Google's GeoData, Open Street Map and Tele Atlas

map instructions

Recently there have been a number of interesting announcements from Google on their geo data plans. Two weeks ago Google launched Mapmaker, a site that will let anyone edit the mapping data for a series of countries. Last week Google signed a five year deal to share mapping data with Tele Atlas, the world’s second largest navigation data provider and a recent acquisition of Tomtom (Radar post). These moves caused a flurry of posts about the future of Google’s data, who will have access to it, and how this may affect open data project Open Street Map. I did a phone call last week with Lior Ron and Larry Yu of the team.

hybriad iceland on mapmaker

Mapmaker is a new web-based tool that lets signed-in users add features to certain countries in Google Maps. The countries are currently limited to ones that Google feels are poorly covered. The 18 countries include the Netherlands Antilles, Iceland, and Jamaica. If you go to these countries in Mapmaker you will notice in the bottom right-hand corner that the Map Data and the Imagery are owned by Google (see image above) Some of the countries use other data in Google Maps, but they really are quite limited.

Open Street Map (OSM) is a geo project that lets anyone update it. People donate time and energy uploading GPS tracks, building supporting software, and editing the core data (here’s their full guide to Map Making). OSM is growing quickly. As an open data project, OSM makes its data freely available to anyone. This enables custom mapping applications like the OSM Cycle Map. It is also being used commercially by on real estate site Nestoria and by VC-funded startup Cloudmade. I am sure that seeing Google enter the wiki-map space will help OSM data find its way into more deals. Their data is currently licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0, something that they are considering changing.

Google Maps has coverage of the entire globe (as do its competitors like Live Maps and Yahoo! Maps). Most of the data that is used by Google Maps and displayed comes from Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ (currently being purchased by Nokia). Several months ago Google released the ability to move addresses (for example my house has always shown up a block away on Google Maps) or add a new place. With this feature any logged in user can make an edit; you can even watch the edits in a realtime viewer. If your change is accepted it will show up in Google Maps. Road geometry and address changes derived from Tele Atlas data will be sent back to Tele Atlas to help improve its information. I assume that this updated data will eventually make it into new-owner Tomtom’s GPSs and potentially Google’s competitors who also use Tele Atlas. The data collected via MapMaker will not be shared with Tele Atlas.

At this point in time Google is keeping all of the MapMaker data for itself. However this is not necessarily their final plan. In the phone call I had with Lior and Larry they made it clear that this was the first step. There was no commitment for future releases but they made it clear that they are interested in making this data as useful as possible. I find it highly unlikely that the Mapmaker project will stop here unless it is deemed a failure.

The Open Street Map blog makes the point that right now Google is asking people to give geo data for free without that data being made freely available back to them. I don’t think that most consumers see it that way. I think that consumers see Google giving away massive amounts of functionality in exchange for looking at some often-unclicked ads. Under those circumstances I am sure many do not mind that the data they contribute is not readily available to them.

What does “make the data as useful as possible” mean? Google’s Geo team has had a history of making incremental releases (look to the step-by-step integration of KML into Google Maps as an example). Mapmaker first reared its head as an internal Google tool used to create maps for Africa (with partner Tracks4Africa), Burma (as seen in this Mapplet), and India (via Google-supplied GPS kits as referenced by Michael Jones last summer – Radar post). Now Mapmaker is a consumer editing tool.

In the future I think that we can expect the following releases:

  • Mapmaker expanded to other countries (Based on the initial set of countries it seems that Google needs to own satellite imagery I would assume all if Google is able to meet its own TOS around derivative work)
  • Mapmaker derived data available by an API (not available; really a no-brainer)

Stepping more out on a limb I think that there is a chance that we will see raw Mapmaker data available for reuse in select countries. Under what license I do not know. There are a lot of countries that do not have good geodata where Google could really make a difference. Releasing this data will generate a lot of goodwill from open data projects like OSM and (perhaps more importantly) humanitarian projects. Though Mapmaker is ultimately a for-profit endeavor once the project is mature this type of openness will be worthwhile.

tags: , ,