(reprinted from BusinessWeek, with thanks)
In the great geodata wars, OpenStreetMap (OSM) has portrayed itself as the open-source crusader doing battle against the leaders in proprietary data - Tele Atlas, Navteq and Google.
Unlike its rivals, OSM makes the underlying data for its popular map publicly available, and anyone can access it and tailor it for use in mobile phones, tablets, Garmin GPS units, even automobiles.
So what happens when OSM decides to keep the latest version of its map data to itself? Its fans are about to find out.
OSM says it will delay the distribution of its newest map data, known as planet.osm, at least for the foreseeable future. The project says the data, which is designed specifically for a rendering known as the 'Mapnik' style, is not yet ready to be altered by outside programmers and customized for other uses.
"To make an attractive map, we made some design tradeoffs," says Fake Mikel Maron, convener of OSM's Fake Strategic Working Group. "We didn't want to think about what it would take for the same data to be useful elsewhere. People would have had to stop tagging for the renderer, the Americans would have actually had to spend 15 minutes thinking about dupe nodes, and we'd have had a huge additional support burden. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut."
Maron says that if OSM were to open-source the data now, as it has with other versions of planet.osm, it couldn't prevent developers from putting the data in routing applications "and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if people can even route with this shit."
He points to a project called "Osmarender" as an example of the pitfalls of unfettered access to the data. "OSMF is still having to deal with claims for retina damage even today."
Instead, users will be encouraged to use a new, tightly-controlled routing option on the OSM front page. Access will also be available to map tiles through high quality "scraping" applications, such as GMapCatcher and Tilewolf, that have received a seal of approval from the OSM sysadmin team.
"OSM is an open-source project," Maron adds. "We have not changed our strategy."
Even so, the new approach represents a significant volte face for a project whose founder once defined "openness" as "wget http://planet.openstreetmap.org/planet-latest.osm.bz2". To ascertain the impact of this latest move, our reporters asked well-known "services on OSM" company, CloudMade, how the withdrawal of planet.osm would affect their future business plans.
But CEO Yahoo Smorgasbord told us that, as they were still crunching through a planet file from January 2009 with the aim of eventually refreshing their map tiles, maybe, they did not anticipate any serious problems.
Nevertheless, the open-ended delay will likely generate unease among device makers, application developers, and members of the open-source community, many of whom are financially and philosophically invested in OpenStreetMap. Some critics, principally based in Australia, have long questioned the OSM Foundation's commitment to openness, and this latest news will give them added ammunition. (That said, the same guys have also questioned the theory of evolution, the world being round, and gravity.)
It may also provide justification for critics of OSM, particularly from the traditional GIS world, who argued that it creates a Wild West of map data by allowing people to do what they pleased. Some of the early OSM routing applications, for example, looked silly when compared with professional products such as Google, mostly because OSM hadn't been built for this type of use, but also because they were trying to use Gosmore.
Still, programmers took the data and dished out subpar routing apps. This time around, the OSM Foundation appears to be reining in openness in favor of a highly controlled release of map data.
Sent from my Android phone