We have Yahoo! to thank for this. The company made its satellite imagery available to open street map, crucially granting a licence to allow free and open map data to be built from these aerial images. Rather than having to travel every street in person with a GPS, the freetards could just trace the roads from the images, without ever having to unplug themselves from their computers. Once you’ve mastered the rather cumbersome tools you can add a bunch of streets in no time, simply by "tracing" over the aerial images. Open Street Map exploded with detail.
Sadly, Señor Diablo is also in the very same detail. Lines on a map are one thing, but you also need road names, and aerial pictures aren’t much use for getting at them. What you’d need is a much closer view of the street.
So, back to Google, which is spending real money driving fancy GPS-connected cameras all over the UK. It isn't going to give all those pictures away to any old fool for free.
But it doesn’t have to. Just like Yahoo with its aerial imagery, the ownership and copyright of the StreetView pics remains with Google. Only Google can use them to provide StreetView.
Without handing over the crown jewels, Google could happily grant Open Street Map a licence to derive data from the images, just like Yahoo! did. Find a street sign on Google’s imagery, look at where that image was taken on Open Street Map and huzzah! we’ve just named that street. While we’re at it, let's plot some post boxes, bus stops, taxi ranks, pubs, cinemas, schools and who knows what other useful information, and get all that mapped as well.
For the accountants among you, this is the “compound interest” effect that open source data has. Lots of other applications and uses now become possible because you don’t need a successful business model to pay for the right to use the OS maps. Take the UK’s National Cycle Network, rendered on Open Street Map, which we encourage you to compare against the government’s own version, as powered by the OS data. Can you guess which one is dog slow and probably cost a good chunk of public money?
The icing on the cake? Google gets to take all that open map data and use it to improve their own service too. And unlike all the money we’ve already piled (and continue to pile) into Ordnance Survey’s maps, Open Street Map’s maps are free for everyone and anyone to use for the rest of time.
How’s that for organising the world’s information while simultaneously doing no evil? ®
M. Walker is a software developer at The Register.