OpenStreetMap: the Open Source of the Mobile Age
Published 12:29, 08 January 13
One of the themes of this blog has been the wider influence of open source. Everyone knows about open content projects like Wikipedia, but one open endeavour that still hasn't made the big breakthrough into the public's consciousness is OpenStreetMap. Here's how it describes itself:
OpenStreetMap is a free worldwide map, created by people like you.
The data is free to download and use under its open license. Create a user account to improve the map.
OpenStreetMap has just passed a pretty significant milestone as far as that community is concerned:
OpenStreetMap has just passed 1 million users! That's a million people who have signed up on openstreetmap.org to join in with creating a free map of the world.
At first glance you may think that OpenStreetMap is a map. Those who know more will tell you that it's actually a database; a flexible editable repository of free geospatial data. But above all OpenStreetMap is a community. A massive community in which people like you and me come together collaborate and help build this thing... and now there's a million of us!
That's pretty incredible, and makes OpenStreetMap one of the biggest open projects around. To put things in context, Wikipedia has over eighteen million accounts, but only a small minority are active. OpenStreetMap still has some way to go before it's on quite the same scale, but it is getting there - it's only been around for eight years, compared to Wikipedia's 12. [Update: some more statistics on members and their edits.]
One reason why OpenStreetMap hasn't yet achieved the same level of recognition as other open projects is that it is not yet widely deployed in well-known commercial services, but that's changing, as I noted in the middle of last year. And the switch from proprietary, paid-for mapping services to the open, free OpenStreetMap is more or less inevitable: once it gets to the good enough level, there will be no reason to pay money for services that really offer nothing extra. In fact, it's exactly what has happened with open source, whose trajectory OpenStreetMap is following.
One reason why its future looks rosy is the shift to mobile. By definition, smartphones are things you carry around, which makes geographical location a crucial piece of information for their users - and maps indispensable infrastructure for mobile services. Just as the availability of free open source powered an entire generation of Net startups, so OpenStreetMap will enable new companies serving the mobile sector to get going for minimal costs, but without compromising on quality. Indeed, in many respects, OpenStreetMap is the open source of the mobile world.
The great thing about the growing success of OpenStreetMap is that it feeds back into open source and the other open projects because it offers yet another data point about how open beats closed in the long run as a result of the underlying collaborative dynamics. That strengthens the argument for openness more generally. I can't wait to discover how that will be applied in other fields.