The irony of ‘Free’ – The significance of OpenStreetMap

I use maps most often when I’m unsure, via walking or driving, of how to get from destination A to destination B. When I do know where I’m going and how to get there, I’ll still punch in destination B to see an ‘estimated time of arrival’, even though I know it won’t be right. I referred to map as singular as I habitually use Google Maps; despite it’s frustratingly frequent inaccuracies, because it is somewhat convenient, portable and free* – it gets the job done (almost)

Anywhere prior to 2004, was a time when map data sources were, for the most part, controlled by private and government bodies.The data collected and owned under license by Google, is combined with geospatial data visualisation, real-time traffic conditions, route planning capability and public transport information. As mentioned in the lecture, “maps are never neutral” and “always have an agenda” (Evans, 2016). We explored maps as political weapons but what about maps for profit? Simply put, GoogleMaps is a commercial enterprise. It is designed to include map features that, rather than to serve the greater need, will be the most profitable for Google. The service records, tracks and stores user location information and search results to generate a profit through marketing. Extending beyond the web, Google has also conceeded it has used StreetView vehicles to intercept and store Wi-Fi transmission data, including email passwords and content. The following is an excerpt from Google’s own press release…

Is it, as the German DPA states, illegal to collect WiFi network information?
We do not believe it is illegal–this is all publicly broadcast information which is accessible to anyone with a WiFi-enabled device. Companies like Skyhook have been collecting this data cross Europe for longer than Google, as well as organizations like the German Fraunhofer Institute.

Well they did it first so nerrrrrrrrr” – Google.

Ethics and legality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. GoogleMaps would love you to believe you actually are getting something for free, but at what cost? Google as a whole operates in the currency of data – data that can only be collected at the expense of your privacy.

Enter OpenStreetMap. Aptly named, OSM’s core difference to Google Maps lies in its “open” format. Founded in 2004, OSM is a crowd-sourced project that launched an editable map of the world, created entirely from the collaborative effort of online masses. Existing as a map, data generated by OSM is considered the primary output. Map data that are free (actually free) to use, editable and licensed under new copyright schemes – such as Creative Commons – which protect the project from unwarranted use by either participants or a third party (Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006).The OSM Foundation acts as a support network to the project, offering zero control or direction to contributors but dedicating itself to “providing geospatial data for anyone to use and share.” However the service isn’t perfect;

  • Some would argue that OpenStreetMap is more vulnerable to mapping vandalism. Evidence would suggest that closed source maps, who have adopted such an approach, are equally vulnerable.
  • The database will always be subject to vandalism however this is precisely OSM’s strength since, among other things, it allows data to quickly accommodate changes in the physical world. Neis and Zipf credit it as one of the most impressive sources of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) on the Internet (2012)
  • According to Perkins & Dodge, the majority of the 20,000 OSM contributors simply collect street data: few edit and tag. Fewer are still actively involved in the system. However Haklay’s research highlights how OSM aims to educate users so they can easily be converted to contributors (2008).

Google employs a team of no more than 7,000 people to develop and operate GoogleMaps; in comparison to the current 192,000 registered users of OSM. A 38% portion of those registered are contributing and, due to the diversity of the contribution, are inadvertently satisfying a diverse range of peoples needs – rather than a single, capitalist-driven one. Maps can be made in the context of pretty much any interest group on the globe.

There are many applications where maps such as these should be treated as instrumental for the greater social good, and there are many examples where it has proved to be. However a map does not have the complete ability to do this unless it is simple, accessible and transparent (Maron, 2007) – Characteristics that define OpenStreetMap.

It isn’t a flawless system, but it’s collaborative nature makes constant improvement inevitable. The community framework makes it a powerful force in humanitarian relief and is perhaps the biggest reiteration of OSM’s significance.

*At what cost?


Evans, N. (2016) Global Visions: Mapping the planet, lecture, University of Wollongong

Haklay, M. . (2008) How good is Volunteered Geographical Information? A comparative study of OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey datasets ,Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design accessed 31/03/16

Maron, M. (2007) OpenStreetMap: A Disaster Waiting to Happen, Presented at State of the Map 2007, 14-15 July, Manchester, UK,

Neis, Pascal,; Zipf, Alexander, (2012), “Analyzing the Contributor Activity of a Volunteered Geographic Information Project — The Case of OpenStreetMap”, ISPRS Int. J. Geo-Inf. 1 (2): accessed 23/03/16,doi:10.3390/ijgi1020146

Perkins, C. and Dodge, M. (2008) The potential of user-generated cartography: a case study of the OpenStreetMap project and Mapchester mapping party, North West Geography, 8(1), accessed 23/03/16

Haklay, M. . (2008) How good is Volunteered Geographical Information? A comparative study of OpenStreetMap and Ordnance Survey datasets ,Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design accessed 23/03/16



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