OpenStreetMap: the free map data revolution?

OpenStreetMap: the free map data revolution?
by Ludovic Privat.
Over the last week-end the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community gathered in Amsterdam for their annual conference called State of  The Map. Several hundred participants from all over the world gathered for three days packed with conferences, which included for the first year a “Pro” users day. The attendance this year – twice as big as last year – is showing the momentum of a community that so far has been pretty much under the radar of the GPS and LBS industry. Created in 2004 with the idea to build a free, worldwide digital map, OSM is now over 130,000 participants (they were 100,000 in March) with an accelerating growth.

As a result, the map database produced by the community is growing at a fast pace. In May there was over 33 million kilometers of roads in the database. European capitals such as Berlin, Amsterdam, London and many others have been mapped to a level of details that is in many place far superior to Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ. As an example, a few months ago some German volunteers mapped the Berlin Zoo to a unique level of details, quickly followed by the Amsterdam Zoo from Dutch volunteers stimulated by the German example. In Italy a crew of OSM fans spent a few days at the roman ruins of Pompeii to map the entire site.

This map data is not only offering great details but also a greater freshness of the data. Each modification made to the map is available pretty much in real-time. For example, near our office in Paris a hospital is currently getting demolished and rebuilt. An OSM volunteer has already removed most of the footprint of the demolished buildings which are likely to remain there for a very long time on the Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ databases.

OSM data used by Flickr in Tehran

OSM data used by Flickr in Tehran

But the coverage is even more visible in places where commercial mapping companies have little or no presence. Photo sharing website Flickr – who, owned by Yahoo!, is supposed to use Yahoo! Maps based on commercial data – has started to rely on OSM for a number of capital cities across the world, stated Aaron Cope, a representative of the company during a keynote at the conference. It first started in the summer of 2008 when Flickr was lacking a decent coverage of Beijing for the summer Olympics games (280,000 pictures have been geotagged on that map). Since then Flick added maps tiles from OSM for covering 18 cities such as Cape Town, Tehran, Kabul or Baghdad.

What about coverage, accuracy and quality control?
When talking about crowd sourcing the same question is coming again and again: what about accuracy and quality control? In that area quality comes with volume and time. Just like Wikipedia, quality comes through an iterative process.

Today many areas, even in Western Europe, are not mapped, especially where there is little population density. But the exponential growth of the OSM community is likely to make these territories shrink at a fast pace in the next two to three years. In addition to that, hardcore OSM volunteers, for a large part geospatial and IT professionals, are developing sophisticated tools to verify and improve the quality of the data and to highlight missing attributes.

As OSM gets more momentum public and private sector entities are also likely to enter the game not only in using this data but also in contributing back to the community, creating a virtuous circle and further accelerating this growth.

Roman ruins of Pompeii, Italy, mapped by Italian OSM volunteers

Roman ruins of Pompeii, Italy, mapped by Italian OSM volunteers
OSM and public sector
As the quality improves local public entities are indeed starting to use OSM data rather than commercial datasets in exchange of which they are not only donating some proprietary data but also maintaining the OSM set in the long run. Speaking at the conference, James Rutter, a GIS professional working for Surrey Heath Council (UK), explained how his Borough is currently switching to OSM data – instead of Ordnance Survey – to save taxpayer money. Another example is Traveline, a government funded organization which is providing travel data to public and private organization across the United Kingdom, who donated its database of 350,000 UK bus stops to OSM, said one of its representatives at the conference.

In the United States the 2010 census will be a bonanza for OSM (like for other map data companies). This census will provide a complete and accurate address database of the US population based on GPS measurements and this data will be free to use. This means OSM will have a nearly perfect address dataset of the whole US population next year.

In France local OSM volunteers have reached an agreement with the French Minister of Economy which will allow them to use (under certain restrictions) the very accurate French cadastre data; half of it is already vectorized and easily accessible online.

Looking at private companies using OSM data, they are also thinking at developing innovative tools to give data back to the community, for example through GPS tracks anonymously gathered from their users, in the same way TomTom users are contributing to building and updating the Tele Atlas map data.

