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Glyn Moody, Linux Journal:

Despite its low profile, OpenStreetMap is arguably one of the most important projects for the future of free software. The rise of mobile phones as the primary computing device for billions of people, especially in developing economies, lends a new importance to location and movement. Many internet services now offer additional features based on where users are, where they are going and their relative position to other members of social networks. Self-driving cars and drones are two rapidly evolving hardware areas where accurate geographical information is crucial. All of those things depend upon a map in critical ways, and they require large, detailed datasets. OpenStreetMap is the only truly global open alternative to better-known, and much better-funded geodata holdings, such as Google Maps.

The current dominance of the latter is a serious problem for free software—and freedom itself. The data that lies behind Google Maps is proprietary. Thus, any open-source program that uses Google Maps or other commercial mapping services is effectively including proprietary elements in its code. For purists, that is unacceptable in itself. But even for those with a more pragmatic viewpoint, it means that open source is dependent on a company for data that can be restricted or withdrawn at any moment.

If the dataset and mapping software are proprietary, they come with the constraints and biases of the company that created them built-in, and they are impossible to circumvent. This might mean certain businesses are highlighted in an area because they have paid to be given preference. Services that help users find optimum routes also may be biased in socially harmful ways—for example, avoiding districts that the map provider deems “unsuitable”.

So far, OpenStreetMap has spawned only a limited range of free software tools, and it badly needs many new ones if it is to match proprietary offerings. That’s a relatively straightforward task. Much harder will be creating open versions of online services like Google’s Waze, which describes itself as “the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app”. Doing so will require working with well-funded organizations—perhaps the Mozilla Foundation—or with open-source companies like Canonical, since the investment required will be considerable.

Although undoubtedly difficult, creating high-quality map-based services is a challenge that must be tackled by the Open Source community if it wants to remain relevant in a world dominated by mobile computing.

The bad news is that at the moment, millions of people are happily sending crucial geodata to proprietary services like Waze, as well as providing free bug-fixes for Google Maps. Far better if they could be working with equal enthusiasm and enjoyment on open projects, since the resulting datasets would be freely available to all, not turned into corporate property. The good news is that OpenStreetMap provides exactly the right foundation for creating those open map-based services, which is why supporting it must become a priority for the Open Source world.

Paul Ciano

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