After a year of stellar growth, crowdsourced OpenStreetMap (OSM) looks nearly ready to take on heavyweight competitors in the digital mapping arena. Developers and businesses should take note.
Founded eight years ago, OSM is a digital atlas compiled and updated entirely by volunteers. With more than a million registered users, half of whom signed up in 2012, according to Carl Franzen at the TPM Idea Lab, OSM is experiencing record growth that positions the service to take on digital map giant Google Maps in enterprise use.
Some heavy hitters have already embraced OSM. Foursquare announced OSM integration in February 2012. In April 2012, Wikipedia switched to OSM as well. Apple, which had been using OSM “in its iPhoto app without proper attribution,” according to Franzen, began crediting OSM in May 2012. And in August 2012, Craigslist began embedding OSM maps in housing ads in several markets.
What lies behind the defections? Cost is a major factor. Foursquare admitted that “the new Google Maps API pricing was the reason we initially started looking into other solutions.” In 2011, Google Maps began to monetize its once-free API, first requiring that apps using the API display ads, according to this Google Geo Developers blog post, and then moved to a usage-based fee schedule for commercial licensing.
In contrast, OSM’s data is free. Users are only required to “credit OpenStreetMap and its contributors” and make any alterations or additions to the original maps available under the same open license, per OSM’s Copyright and License page. This policy is unlikely to change within the next couple of years either, Franzen quotes Simon Poole, chairman of the OpenStreetMap Foundation, as saying.
So what are OSM’s drawbacks? As with any crowdsourced dataset, thoroughness and accuracy are two major concerns. These concerns moved to the forefront when Apple ditched Google Maps in favor of OSM and other maps for Apple Maps on iOS6. Apple Maps quickly became notorious for glitches, errors, and omissions, leading some to conclude that dropping Google Maps had been a mistake. OpenStreetMap Foundation board member Richard Fairhurst responded to the criticisms with a tweet that shifted the blame for faulty US and UK mapping onto TomTom.
OSM still has some distance to cover before it can match Google Maps in quality and completeness, as even Poole seemed to admit. Franzen quotes Poole as saying: “I would expect OpenStreetMap in the U.S. to be comparable to Google in a period of one to two years.”
If OSM’s recent growth continues, however, it is on track to match Google Maps soon. “Washintgon, D.C.-based startup Mapbox, using a half-million dollar grant from the Knight Foundation, is working to improve OpenStreetMap’s editor user interface, to make it easier and more appealing for the next million users,” Franzen writes. The easier OSM is to edit, the faster it can catch up to Google Maps and solidify its position as a unique competitor in the digital mapping market.
If OpenStreetMap stays on course, it will develop into an excellent alternative to costly map providers. Several major tech companies have already banked on OSM. Will yours? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
— Jude Chao is a writer who specializes in technology, education, and marketing.