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?


Seven questions to test your geo-personality

Admit it. None of us know what’s really going on. Geo. Data. The web. As soon as you think you understand it, something comes along to disrupt it. So how can you adapt and evolve in this endless sea of change?

So, based on 15 years’ experience in pretending to know what’s going on, I have devised a personality test which will help you identify your geo-data-web strengths. And – this questionnaire comes with the Absolutely-Free-From-Stereotypes Guarantee™.

Instructions. Select only one answer per question. There’s no right or wrong answers; higher or lower scores just indicate different styles or preferences. Then simply add up your scores to reveal your true geo-personality. Ready?

1. Neogeography is…

  • an ancient book    10 points
  • mapping for amateurs   15 points
  • the hidden engine of our daily lives   5 points
  • whatever   20 points

2. Augmented Reality is…

  • what I use to order pizza   10 points
  • a data accuracy problem   15 points
  • 18 months away from mainstream adoption   5 points
  • whatever   20 points

3. Open Data is…

  • an open box of paper forms  15 points
  • the data equivalent of a free shampoo sample  20 points
  • what taxpayers are entitled to 5 points
  • you mean #opendata?   10 points

4. GIS is…

  • aaargh this questionnaire is boring   5 points
  • duh!   15 points
  • what, G-P-S?   10 points
  • just a tool   20 points

5. Facebook is…

  • for teenagers   15 points
  • for grandma   10 points
  • for my partner to look up his/her exes  20 points
  • the next play for new location business models    5 points

6. My next personal challenge  is to…

  • reach 5000 Twitter followers and pretend not to care   10 points
  • reach 500,000 air miles and pretend not to care   5 points
  • read War & Peace and pretend to enjoy it   15 points
  • finish off my project and pretend it’s on time/budget  20 points

7. Final question.  You approach a vendor booth at a conference. What do you do?

  • Avoid eye contact, grab the freebies and run   0 points  (try again)
  • Check out the vendor’s job title before deciding on next steps   5 points
  • Try the demo in the hope of finding a fatal error   10 points
  • Sneak a quick look at the display while the vendor is distracted   15 points
  • Look the vendor in the eye, saying: “and what have you got to offer?”   20 points

RESULTS: Add up your score (1 answer per question only)

Less than 60 points: The Travelling Geovangelist

You are interested in the big picture, and you keep telling people it’s not about the map. You enjoy keynotes at conferences, especially if you are the speaker. You are an inherent optimist, helped by the fact you are quickly bored with detail and technical issues. This makes you useless at delivering anything practical but people respect you for your ability to go through 300 slides in a 5-minute presentation. Main geo-strength: Chase the end of rainbows; keep the troops amused.

60 – 90 points: The Wizard of OS [Open Source, Ordnance Survey, etc]

You have the most creative personality and thrive on designing stuff. As a developer, you’re a fast & gifted programmer,  but may have  a tendency to prototype apps in a live production environment (which is causing your manager to despair). As a scientist, analyst or consultant, you are continuously frustrated by other people’s ignorance but take secret pleasure in having reasons to disagree with them.  Main geo-strength: Ability to architect elegant solutions to problems most people have never heard of.

90 – 120 points: The Geodaddy

You have seen it all, or at least most of it. You know that things come and go, but ultimately stay the same. You may be on the wrong side of 40, which you know is the right side. This knowledge, combined with sudden fits of unexplained boredom, may sometimes hinder your ability to see new trends but people respect you for your ability to bring together the best of both worlds, even though you may struggle with their incompatible map projections. Main geo-strength: Keep going. And going.

120+ points: The Field Marshal

You roll up your sleeves and get on with the job, whatever it is. Your mission is to keep the project on track, so you avoid any type of imbeciles and scope changes whenever possible. You thrive on emergencies but also realise that some routine work needs doing. You are the last person finishing the job when everyone else has gone. Extremely reliable, you are however prone to mistaking other personalities as bullshitters. Main geo-strength:  Make it happen. At any cost.

Written & submitted from St. Paul’s Starbucks, London, during a sudden fit of boredom.