excellent to explain the importance of open data: when Google Maps does not offer a particular service, it is basically impossible for anybody else to offer it based on their data. By contrast, OpenStreetMap offers no services by itself (aside from basic map rendering), but gives other projects the opportunity —and this time we really mean opportunity, not in the ironic sense we used when discussing Google's outreach to get manpower for free— to provide all possible kinds of services on top of their data.

There are in fact a number of applications, both commercial and not, that provide services based on OSM data. They all benefit from the presence and quality of the data, and they often, in one way or another, give back to OSM. The relevance of OSM is not just in it being a free world mapping website. It's also in the healthy ecosystem which is growing around it.

More interesting, OpenStreetMap sometimes wins over any (gratis or paid) services also in terms of quality and amount of mapped data. This happens whenever the local interest for good mapping is higher than the commercial interests of large external companies providing mapping services. Many small, possibly isolated communities (an example that was pointed out to me is that of Hella, in South Iceland) tend to be neglected by major vendors, as mapping them tends to be high-cost with very little or no return, while local mappers can do an excellent job just being driven by passion.

Why not use OSM

For the end user there are some equally obvious reason why they should not, or cannot, use OpenStreetMap, the most important being, unsurprisingly, lack or low quality of the data.

Although the OSM situation has distinctly improved over time, it's quite evident that there are still huge areas where Google and other proprietary providers of mapping services have more detailed, higher quality data than OSM. Of course, in such areas OpenStreetMap cannot be considered a viable alternative to services such as Google Maps.

It should be noted however that the OSM data is not intrinsically ‘worse’ than the data available from proprietary sources such as Google. In fact, Google itself is well aware of the fact that the data they have is not perfect, which is why they have turned to asking users for help: the amount of manpower required to refine mapping data and keep it up-to-date is far from trivial, and this is precisely where large amounts of small contributions can give their best results.

(Of course, the point then is, who would you rather help refine and improve their data?)

Another important point to be considered, as highlighted by the disclaimer on OSM's own website, is that their data should not be considered the end-all-and-be-all of worldwide mapping; there are use cases for which their data, as complete and detailed as it may be, should still not be used, as its reliability cannot be guaranteed, and it's in no way officially sanctioned. (Of course, similar disclaimers also apply to other map service providers, such as Google itself and MapQuest.)

There are finally types of data which OSM does not collect, because they are considered beyond the scope of the project: things such as Street VIew, or real-time information about public transport, or even the presence and distribution of wireless transmitters (for geolocation purposes). For this OSM obviously can't be used, but this doesn't necessarily mean that Google is the only viable alternative. (More on this later.)

Why (and how to) contribute to OSM

There is a very simple, yet important reason to contribute to OpenStreetMap: the more people are involved, the more everyone benefits from the improvements in the amount and quality of the data, in sharp contrast to the actual beneficiaries of your donated time and efforts to assist a company that thereafter gains control of the data you provide. In other words, if you plan on spending time in improving map data, it would be recommendable to do it for OpenStreetMap rather than a proprietary provider such as Google.

Moreover, contributing nowadays is much simpler than it was in the past, both because of the much more extensive amount of data already available (yes, this makes contributing easier) and because the tools needed to actually provide new data or improving the existing ones are more generally available and easier to use.

I first looked into OpenStreetMap around 2008 or 2009, at a time in which the state of the database was still abysmal (in my whereabouts as in most of the rest of the world). Contributing also required nontrivial amounts of time and resources: it required a GPS device which satisfied some specific conditions in terms of interoperability and functionality, and the use of tools that were everything but refined and easy to use. I gave up.

Things now are much different: if you are in the northern hemisphere (or at least one of the ‘western’ countries), chances are that most of your whereabouts have already been mapped to a high level of detail, so that your efforts can be more focused and integrated. Moreover, dedicated tools such as JOSM or even in-browser editors are available and (relatively) user-friendly (considering the task at hand). Finally, data is much easier to collect, with GPS receivers built in most common smartphones and numerous applications specifically designed to assist in mapping.

Indeed, while trying out the aforementioned OsmAnd to see how viable a navigation app it would have been, I found out a couple of places in my whereabouts where the data was not accurate (e.g. roundabouts not marked as such) or was out of date (former crossing recently turned into roundabouts). This was what finally got me into OSM contribution, as fixing things turned out to be quite easy, when starting from the data already present.

There are a number of ways to contribute to OpenStreetMap, with varying degree of required technological prowess, time investment and relevance of the changes.

The simplest way to contribute to OSM, Notes, has been introduced quite recently; in contrast to other methods it doesn't even require an account on OSM, although having one (and logging in) is still recommended.

