My Take on Coast Going to Microsoft

Since Tuesday’s podcast was about the expansion of user input into geodatasets, the news Tuesday afternoon that OpenStreetMap’s founder Steve Coast has joined Microsoft’s Bing Mobile Team seemed serendipitous. But, that was not the only news about OSM: Microsoft will provide imagery to that crowdsourced mapping project.

James Fee was the first out of the gate with this prediction about the future on his blog:

Between the OSM mappers, MapQuest, Microsoft and all the others who are part of the open project; I see no way OSM doesn’t become the dominate [dominant] mapping data source for all users moving forward.  And you know who wins, everyone who wants free and open data. 

That’s bold. And, he may be right. But, I’m not as convinced. Why will Microsoft’s participation in OSM matter so much? First off, what is its participation? For now, per the Bing Maps blog here’s what we know:

As a Principal Architect for Bing Mobile, Steve will help develop better mapping experiences for our customers and partners, and lead efforts to engage with OpenStreetMap and other open source and open data projects.  As a first step in this engagement, we plan to enable access to Bing’s global orthorectified aerial imagery, as a backdrop of OSM editors. Also, Microsoft is working on new tools to better enable contributions to OSM.

Those two first steps are good ones. That imagery can be "traced" by folks anywhere in the world to help fill out and enhance the basemap. And, as many have found, the tools for editing OSM (Potlatch and JOSM) can be cranky. I’ve heard the ArcGIS extension for ArcGIS can be a challenge, for some, too.

But can Microsoft’s efforts activate a larger active community than OpenStreetMap, Cloudmade, and most recently AOL have? Will those individuals have the passion worldwide to do the work that’s been done so well in Germany and the UK (two countries were AOL uses OSM data in MapQuest)? Can Microsoft as a company rally the volunteer troops? Do you recall Microsoft’s last misguided crowdsourced effort? The Windows 7 launch parties? (See The Guardian coverage, but I just recall all the laughs I heard on Buzz Out Loud.) How about its effort to pay users to use Bing as a search tool? No, to date, Microsoft has not inspired the kind of loyalty and devotion and respect as some other players.

While some continue to "hate on" Google for its MapMaker efforts (GPS Business News noted its disapproval this week), others think that the MapMaker data is in fact the source for Google’s US datasets (SlashGeo offered that incorrect assumption). While there are always naysayers about Esri, I continue to be impressed by how many organizations are lining up to fill its Community Maps Program (map of them).

I think one or two more tools are needed for OSM to the coverage and quality required to be useful worldwide. One tool/technology needs to provide passive data capture. A company like waze, for example, that can encourage users to simply switch on their phone and be tracked would be a nice addition. So, too, would a company with a tool to integrate and quickly conflate all the data that come in. The reason that TomTom (Tele Atlas) and Nokia (NAVTEQ) are now "poo-pooed" is simply because their datasets are dated. Why are they dated? Because they are vetted, which takes time. The company that can provide that quick but "good enough" filter to to pull the mix of data from its various sources and pump it back out to users will win. I don’t think OSM has all the data inputs needed, nor the paid and unpaid staff needed, nor the smart software needed to win this competition. Not yet anyway, but clearly their backers are slowly adding to their dowry.

And, one final thought. I’ve seen many very smart, successful and well-known geospatial practitioners join big important companies with big plans and big ideas. And, I’ve seen them work hard, bang their heads against the wall, and ultimately leave for the next opportunity. And, I’ve seen other very smart geospatial practitioners do their work at small companies, have some sway in those companies, and have impacts on our industry that many of us cannot even identify.  I do wish Steve Coast, as I did the many to whom I refer here, the best of luck in his new position.

Published Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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