Should an EU opendata project use Google, Bing Maps or OpenStreetMap? Does it even matter?

Google, Bing and OpenStreetMap (OSM) all have dedicated followers in the mapping fraternity, and there seems to be a healthy level of competition between them. Last week, a well-known OSM’er blasted Google for stealing their ideas and exploiting their open community for commercial gain. These arguments are not new and, whatever the case, all players deserve recognition for bringing mapping to the masses. But I wonder how many people really appreciate the differences between the different systems, not just in terms of technical usability but also legally & commercially.

(photo from authors own Flickr collection)

 

I’m currently acting as a part-time data usability adviser on an EU-funded geohazard project. The aim of this 3-year project is to create satellite-derived terrain motion datasets for major urban areas across Europe, and to make the data available in the most accessible, understandable and reusable form. The instigators of this EU project are mostly geology and remote sensing experts and so, being more familiar with data creation than data publishing, they are planning to build some kind of INSPIRE-compliant map portal… uurrgh.

Portals date from prehistoric internet times, when people were still chained to their desktops. So I’ve slowly begun to nudge the project team away from the monolithic portal idea. They are now quite excited about opendata concepts such as mash-ups, linked data, the semantic web, and the need to cater for diverse user needs and platforms with simple standards. But, besides all this, and as part of the EU funding requirement, the project still needs to build a site that displays the data in a pre-cooked way which lay people can visually grasp. So a base mapping platform is needed. Should I recommend Google, Bing or OSM?

Rather than pretend to have all the answers (I don’t – see earlier blogpost… ), I’d love to hear your opinions. Does the choice really matter or is it purely ideological? Here’s some of my thoughts to get the ball rolling:

OpenStreetMap: Probably the best choice politically, if only for the term ‘open’. Coverage looks very good and is nearing completion in many parts of Europe. But it will never be as consistent as that of other suppliers, and once coverage is complete there’s still the issue of updates (once the blank spaces are mapped, will people be motivated enough to remap them?).  Also, with OSM being an open community, there is some uncertainty around governance and future direction – it’s all very organic and could go off in multiple directions. Then there’s an unresolved issue around the Creative Commons licence which restricts re-use for commercial purposes (unless you’re in the business of giving away your intellectual property). There has been talk of a new OpenDB licence but to be honest I’m not sure how advanced this is and whether it will resolve this particular issue.

Google Maps: Love or loathe them, their cloud infrastructure is unbreakable and their market share in mass mapping is by far the biggest. This is also why some citizen mappers (albeit a minority) prefer Google Mapmaker to OSM for data collection: where infrastructure is sparse,  Google offers an out-of-the-box solution with minimum hassle – if you can live with Google’s licence terms and commercial aims. Some people are naturally worried about Google claiming usage rights over your data but in some cases – like an opendata project – this can actually be helpful as it massively broadens your audience. And Google certainly does not claim ownership of your data. The deal is basically that you provide non-exclusive access to your data in return for a free professional service. In some circumstances this is quite a good deal, and does not interfere with your ability to re-use your own data in another form on another platform e.g. as part of a paid product.

Bing Maps.  Every year I marvel at Blaise Aguera’s new innovations but in terms of global implementation, Bing Maps seem behind the curve. They were the first to launch bird’s eye imagery but are only now beginning to catch up with Street View (in collaboration with Navteq), and the lag time to implement Blaise’s magic seems quite long, at least in Europe. To my knowledge Bing’s user terms are very similar to Google’s, so there is little difference in terms of IP or re-use.  However, Microsoft recently invested in OSM, which is now included as a layer in Bing Maps (and OSM founder Steve Coast even joined them as an employee), so this could have a very interesting future.

Keeping in mind that the geohazard ‘portal’ (urrgh!) would only use one of these services as visual background mapping – like wallpaper, really – and that it will not launch until 2-3 years from now (a long time in internet terms!), which service would you recommend? Does it even matter, or is the choice purely ideological?

A hard-hitting analysis of Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency

Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, is a funny organisation. Internationally it is highly respected. In Britain, however, it fuels all kinds of passions ranging from quiet pride to unbridled anger. So I felt like writing a reality check which may be relevant to people both here in the UK and elsewhere.

Ordnance Survey mapping © Crown copyright. All rights reserved. Media licence W01

By way of background I should say that I’ve worked in mapping all my career, and three years ago I moved to the UK  to head up the data operations of a large B2B information business which, amongst many other things, also happens to be Ordnance Survey’s largest commercial reseller.

When I was still abroad I admired OS for their slick mapping products and their impressive conference keynotes. So I was surprised, indeed taken aback, when I arrived in the UK to find that there was one thing in particular that united the geospatial industry: their highly critical attitude towards OS. How could this be?

This was not the angry mob also known as ‘Free Our Data’, a movement championed by the Guardian newspaper. They got their deal when the data.gov.uk initiative went live and OS was ‘volunteered’ by the prime minister to make some of their lower-value mapping available for free. So the angry mob declared victory, and off they went. Their aims were largely non-commercial, and good luck to them.

What many people have overlooked is what I might call the volatile business framework surrounding the OS.  From my days in the energy industry I remember political risk being a key driver for investment decisions regarding oil fields in far-flung places. OS is no Libya, Nigeria or Russia – but there are parallels.

What has struck me in many meetings with OS is that you never quite know who you are talking to. Is this OS, the government agency, or OS, the business? They can’t do special deals with you because, as a government agency, they have to treat everyone equally – which is fair enough. But at the same time OS remains at liberty to pursue any commercial opportunity that takes their fancy. There are geospatial companies that have been badly burnt by this, especially aerial imagery folks or online mapping providers who dared to compete with OS’s  almighty mapping machine. In many cases, even today, OS is still competing with its own business partners.

This explains why the UK geospatial industry sees OS in a very different light to what you might expect elsewhere. When CEO Vanessa Lawrence gives a keynote at an international conference you see OS, the national mapping agency – and that is indeed very impressive. It’s a truly word-class operation, and I have witnessed it at first hand. But at those feel-good events the dark commercial underbelly remains out of sight.

However, this is not the end of story. What I also learnt over the past three years is that the OS critics have been barking up the wrong tree. OS, as a government agency and so-called Trading Fund (i.e. self-funded), was never given clear rules  on how to operate, as a public body or commercial player, and as a result the line became blurred. I know a lot of people at OS, at all levels, and they are all polite, decent and very good at their jobs. Clever people can’t help doing clever things if you let them. Admit it, you and I would have done the same.

So it’s really down to the government. And things are improving.  OS’s open data licence is more open than OpenStreetMap’s  (if you don’t believe me, ask your lawyer). As of 1 April, the UK government is allowing all public bodies free access even to the highly prized and detailed MasterMap – Great Britain in all its glory at 1:1,250 scale. And, importantly, the private sector has been invited to play a role in the distribution of this mapping to public bodies. This is eminently sensible, and everybody wins. Next up is the Public Data Corporation, through which the government is hoping to merge and clarify all its data activities, including OS.

We need more common sense like this – on derived data, sales & marketing, the whole works. I believe change is coming, but we need to keep pressing the government (if you don’t know how to, drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with the right people).

Because clever people can’t help doing clever things.