The purpose of Notes is to leave a marker to report a problem with a specific location in the map, such as missing or wrong data (such as a one-way street not marked as such or with the opposite direction). Notes are free-form contributions that are not an integral part of the actual map data. Rather, more experienced mappers can use Notes to enact the actual necessary changes on the data, thereby ‘closing’ the Note (for example, fixing the one-way direction of the street).

Notes are a powerful feature since they allow even the less experienced users to contribute to OSM, although of course manual intervention is still needed so that the additional information can be merged with the rest of the data.

Any other contribution to OSM requires an account registered with the site, and the use of an editor to change or add to the actual map data. The website itself offers an online editor (two of them, actually), which can be practical for some quick changes; more sophisticated processing, on the other hand, are better done with external editors such as the aforementioned JOSM.

The simplest change that can be done to map data is the addition or correction of information about Points of Interest (POIs): bars and restaurants, hotels, stations, public toilets, newsstands, anything that can be of interest or useful to residents and tourists alike.

POIs are marked using tags, key-value combinations that describe both the kind of Point and any specific information that might be relevant. For example, amenity=restaurant is used to tag a restaurant, and additional tags may be used to specify the type of cooking available, or the opening hours of the business.

Tagging is almost free-form, in the sense that mappers are free to choose keys and values as they prefer, although a number of conventions are used throughout the map: such common coding is what allows software to identify places and present them to the end-user as appropriate. Most editors come with pre-configured tag sets, allowing less experienced user to mark POIs without detailed knowledge of the tag conventions.

In fact, tags are used everywhere around OSM, since the spatial data itself only comes in two forms: points, that mark individual locations, and ‘ways’, ordered collections of points that can mark anything from a road to a building, so that tags are essential to distinguish the many uses of these fundamental types5.

Contributing to the insertion and improvement of POIs is mostly important in areas where most of the basic information (roads, mostly) has already been mapped.

In less fortunate places, where this information is missing, the best way to contribute is to roll up your sleeves and start mapping. This can be done in two ways.

The preferred way is to get ‘on the ground’ with some kind of GPS receiver (nowadays, most smartphones will do the job nicely) and some way to record your position over time, as you walk or drive around. The GPS tracks thus collected can then be imported into an OSM-capable editor, cleaned up, tagged appropriately and uploaded to OpenStreetMap.

Lacking such a possibility, one can still resort to ‘armchair mapping’, tracing satellite or aerial maps for which this kind of usage has been allowed (e.g. those by Yahoo and Microsoft). Of course, the information thus tracked is more likely to be inaccurate, for example because of incorrect geolocation of the imagery, or because the imagery is simply out of date. Such an approach should thereby only be chosen as a last resort.

Who should contribute to OSM

The obvious answer to such a question would be ‘everybody’, although there quite a number of possible objections.

For example, an interesting paradox about OSM is that the ones better suited to generate the data are not necessarily those that would actually benefit from it: locals have the best ground knowledge about their whereabouts, but exactly because of this they are also the least likely to need it from OSM.

This is where the reciprocity in the benefits of using OpenStreetMap comes into play: with everyone taking care of ‘their curb’, users benefit from each other's contributions.

Of course, there are some parties, such as local administrations and tourism boards, for which accurate mapping is beneficial per se; yet, there aren't many cases in which they are directly involved in the improvement of OSM data. While this may seem surprising, there are many possible explanations for this lack of involvement.

There are, of course, legal reasons: aside from possible licensing issues that the administrations would have to sort out (due to the liberal licensing of OSM data), there is also the risk that an involvement of the administrations could somehow be misrepresented as an official sanctioning of the actual data, a dangerous connotation for content which still maintains a high degree of volatility due to possible third party intervention6.

There is also the issue of knowledge about the existence of OpenStreetMap not being particularly widespread; as such, there is lack of a strong motivation in getting involved. (This, of course, is easily solved by spreading the word.) What's worse, even when the existence of OSM is known, the project is lightly dismissed as an amateurish knock-off of more serious services such as Google Maps.

As an aside, the latter problem is not unique to OSM, and is shared by many open projects in their infancy7 —think e.g. how the perception of Linux has changed over the years. The problem is that this triggers a vicious circle: the less complete OpenStreetMap is, the less it's taken seriously; the less it's taken seriously, the less people contribute to it, making it harder to complete.

This is another reason why every contribution counts: the need to break out of the vicious circle, reach a critical mass such that people will consider it normal to look things up in OpenStreetMap (rather than on other, proprietary services) and eventually fix or augment it as appropriate.

The easiest way to start getting involved is with the addition of Points Of Interest that are personally ‘of interest’. You have a preference for Bitcoins? Help map commercial venues that accept them. You have kids? Help map baby-friendly restaurants and food courts. Are you passionate about Fair trade? Guess what you can help mapping. You get tired easily while walking around? Map the benches. Did you just book a few nights in a hotel which is missing from the map? Add it.

