This link is to an online map of the area immediately around my house. It’s not quite as neat and tidy as the equivalent Google Map, but you’ll have to excuse the cartographer and his equipment for that. The cartographer? For most of the map, yours truly. The equipment? A $200 Garmin GPS unit (there are cheaper units that would do the job, too), a notepad, and a bicycle to speed up the process. But if Google Maps costs nothing, what’s the point of OpenStreetMap, a Wikipedia-style project to make an online street map?
Google Maps might be free to view online, but there’s limits to what you can do. Want to make a map featuring just bicycle trails? You can’t. Want to include a copy of a map in a report you’re producing. You’re not allowed, unless you pay. Want to load it into your car navigation system. No can do – and map updates for in-car GPS systems are bloody expensive! OpenStreetMap data, available under one of the Creative Commons licenses, can be used for any and all such purposes.
The maps are still very much a work in progress; in Melbourne, for instance, the freeways and major arterial roads are done, but residential street-by-street coverage is restricted to the inner northern suburbs and parts of the south-east – which correlates pretty well with nerd heartland! But there’s a lot of progress; it reminds me of Wikipedia in about 2003 – still some way from general coverage but with enough to demonstrate the promise; more importantly, the editing tools are mature enough that adding more information is no longer a process of fighting with the technicalities – though, of course, the very nature of the task means it’s never going to be quite as easy as editing the Wikipedia.
Yes, there will undoubtedly be quality issues with the maps as they develop. But commercial maps are hardly mistake-free either, as Victoria’s Country Fire Authority is finding out after they replaced their volunteer-reported maps with commercially-developed ones.
But by about 2010 or so commercial providers of street maps might be struggling to sell their wares, when acceptably good ones, with full support for routing, will be available to download onto your GPS mobile phone for free.