About two weeks ago Serge Wroclawski (ex-hacker, Free Culture Advocate) wrote a cool article about ‘Why the World needs OpenStreetMap‘, which quickly found it’s way to other media, such as the Guardian onder andere overgenomen door de Guardian.
In the article he states his case for a freely available worldmap for and by the people. He explains quite convincingly the use of an independent source for a map. A map which we could not only promote to a standard, but of which we could safely assume that it would be value and interest-neutral.
Serge scores points on the instrumental side of things, but on the emotional level things also seem to add up; time and or space should not be privatized, as the author underlines with a parallel with the time standardization efforts of the late 1800’s.
The OpenStreetMap Foundation is a British organisation working on precisely such a map. Founded as a not-for-profit organization in 2006, some time after the first steps in the map project itself, the foundation relies on volunteers and donations to complete its difficult task. Not unlike Wikipedia, it enables outsiders to fill in some of the map with their information or to update information that is already in place. The open and transparent approach is very compatible with the independent and neutral character of the project.
The parallels between Wikipedia and OSM, the shorthand name for the project, aren’t a total coincidence. As the latter project was inspired by the first. But if we were to zoom in a little further on the comparison some differences become obvious. It would be a little superfluous to write about the use of Wikipedia nowadays for one, or the need to help the project meet a wider audience. The many private competitors that Serge refers to in the article are a challenge for Wikipedia no more. This while Wikipedia had faced and challenged many prejudices about a knowledge base crafted and maintained by the crowd, paving a way for newer initiatives like this one. Where Wikipedia relies heavily on individuals, OSM has received large data contribution by 3rd parties such as Yahoo or governments.
This author thinks that OSM could take of in a bigger way, if we manage to clear some sand out of it’s gears and engineer it to sell itself. Serge seems to be looking at the applications of the maps. The web version of Bing is easy to use or look at, Apple Maps ships with every iPhone and Google Maps is king of the data mashup. Whereas, OSM is a little rough around the edges, it lacks a decent app and mashups are being made in dribs and drabs (feel free here to take a look at my implementation of the Dutch cyclist associations issue reporting system.
I’m not totally convinced that this is right button to push. Wikipedia had to tackle scores of encyclopedia’s, with the Britannica as it’s ultimate champion, sans CD-roms (yes way back then), print edition or a great design (individual results may vary with taste). I say: Content is King. You are not using a map that is less incomplete or outdated as long as the competition is free. And this content can be King only if OSM manages to engage the user to become a contributor.
Two challenges lie ahead: OSM isn’t stupidly simple to contribute to and it offers you, the user, no reason to contribute, aside from an abstract feeling of doing good. You can only motivate people that much wielding the common good, and less if it is an abstract goal and no one’s keeping score. OSM should define its goals and progress way more clearly and should give before it takes. Wikipedia gave you your thesis, OSM gives us a map we already have for free.
Of course OSM gives us something that private parties can’t: Control over the map, but it fails to bring that close to us. How can it be that Google is now marketing that you can add your own places, while OSM is the only one that could deliver here. I think that there are thousands of people that would benefit directly from adding themselves to the map (shopkeepers for one). And there should be loads of other applications to think of but it starts by connecting to the user.