Openstreetmap: why we need a free/open alternative to proprietary maps

In the Guardian, Serge Wroclawski makes the case for Openstreetmap, a free/open map tool maintained by a volunteer community. Wroclawski argues that allowing companies to own maps allows them to own places: to determine which features of our neighbourhoods are worthy of inclusion, to determine which parts of our cities should and shouldn't be considered in route planning, and to monitor our decisions about where we travel and what we do when we get there. It's a dangerous proposition, and Openstreetmap is a viable, and often superior, alternative (see, for example, the map above of the neighbourhood around my office):

The second concern is about location. Who defines where a neighbourhood is, or whether or not you should go? This issue was brought up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when a map provider was providing routing (driving/biking/walking instructions) and used what it determined to be "safe" or "dangerous" neighbourhoods as part of its algorithm. This raises the question of who determines what makes a neighbourhood "safe" or not – or whether safe is merely a codeword for something more sinister.

Right now, Flickr collects neighbourhood information based on photographs which it exposes through an API. It uses this information to suggest tags for your photograph. But it would be possible to use neighbourhood boundaries in a more subtle way in order to affect anything from traffic patterns to real estate prices, because when a map provider becomes large enough, it becomes the source of "truth".

Lastly, these map providers have an incentive to collect information about you in ways that you may not agree with. Both Google and Apple collect your location information when you use their services. They can use this information to improve their map accuracy, but Google has already announced that is going to use this information to track the correlation between searches and where you go. With more than 500 million Android phones in use, this is an enormous amount of information collected on the individual level about people's habits, whether they're taking a casual stroll, commuting to work, going to their doctor, or maybe attending a protest.

Why the world needs OpenStreetMap [Serge Wroclawski/Guardian]

(via /.)

Notable Replies

  1. Yes. As Wikipedia has taught us, nobody has ever tried to game an open information platform through a coordinated agenda, the formation of cliques, or bad-faith editing.

  2. This issue was brought up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) when a map provider was providing routing (driving/biking/walking instructions) and used what it determined to be "safe" or "dangerous" neighbourhoods as part of its algorithm.

    At some point when that same type of presentation was done by combining Google Maps with publicly available crime data, I think it was praised right here on BB.

  3. This should lead to some excellent, detailed maps of areas frequented by hipsters. Ghetto areas, rural areas, maybe not so much. Good thing that cute cafe next door to Cory's office is listed!

  4. It is one thing to make the odd edit to a Wikipedia article ...and it is another to rely on the hundreds or thousands of edits of well-intentioned individuals while attempting to reach an unfamiliar destination (or a familiar destination but via an unknown route).

    The issues - what is included on a map and what isn't - are all valid and I am not dismissing them. My concern is that when I'm travelling from Krakow to, say, Riga or Bratislava or something like that - places I'm not very familiar with - I want to be reasonably sure that when I punch in an address that I'm going to get where I want to go.

    Perhaps the OSM maps have gotten better since I last looked into them a few years ago - I will have to look into them again now - but when I last looked they simply weren't complete enough. OSM may be democratic, free, and open, but that doesn't necessarily make them the most thorough or complete across a large, broad area ...and that's a real concern.

  5. I don't think Google is saying certain neighborhoods are unsafe for walking because they are ghetto, they are saying they are unsafe for walking because they have no sidewalks. I live in San Diego and it's really annoying how many major streets here make no consideration for pedestrians -- or worse where they have sidewalks for blocks that just suddenly end for no apparent reason.

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