OpenStreetMap grows, spawns ecosystem

This is a guest post by Ed Freyfogle, co-founder of property search engine Nestoria.

OpenStreetMap started four years ago in the UK as a project to create a free and editable world map. What began as a few geogeeks wandering the streets with their GPS’s has turned into a global movement with over 75,000 registered contributors. The database has improved rapidly in quality and comprehensiveness, as have the tools and services around it. OSM is becoming a viable datasource for complex projects.

OpenStreetMap UK Jan 2007 v Aug 2008

The project’s stats are another demonstration of the awesome power of a motivated online mob. The passion of some of the volunteers is shocking; there’s even a student attempting to go his entire time at uni using only OSM maps. The result is that the OSM now compares favourably versus some professionally gathered geodata. Most impressive has been the takeup in Germany: 300 volunteers mapped 99.8% of Hamburg (German), and there is now a German-language OpenStreetMap book.

OSM has spawned numerous related projects, the most prominent of which is OpenCycleMap which takes the base OSM data and renders it slightly differently, giving emphasis to features relevant to cyclists. OCM was recently commended by the British Cartographic Society and is an example of the technical innovation that free access to the underlying geographic data allows. Similarly several groups are working on using OSM for open source routing applications.

As the biggest commercial geodata providers Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ have been acquired, the intensity of their competition in (and focus on) major markets has increased. As a result in many parts of the developing world OSM is now the most comprehensive online mapping available, for example see this comparison of online maps of Baghdad or compare for yourself: Mashad in Iran (OSM, Google) or Kinshasa in the Dem. Rep. of Congo (OSM, Google). This summer’s annual State of the Map Conference had representatives from most major European countries and five continents.

Tellingly, while most of the audience at the conference was the usual hard core of geo-enthusiasts, many businesses were represented (including Google and Ordnance Survey) and there were a few VCs in attendance. Which brings us to the next phase in the OSM’s growth: commercial utilization. Companies have been using OSM data in proof of concept implementations for some time. Recently though the examples have become more prolific and more public: see flickr’s use of OSM. Some businesses are starting to rely on OSM for parts of their product offering, for example Wikitravel uses OSM derived maps in their printed travel guides.

New start-ups like CloudeMade in the UK and Geofabrik in Germany are being founded and funded around the business model of providing services around OSM (see TechCrunch coverage of CloudMade funding). The exact revenues of these companies is unclear (and likely still negligible) but the general concept of providing consulting and value-added services around a free (and complex) asset is well entrenched. This year’s acquisition of MySQL by Sun is only the most recent successful (and European) example. One certainty is that the recent explosion of interest in online cartography has lead to the development of an increasingly sophisticated “open source geo stack” that will pressure traditional GIS software companies.

The big players are increasingly trying to use crowd sourcing methods to improve their proprietary databases – see Tele Atlas’s use of Tomtom data or Google’s MapMaker, while savvy (and smaller) businesses are realising that there is much to be gained by working together with the OSM community. Smaller digital mapping services like Autopoietic Systems, Tann Limited (ASTL) and Holland’s Automotive Navigation Data (AND) have donated significant amounts of data OSM.

OpenStreetMap and the tools around it still have a very geeky feel, making it
easy to be dismissive. Nevertheless, there is no disputing the rapid growth,
improvement, and emergence of a surrounding ecosystem of ventures make this a
project likely to a have global impact for both internet users and businesses.

Full disclosure: the author is a member of the OpenStreetMap Foundation.