OpenStreetMap Talk

OpenStreetMap talk, London Knowledge Lab, 1 Nov 2007

A little while ago I heard of a small but growing mapping movement called OpenStreetMap. The principle was simple enough: large mapping companies like Ordnance Survey hold the copyright to the thousands of maps that make up the country. Anybody wanting to use these maps face an often substantial fee, and the derivation licenses on these are apparently quite strict too, so the entire environment is rather closed and makes it difficult for small business, individuals and organisations to provide map-based data.

OpenStreetMap can be compared to the Wikipedia of geography: a collaborative environment where the users of the data are also encouraged to contribute to it, update it and reuse it as they prefer. The licenses attached to OSM are from the Creative Commons, essentially allowing for reuse provided attribution is provided, and the derivate data is similarly licensed in the same way.

This evening, the founder of OpenStreetMap Steve Coast talked about his creation at the London Knowledge Lab in London. He discussed the current status of the site, the commercial interest in the project, and issues encountered while defining the site (whether to use strict taxonomies or free-text tags).

Steve also talked about the sources of data for OSM, whether it be individuals with their GPS, government-available data (such as the TIGER set in the USA), contributed tracks from courier services, or from Yahoo! satellite imagery.

However the data is collected and managed, the outcome is a pretty comprehensive detail of the major cities and transport links of the UK, and increasingly – the world.

OSM now has over 15,000 members and is growing, both in its user-base and the coverage. The maps also contain diverse information, such as pubs, paths and landmarks.

Steve also spoke about some more obscure issues arising from worldwide mapping. For example, in Baghdad each road may have multiple names, be they Sunni, Shia or named by the US Government.

One of the first ‘complete coverage’ areas of the UK was the Isle of Wight, which was the focus of an intensive collaborative mapping team over several days. The island now boasts complete road and rail mapping, ferry links to the mainland and many landmarks & paths useful to more than road users. At least one property website, Nestoria, now uses the data from OpenStreetMap on its website.

After Steve’s talk a group of us moved over to the local pizza restaurant, with a meal kindly paid for by our hosts, MySociety. With olives and wine flowing, I had some interesting chats with several others at the table (Ben, Francis, John, Alex in particular – apologies if I missed anybody else).

OpenStreetMap is an interesting and engaging project, and there are certainly plenty of bright ideas about how to use this mapping data in a variety of commercial and non-profit environments – it’ll be interesting to see what develops over the coming months and years as OSM continues toward 100% national (and international) coverage.

There are certainly a few fundamental hurdles still to jump – in particular licensing of the data was cited several times as an outstanding issue, with Steve regarding it as ‘not perfect’. Presumably any change of license would need the concensus of the project’s many contributors – not a small task.