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The OpenStreetMap opportunity

As that indicates, OpenStreetMap is a classic collaborative, open source project. That means the same dynamics that took GNU/Linux from being a system used by a few dozen people in their bedrooms to running everything from embedded systems, smartphones and PCs to servers and supercomputers will operate here. Just as it made no sense for Unix companies or smartphone manufacturers to write their own operating system when they could use GNU/Linux for free, so it will soon be equally commonplace to use OpenStreetMap instead of creating or paying for a proprietary mapping system. Indeed, I predict that eventually Google Maps may well be the only holdout, and ironically will find the same open source advantages that it has deployed so successfully against its rivals in the field of systems software being turned against it in the world of maps.

This means that OpenStreetMap represents a huge opportunity for the open source community. There are two main aspects to this. The first concerns software used by the OpenStreetMap project itself. As the site notes:

OpenStreetMap is not only open data, but it's built on open source software. The web interface software development, mapping engine, API, editors, and many other components of the slippy map are made possible by the work of volunteers. Work is taking this project in many different directions.

One of those directions was announced recently:

OpenStreetMap, the user-created map used by many of the biggest sites on the web, has today unveiled an entirely new editor that makes it easier to contribute than ever before.

The new editor, codenamed ‘iD’, boasts an intuitive interface and clear walk-throughs that make editing much easier for new mappers. By lowering the barrier to contributions, we believe that more people can contribute their local knowledge to the map – the crucial factor that sets OSM apart from closed-source commercial maps.


The new iD editor is a pure HTML5 experience, using the cutting-edge D3 visualisation library. Behind the clear design and intuitive interface is a sophisticated back-end that automatically recommends the most popular ‘tagging’ conventions used by the OSM community.

The editor software is entirely open source, with code available on github under an ultra-permissive licence.

That's just one project that requires new solutions to new kinds of challenges. These exist at all levels of OpenStreetMap – from the vast and increasing quantities of data that need managing, to finding ways to present that data to users and to help them navigate not just maps, but also the information that is increasingly being overlaid on top of those maps.

On the other side, there will be a new generation of open source mobile apps – written in HTML5, one hopes – that build on OpenStreetMap's incredible geodata resource. Again, this is all new ground, because we have never had so many people running open-source-based mobile devices that can plug into open data. This requires people to rethink what is possible. That's both hard and exciting, since it means that a new generation of geohackers can tackle genuinely rewarding and important coding tasks – something that is vitally important if open source is to remain strong and vibrant.

There's one particular area where free software can show the way. For all the power and delight that smartphones offer us, they also represent a danger. As has been noted by many, the smartphone is the ultimate tracking device: it knows exactly where we are, and what we are doing – a potent combination. Unlike commercial software, open source is on the same side as its users, and offers them the possibility to derive huge benefits from location-based software without paying the price of giving up their privacy. Indeed, this ability to use geodata respectfully could be the key distinguishing feature that convinces people to shift from their current proprietary apps to ones based on free software and OpenStreetMap, written in such as way as to place users in complete control – arguably the most important location of all.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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