GND Suite for OSM from Logiball

GND Suite for OSM from Logiball

OSM is also starting to gather a professional GIS community building and selling tools and services based on this dataset with companies such as Cloudmade, Geofabrik, Logiball or Cartotype. These companies – which provide geospatial platform, conversion tools, map rendering systems – are one of the most important factors in growing the credibility of OSM data in the professional LBS market.

Shall commercial dataset vendors fear OSM?
At the OSM conference companies such as TomTom/Tele Atlas, NAVTEQ, and AND were present which signals the interest of the commercial map vendors for the “free” map community. Does it mean they shall fear OSM? Until today the free OSM data has not been a big threat for commercial map vendors, probably due to the lack of awareness and the good marketing made by these vendors.

However, for location-based service providers whose target is urban users in Western Europe and not using advanced features such as turn by turn navigation, OSM data is probably the best choice today. Unlike using free maps from Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, LBS companies are completely free in terms of map rendering and customization and can use on-board map storage as much as off-board for their mobile apps. Offering on-board maps is the key highlight of an application called OffMaps (€1.59), it is the number one paid app downloaded in the navigation category in the German iPhone App Store.

OpenStreetMap 3D Karlsruhe

OpenStreetMap 3D Karlsruhe
Is it good enough for turn-by-turn navigation?
The biggest concern for commercial map maker is turn-by-turn navigation, licenses from which they are making much of their money and charging a high premium in comparison to basic map display used for applications such as local search. Last week on the Apple App Store, a German developer launched Roadee, a turn-by-turn navigation application based on OSM data. The software selling for €1.59 is now number two in the navigation category in Germany. While the routing is a bit primitive it is a sharp contrast in pricing with the €70 to €90 charged by NAVIGON or Sygic for their applications.

Turn-by-turn navigation using OSM data is also raising interest from academics. Last week the Department of Geography of the Bonn University released a demonstration product for 3D navigation with OpenStreetMap in Germany (OpenStreetMap 3D ). Using both OSM data (building footprints transformed in 3D blocks models) and free digital elevation models from NASA, this proof of concept does convince about the potential of OSM in that area.

German GIS specialist Logiball, which provides engineering tools for navigation data, has released a version of its Global Navigation Data Suite (GND), compatible with OSM data. When asked about the quality of the OSM data for in-car navigation, Roger Mueller, managing director at Logiball said: “this dataset has been initially built by pedestrians or bicyclers, so they were not really concerned about map attributes for in-car navigation. Therefore they are problems in the data for example no mention of separate lanes to turn right or left. However, the fast pace of the community makes me believe that we will see major improvements moving forward.”

Offmaps: offline mapping app for the iPhone

Offmaps: offline mapping app for the iPhone

If not yet on turn-by-turn navigation, OSM is now able to compete on some of the territories where commercial map providers were so far the only available resources. For these mapmakers the consequence is twofold: first they will have to adapt their business models and second their mapmaking technologies.

Last year TomTom and Nokia invested a total of $12.5 billion to buy Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ. In the light of the OSM growth one might have questions about the return on this investment moving forward. With regards to mapmaking technologies, as an example NAVTEQ was spending in 2007 almost $400 million to develop and maintain its map database. For how long these levels of investment will be sustainable for commercial mapmaker is a big question mark today.

OSM Challenges

If OSM has been building some serious momentum, the community also has challenges to overcome. To map the whole world the OSM community will have to continue to grow at a steady pace, which means to enroll many more “casual mappers”. To make it happen OSM will need more user-friendly tools than what is available today. Being able to update the map on the fly on GPS-enabled mobile phones is for example a much needed feature. Even more important, OSM will also have to provide immediate rewards to its members in letting them search and browse more easily the map they create.

So far on most of the accent has been put on building the dataset rather than displaying it. Unlike other well known “mapping portals”, such as Google Maps, MapQuest and others, the online web version of OSM is not user friendly and lacks features and speed. To get hooked into the community the next generation of OSM volunteers is likely to expect more. The board of the OSM foundation will have to drive this change carefully in making the community both attractive to the long time hardcore map drawers and the new, more casual users.

Despite these challenges the future looks pretty good to OSM. As Peter Scheufen – CEO of LBS startup Skobbler, and former CEO OF NAVIGON – told us at the conference: “OSM? This is the future!”

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