And most of all, spread the world. Get people involved.

Other open map-related services

OpenStreetMap has a rather specific objective, which excludes a number of map-related information. For example, OSM does not provide nor collects street-level imagery, and thus cannot replace StreetView. It also doesn't provide or collect information about wireless transmitters, and thus cannot be used for wireless geolocation. It also doesn't provide or collect real-time information about traffic or public transport, and thus cannot be used for adaptive routing.

As such, OSM cannot be considered an integral replacement for Google Maps (or other non-open mapping services), even when the actual ground map data is on par or even superior (yes it happens). This is where other services, —similarly open, and often integrated with OSM itself— can be of aid, although their current status and quality is often significantly inferior both compared to the current status and quality of OpenStreetMap itself and (of course) compared to the proprietary solutions.

Wireless geolocation

For wireless geolocation, there are actually a number of different solutions available. The largest WiFi mapping project (WiGLE) provides data free of charge, but under a very restrictive license, and thus cannot be considered open by any standard, so we will skip over that.

OpenBMap, active since 2009, can be considered open by most standards: it provides client and server software under the GPL, and it provides the collected data (both raw and processed) under the same Open Database License as OpenStreetMap.

At the time of writing, the OpenBMap database is not very strong (less than 900K data points are present in the processed files that can be downloaded from the website). In itself, this is an issue that is easily remedied, since data gathering for wireless networks is trivial (when compared to e.g. ground mapping) and can be fully automated: improving the database is therefore just a matter of spreading the word and having more people contribute.

As driven by the best intentions as the project can be, however, contributions to it are brought down by an overall amateurish presentation, both at the website level (the aesthetics and layout could use some refinement) and at the software level: albeit open source, its development is not managed as openly as it could be8, which makes collaboration harder.

A more recent project is OpenWLANmap. This project also provides open source software for wireless geolocation, but the openness of its database is more dubious. The license is not clearly indicated anywhere on the website (although the GNU Free Documentation License is distributed with the database downloads), and the downloadable database is only a subset of the data used by the website (about 1.6M of more than 5M data points), leading to the question about what happens to the user-submitted data. In this sense, its openness could be challenged, until these issues are resolved.

Yet another similar project is Geomena, started more or less at the same time as OpenBMap, but with a different licensing (Creative Commons instead of the ODBL). This project seems to be particularly focused on presenting an easy-to-use API both for querying and for contributing to the database. However, quite a few links are broken and the project doesn't seem to have moved much forward both in terms of application development and in terms of database growth (at the time of writing, just about 25K access points are claimed to be available, and the link to download the data is not functioning).

This fragmentation, with application bits and partial data bases spread out across different projects, none of which manages to provide a complete, well-organized, functional solution, is probably the most detrimental situation we could have. Getting these project together, sharing the data base as well as the efforts to provide accessible data and applications would be beneficial to all.

Street-level imagery

While gathering information about wireless networks can be trivially automatized thanks to the widespread diffusion of smartphones and similar devices, the kind of street-level imagery that would be useful to provide an open alternative to Google StreetView is quite laborious to take without specialized hardware. Photo stitching applications and camera software with automatic support for 360° photography can come in handy, but having to do this manually every few meters remains a daunting task.

Additionally, pictures taken may need to be cleaned up by masking out sensitive data such as faces, car license plates or whatever else might need masking depending on where the photo was taken.

These are probably —currently— the most significant obstacles to the creation of a competitive StreetView alternative. Despite them, a few projects that try to provide street-level imagery have been born more or less recently.

We have for example the most obviously-named OpenStreetView, with strong ties to OpenStreetMap and the aim to become a repository of open-licensed street-level imagery. Other projects, such as Geolocation.ws, use a different approach, acting as a mapping hub of open-licensed, geolocalized photos hosted by other services (Panoramio, Flickr, etc).

While the considerable lack of imagery and the difficulty in obtaining it are undoubtedly the biggest issues these projects face, the unrefined user interfaces and consequent reduced usefulness aren't exactly of assistance.

Real-time traffic and public transport

This is probably the data which is hardest (possibly impossible) to obtain without direct involvement of the interested parties. While routes, stops, and even expected timetables can be mapped and integrated into the standard OpenStreetMap database, real-time information such as actual bus departure time and route progress, or temporary issues such as strikes, abnormal high traffic conditions, or roadworks are completely outside the scope of the OpenStreetMap data and impossible to maintain without a continuous stream of information coming from somewhere or someone.

Talking about openness for such volatile data which can almost only be provided by a central controller is also less important in some ways. A more interesting subject for this topic would be some form of common standard to have access to this data, in place of the plethora of proprietary, inhomogeneous APIs made available by a variety of transport systems throughout the world.

