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OpenStreetMap inks deal with Yahoo! Maps

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In a major step forward for opensource geodata, Yahoo! Maps has green-lighted a deal with OpenStreetMap, raising the possibility of breaking the stranglehold on mapping data in the UK.

Mikel Maron, a freelance web developer and one of the heads of OpenStreetMap, told TechCrunch UK&I that Scott Reagan and Jeremy Kreitler of the Yahoo! Maps team in US have given permission for OpenStreetMap to use their imagery on the service. In essence this means they will be able to underlay in their editor enabling it trace over it Yahoo!’s maps and derive vectors. It’s believed this is the first time Yahoo! has given the legal go-ahead for an organisation to use it’s mapping API in this way.

Maron said the deal with Yahoo! means the process of overlaying the data onto real maps will now be a great deal faster.

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OpenStreetMap is a UK project to create and provide free geographic data such as street maps, skirting around the minefield of technical, legal and copyright restrictions which traditionally slow-down and hamper online mapping projects. The maps are created by volunteers who simply walk around an area with a GPS unit and upload the data captured to OpenStreetMap’s site. From there, the site uses Wiki-style tools to allow anyone to edit and improve the maps.

“There really is no-one else trying to gather data in the granularity we are. Even if a trace is inaccurate there will be multiple traces over an area. So even if it’s a 10 metre gap then over time the differences will be evened out. We work on the principle of trust similar to Wikipedia,” he said.

The problem with traditional maps – as highlighted by the The Guardian’s recent Free Our Data campaign – is that they are incredibly restrictive, especially in Europe. In the UK, the main rights holder is the government-owned Ordnance Survey, while private sector firms like NavTech and TeleAtlas act as resellers. So far OpenStreetMap covers major conurbations like London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Oxford, Cambridge, and cities like Stockholm, Berlin and Paris, where open-source mapping enthusiasts are more likely to reside. It has been European focused to date, since geo-data is largely out of reach for web developers in Europe, whereas it is freely available via data sets like Tiger in the US. OpenStreetMap even has plans to cover Africa.

Maron admits OpenStreetMap is not going to be as precise as a professional survey, but given that it takes up to two years for any inaccuracy to be changed in a formal mapping project, and most inaccuracies are unlikely ever to be corrected because of the sheer scale of what’s involved, OpenStreetMap clearly fills a valuable niche. “We can’t compete with Ordnance Survey, but there is a level of data in between which is not being filled,” he says.

It’s something that has clearly attracted the attention of private enterprise. Steve Coast, who also works on the project, recently received funding from Multimap.com to further boost the projects’ work, and follows on from the CadCorp integration.

The prospects for OpenStreetMap could well be bigger in the future. With the widespread introduction next year of GPS units built into mobile phones, being able to passively upload trace mapping data to OpenStreetMap via some simple client software from the phone could become a real possibility.

Maron says OpenStreetMap could even turn the process of walking around an area to capture data into a game, which raises a lot of interesting possibilities.

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