Scott Mor­ri­son posted a good arti­cle today in the Wall Street Jour­nal about our hire of Steve Coast, Open­StreetMap’s founder, and our announce­ment a week ago that we’d be shar­ing aer­ial imagery with OSM.  Open­StreetMap, in case you don’t know, is a sort of Wikipedia for maps, con­tributed to by all, owned by all.  It’s been up since 2004.

Steve is a won­der­fully cre­ative hacker, both ide­al­is­tic and sar­donic.  (Maybe noth­ing sums the lat­ter up quite so per­fectly as his Fake Mayor iPhone app, which spoofs the Foursquare “you’re the mayor” screen and might score you a free cap­puc­cino at some overly-wired cof­feeshop.)  In short, he’d be at home as a char­ac­ter in a Cory Doc­torow novel.  Hell, he prob­a­bly is a char­ac­ter in a Cory Doc­torow novel.

Like Steve (and Cory) I’m a fan of Cre­ative Com­mons.  When we released Pho­to­synth in 2008, we had sev­eral CC options among the rights struc­tures selec­table for uploaded pho­tos, and shortly after­ward I pre­vailed on our pro­gram man­agers and legal peo­ple to change the default to Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion, the most re-mixable vari­ety.  I think it’s impor­tant for peo­ple to be aware and exer­cise choice in con­trol­ling the rights to their own data.  Most peo­ple who post media on the Web in a pub­lic forum don’t plan to sell or license those media.  In that case they should be encour­aged to share with each other and with the world in a way that pre­vents the media from ever becom­ing a corporation’s walled asset.  The CC-Attribution and Share­Alike licenses do that.

Shortly after the Pho­to­synth release, I saw the beau­ti­ful “OSM 2008: A Year of Edits” video, an ani­ma­tion show­ing all of the con­tri­bu­tions to OSM over 2008.  It’s a lot bet­ter than it sounds.  Actu­ally, I remem­ber it sort of putting a lump in my throat at the time.  Eerily, it reminds me a bit of voltage-sensitive dye neural imag­ing videos.  As if the Earth is a giant brain wiring itself up.

One of the things that’s excit­ing to me about OSM is the way it empow­ers grass­roots map­ping of places where there’s not enough eco­nomic incen­tive to pro­duce the sort of com­mer­cial maps Tele Atlas and Navteq spe­cial­ize in (and that Bing licenses).  Major OSM projects took place last year in Haiti and in Kib­era, one of the biggest slums in the world (home to roughly 1M [cor­rec­tion from Mikel Maron in com­ments below: closer to 200k, see com­ments] peo­ple).  Even in the US, while the com­mer­cial providers have far more pre­cise and com­plete maps of the areas where peo­ple tend to nav­i­gate, OSM has a sur­pris­ing den­sity of small roads and paths in the wilder places, and details of foot­paths in parks.

We have a col­lab­o­ra­tion under­way with Dig­i­tal­Globe to do one of the largest aer­ial imagery sur­veys ever under­taken, cov­er­ing the US and West­ern Europe at 30cm res­o­lu­tion.  (The cam­era we’re using to do this is an impres­sive tech­ni­cal achieve­ment, devel­oped by our Vex­cel team in Graz, Aus­tria.)  By shar­ing use of the imagery with the OSM com­mu­nity, we hope to enable more OSM good­ness.  Maybe one day we can find a way to fund this kind of imag­ing over less devel­oped parts of the world.

Most of the OSM com­mu­nity has responded very pos­i­tively, though there are a few of the usual anti-M$FT trolls, like space­cube writing

In my eyes OSM just sold its soul to the devil.

To be clear, OSM’s legal sta­tus is like a one-way valve– it’s free and open for­ever, and any edits made to it from any (legal) source become free and open too.  It can be used by any­body, but it can never be “bought” or “owned” by any com­pany.  If a trail over the Rock­ies can now be posi­tioned with 30cm accu­racy by trac­ing over our aer­ial imagery, that’s bad for OSM how exactly?

This is quite aside from the ques­tion of whether Microsoft can still be con­sid­ered the devil in the com­pany of its younger brethren– maybe, but at most in an old fash­ioned, Rolling Stones sort of way.

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7 Responses to openstreetmap

  1. Pingback: OpenStreetMap Chile » Blog Archive » Bing nos da acceso a sus imágenes aéreas

  2. malenki says:

    You write:
    > any edits made to it from any source become free and open

    Shouldn’t that be: from any _legal_ source, should it?

  3. Mikel Maron says:

    Thanks for all the nice words for OSM, includ­ing the work in Kibera.

    Just wanted to cor­rect, the pop­u­la­tion in Kib­era is much less than 1 mil­lion ... it’s a pretty com­pli­cated, inter­est­ing, deeply polit­i­cal issue Makes me glad that we’ve been able to make a small step to empower the local com­mu­nity to man­age data them­selves in OpenStreetMap.

    • blaise says:

      Mikel, thanks for the read and the data, cor­rec­tion made inline. Con­grat­u­la­tions on your won­der­ful work.

  4. Pingback: Open Mobile Map » Weekly OSM Summary #5

  5. Jens says:

    (Or should I say C:\ONGRTLNS? Nah, just kidding.)

    Seri­ously, I applaud your effort in help­ing OSM. I started with com­put­ers in a past world where Microsoft was infa­mous for, well, lots of bad stuff. Thus, I was admit­tedly a lit­tle taken back when I noticed the Bing and Microsoft logos in the OSM editor.

    How­ever, over the last cou­ple years I have seen Microsoft’s behav­iour in gen­eral change. Part of that surely hap­pened due to the intro­duc­tion of “fresh meat” (i.e. younger employ­ees with new mind­sets) in the com­pany. Another part maybe hap­pened because even man­agers real­ized that cre­at­ing pro­pri­etary prod­uct islands in what­ever envi­ron­ment nowa­days is just not a fea­si­ble idea any more, much more so than maybe ten years ago.

    It will take a while, and prob­a­bly more effort than it would with other com­pa­nies, to shake off the bad rep­u­ta­tion that Microsoft once had. But it seems the “devil” (in a 1990’s sense) has moved. Maybe to Face­book? Maybe to com­pa­nies like Cisco or Siemens, since they, among oth­ers, sell sur­veil­lance equip­ment to gov­ern­ments, which is often used for far worse things than just sti­fling the com­pe­ti­tion.
    (And more often than not, runs Linux. Oops.)

    Any­way. My hope is that Microsoft as a whole will actu­ally live this new open mind­set, not just exploit it. This way, in the long run, every­body will ben­e­fit, even the investors.

    Thank you for shar­ing your map data with the OSM project. I hope this will be the first of many win-win col­lab­o­ra­tion efforts.

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