Still, it would be interesting if something was cooked up based on a principle similar to that used for Waze, the crowd-sourced crowd-avoidance navigation system recently acquired by Google9. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea if an open alternative to Waze was developed and distributed: enhancing it to include alternative transportation methods (on foot, by bus, by bicycle10) would have the potential of turning it into a viable tool, even surpassing Waze itself.

Heck, it would even be possible to use the last open-source version of the Waze source code as a starting point; of course, openness of the collected data would this time become a strong point in competing against the proprietary yet still crowd-sourced alternative, especially when combined with smart integration with OpenStreetMap and its flourishing ecosystem.

There's good potential there to set up the infrastructure for a powerful, open routing engines with real-time information providers. It just needs someone with the courage to undertake the task.

Some conclusions

There is little doubt, in my opinion, on the importance of open mapping data. The maturity reached by OpenStreetMap over the years is also an excellent example of how a well-focused, well-managed, open, collaborative project can achieve excellent results.

The power of crowd-sourcing is such that OSM has often reached, when not surpassed, the quality of proprietary mapping services, and this has become so evident that even these proprietary mapping services are trying to co-opt their consumers into contributing to their closed, proprietary databases by disguising this racking up of free manpower as an opportunity for the volunteers to donate their time to somebody else's profit.

The biggest obstacle to OpenStreetMap, as with any collaborative project, is getting people involved. The improvements in technology have made participation much easier than it was at the project inception, and the increasing amount and quality of base ground data makes it also much easier to get people interested, as the basic usability of the project is much higher (it's easier to get started by fixing small things here and there than starting from scratch an uncharted area).

There are also other map-related data which is not collected by OpenStreetMap, since it is deemed outside its scope. While other projects have tried stepping in to cover those additional aims, their success so far has been considerably inferior, due sometimes to fragmentation and dispersal of efforts, sometimes to hard-to-overcome technical issues. It is to be hoped that in time even these project will find a way to come together and break through just as OSM managed, disrupting our dependency on commercial vendors.


  1. You will notice an Italian tag for this article. Sorry, I couldn't miss the chance. ↩

  2. update (2013-07-10): apparently in the just-recently released version 7 of the app, offline maps feature has been ‘almost removed’: you can cache the area which is being shown with a completely non-obvious command (“OK maps”, who the fsck was the genius that came up with this), but the sophisticated management of offline maps that was present in earlier versions is gone. ↩

  3. this cannot be about computational power of the devices, since other applications offering offline routing for Android are available; this cannot be about the algorithm depending on some pre-computed optimal partial routes, since these could be downloaded together with the offline data. One possible explanation could be that offline routing is more likely to find less optimal routes due to lack of useful real-time information and limited computational power of the devices, and Google would rather offer an ‘all or nothing’ service: either you get the optimal routing computed on Google servers, or you don't get any routing at all —but this sounds stupid, since a simple warning that the route could not be optimal when offline would be sufficient. Another possible explanation is that offline routing prevents the kind of data gathering that Google is always so eager about; sure, Maps could still provide that information on the next chance to sync with Google, but that would make the data gathering obvious, whereas Google is always trying to be discreet about it. ↩

  4. while the application is open source, it is distributed for free only with reduced functionality, and only the paid version has all features built in, unless you compile application for yourself. ↩

  5. points and ways can additionally be collected in ‘relations’, which are used to represent complex information such as bus routes or collections of polygons that represent individual entities, but delving this deep into the more advanced features of OSM is off-topic for this article. ↩

  6. in other words, even if the data contributed by official sources could be considered official, against the OSM disclaimer, it could still be as easily subject to editing from other users, and thus the metadata about who made changes and when would rise to a much higher importance than what it has now; this could be solved with approaches such as ‘freezing’ these kind of official contributions, but this would require a change in the licensing terms, and go against the hallmark of OpenStreetMap, its openness. ↩

  7. and make no mistake that OpenStreetMap is still in its infancy, although it has been running already for almost 10 years now and is now reasonably usable in large parts of the world. Mapping is a daunting task, and the amount of information that can still be collected is orders of magnitude higher than what has already been done. ↩

  8. the project seems to follow a strategy where the source code is released with (when not after) the public release of the applications, in contrast to the more open approach of keeping the entire development process public, to improve feedback and cooperation with external parties. ↩

  9. in fact, the acquisition of Waze by Google is another indication of how much Google values the opportunity (for them) to use crowd-sourced data gathering to improve the (online-only) routing services they offer to their consumers, thereby further locking in consumers into using their services. ↩

  10. of course, cyclists already have OpenCycleMap, the OpenStreetMap-based project dedicated to cycling routes. ↩