Google Map Maker and OpenStreetMap – My five cents

Update 1-7 : New evidence blows my best-case scenario out of the water, but no worries (see below)
Update 1-7, on hour later : Or perhaps it does not, just keep the popcorn close

For those of you who have been sleeping for the past couple of hours, Google just released a map making application. Now everyone can add streets to Google maps. It is currently only available for a couple of countries where Google has very little map data, but I’m sure they will scale it up in the future. Many people, including me, will probably wonder what that will mean for the OpenStreetMap project.
There is a blog post on BlinkGeo about this:

Will Google play nice and make the crowd-sourced data available for use in applications other than Google Maps and in some common format (hint hint, KML)? Who ultimately should own the data?

The OpenGeoData blog is not very positive about the development. Steve writes:

The fundamental reasons for OpenStreetMap remain intact and if anything are now stronger. At first glance it sounds like OpenStreetMap, until you realise that Google own that data you give them, there’s no community and you are unlikely to see use of the data in ‘creative, productive, or unexpected ways’.

I am personally a bit more positive about the situation. My guess is that because Google set this up in a hurry to help out with the Myanmar disaster relief, they did not have time to think about copyright issues or to communicate with the OpenStreetMap community on how to prevent duplicate effort. They probably had their legal department come up with a standard data licence in a hurry; as Steve noticed:

The terms of use are hilarious – the bottom line seems to be that Google ends up owning excusively the entire aggregate work, but it is your fault if anything goes wrong.

As a side note on duplicate effort, I’ve heard several people claim that the time it took to create Wikipedia, is the time US people spend every weekend watching ads. In other words, duplicate effort in massive online collaboration projects is really not an issue yet. Even if there were a dozen projects like OpenStreetMap and Google Map Creator, each of them could still create a complete map of the world in a few days if enough people join the effort.

Personnaly, I love it when other people take care of work that I was supposed to do. That gives me time to do other things and planning is the most interesting part of most projects anyway. In my opinion, Google does a great job here for the OpenStreetMap community, with just a few as-long-as-they’s.

I like the intuitive interface and the moderation system. I managed to trace a couple of streets in the Netherlands Antilles without reading a manual. They have build in support for moderation. You can select a neighborhood that you know and get a notification when someone edits it; my edits got feedback and were rejected (for good reasons) within the hour. It distinguishes between new and experienced users and even automatically detects when you make a ‘suspicious’ edit.

I would love to see cooperation between OpenStreetMap and Google and I think that would make a lot of sense. Google can provide the OpenStreetMap community with the massive scalable infrastructure they need and OpenStreetMap can provide Google with a community, map making experience and great tools.

Here’s a possible future scenario:

  1. Google opens up the user contributed data using an API and a weekly database dump. It should provide read and write access to the buildig blocks of the street data; e.g. the nodes and ways.
  2. Google switches to a Creative Commons license or something similar. As I mentioned above, I think and hope their current data policy was made in a hurry.
  3. Google imports all existing OpenStreetMap data into their system. Only the parts that are easy at first; roads and railways.
  4. Google incorporates the Map Maker API into their App Engine. Google mentioned during the Developer Day in Sydney that they strive to make that App Engine comply with a future standard to prevent a platform lock in.
  5. People start building their own editing software or porting existing ones like Potlatch and JOSM. They can use the Google App Engine or something similar, so they do not to worry about scalability.
  6. People start building their own map viewing software or porting existing ones like Osmarender.

So in short:

  • Worst case: Google does not collaborate and we’ll have duplicate effort, which is not a problem because there is an astounding amount of disposable man power available on the planet.
  • Best case: Google does collaborate and the OpenStreetMap project will be finished in a year or so.

Update 1-7 : Google Signs Five Year Map Agreement with Tele Atlas
That definitely blows my ‘done in a hurry’ argument out of the water, but they haven’t taken over the world yet. We’re back at what I call the worst case scenario in which Google does not seem to be planning to share their users work.
As I wrote, that should not be a problem for OpenStreetMap, because there is an astounding amount of disposable man power available on the planet.
Apart from that, Google is completely dependent on income from advertisements: Google can not offer any service on a massive scale that does not generate add revenue. This provides several oportunities to the OpenStreetMap community:
1 – it can give anyone access to all data, in any format
2 – it can distribute hosting and serving of this data (Tiles@home is a good example)
3 – it can collaborate with as many partners as it wants (I don’t think Google can easily expand its Tele Altas deal to other map providers.)
The rise of Google Map maker is probably a good thing for OpenSreetMap, because it provides something real to compete against. That makes it easier to identify weak spots and increases motivation to work on them.
Update 1-7, an hour later:
Deal does not apply to Google Map Maker contributions.
You may also be interested in Ed Parsons’ post about this subject. He does not represent the official Google point of view, but he does provide a very useful insight nonetheless.

Categorized as gsoc


  1. “”” Google opens up the user contributed data “””
    This unfortunately will never happen because Google wants the ownership of the data to negotiate the cheapest deal possible with Teleatlas.
    Done actually:
    “”” The agreement also gives Tele Atlas access to edits for its maps from Google’s community of users, whose suggested changes can help the company further increase the quality and richness of Tele Atlas maps. “”””
    Checkmate. Welcome in a world controlled by Google 🙂

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