openstreetmap

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 http://www.mapkibera.org/blog/2010/09/05/kiberas-census-population-politics-precision/. Makes me glad that we’ve been able to make a small step to empower the local community to manage data themselves in OpenStreetMap.

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

  5. Jens says:

    Congratulations!
    (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 userfriendly.org 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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