European OpenStreetMappers Meet as Project nears 10 year Anniversary

By Ed Freyfogle

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In June,the European OpenStreetMapcommunitygathered in Karlsruhe, Germany forState of the Map Europe. Hundreds of attendees met to discuss various aspects of the project. OpenStreetMap (OSM) has come a long way. From its inception almost 10 years ago in London, OSM is now an entrenched part of the geo/location-based service tool chain and one of the leading examples of crowdsourcing in action at a massive scale. Since 2004 over 1.5 million volunteers have signed up to contribute terabytes of geodata to the project, often referred to as the "Wikipedia of mapping." What began as one guy wandering around London with his GPS (here's a summary of the very first event where OSM was presented in 2004) has now turned into a global movement and spawned countless spinoff projects (see WheelMap, OpenCycleMap, OpenRailwayMap, and many, many others). OSM is increasingly the data source of choice, not just for hobbyists and cash-starved start-ups, but also slowly but surely winning over enterprise and government users. As a consequence, the project is increasingly putting pressure on proprietary data suppliers; witness the UK's Ordnance Survey's push to release "open" products over the last few years.

When measured on the key metric of comprehensiveness in many areas OpenStreetMap has long since hit critical mass, and Steve Coast, OSM's founder, recently declared the dataset to be "navigation ready."A glance at the roster of State of the Map Europe sponsors backs up that claim. The list features Telenav, BMWand the more traditional players in the space. Beyond navigation, other key topics included geocoding (check out services like OpenCage, Pelias, Photonand, gamification of data collection and validation (see kortand MapRoulette), 3D visualizations (feast your eyes on vizicities), vector-based maps, crowdsourced streetview (Mapillary), and disaster response (see Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Teamand SardSOS), and even "offline" products like fabric maps (see SplashMaps). The breadth of topics and of innovation reinforces the point that OpenStreetMap is the preferred data source for geo-innovators, a fact conceded in January when Google Maps Mania - a blog focused, as the name suggests, almost solely on innovation around Google Maps - announced that Google Maps had stopped innovating and all the action these days is based on OSM.

However, with the 10-year anniversary of the project's founding approaching in August (parties are planned worldwide), many questions remain around OpenStreetMap, both as a data source and as a community-driven project.

With participants from most European countries, and even some from farther afield, the conference featured impressive geographic and cultural diversity. Unfortunately it also suffered from an extreme lack of gender diversity. OSM is, at least as I witnessed at this event, largely the realm of geeky men, a fact highlighted by the presence of only one female speaker out of 38, in stark contrast to the focused efforts of  U.S. OSM-ers to broaden the community. Indeed, some say the problem of inclusiveness goes much deeper. I have heard a few complaints that much of the infrastructure and defacto decision wielding power is in the hands of the same group of volunteers as many years ago. One person commented to me, "If you want to contribute as a sys-admin and get into the tech details you need to live in London and go to the pub with those guys." Possibly not the best recipe for a project with literally global ambitions.

Another point of concern is the seemingly endless debate surrounding the license under which OSM data and products are released. After spending an immense amount of time and energy a few years ago to move the project to the Open Database License (ODbL), some in the community are calling for another change. The ODbL's viral nature and the ambiguity around it prevent well-intended integration with OSM by organizations legally required to put their data in the public domain (a famous example being New York City). Huge gray areas still exist (for example, does geocoding using OSM fall into the category of a "derived work"), which unfortunately serves as a brake on widespread adoption of OSM. For those interested in a real-world case study of this issue David Blackman of Foursquare gave a good talk at the most recent U.S. State of the Map conference, showcasing the intriguing technical possibilities of OSM data, but also lamenting that issues around the license meant the company felt unable to use OSM in production. Given the relative newness of digital crowdsourcing and the speed of technical innovation in the space, it is perhaps not surprising that it takes time for legal interpretation and understanding to catch up. But the lack of clarity around the license serves as a significant barrier preventing many organizations from deeply embracing OpenStreetMap.

More worrying is the general case that in many ways the OpenStreetMap community has not yet decided how to interact with businesses. As just two examples, this year the OpenStreetMap Foundation (the non-profit that finances, largely from donations, and runs the core infrastructure) announced corporate membership, but has so far failed to make it clear what the tangible benefits for a business might be. Understandably uptake has been slow. Similarly, there is not yet a clear consensus of how to handle the case of paid data contributors; should they somehow be treated differently than volunteers?

Finally, while OSM's comprehensiveness in most of the developed world is well beyond "good enough," there remain large tracts of the world without passionate local communities contributing and maintaining data. A recent study found that just five countries make up 58% of OpenStreetMap's data coverage. It begs the question, what dynamics are preventing local communities from forming around the world? Is OSM just a rich world phenomenon? This is perhaps a fitting question for OpenStreetMap's next major conference; for the first time ever the annual global meeting will be held in the southern hemisphere, in Buenos Aires in November.

Despite all of these issues and ambiguities, OpenStreetMap has started to attract the attention of serious investors. In the last year Berlin-based Skobbler was acquired for $24 million, and U.S.-based Mapbox raised a $10 million series A. The question is still open as to whether there are significant VC style financial rewards to be had around OpenStreetMap (as there are around open data in general), but what is certain is that in OSM an invaluable global resource has been created, unleashing a tidal wave of location-based innovation.

A full schedule of talks with videos from State of the Map Europe can be found here.

Image by osm-at under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Published Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Written by Ed Freyfogle

Published in

Open Source

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