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]

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