OpenStreetView? You are no longer hostage to Google's car-driven vision

Deja vu for mapping nerds


Open Source Insider One of the great bright lights of open-source software and user-driven community projects is OpenStreetMap, which offers an open-source mapping platform similar to, but also very philosophically different than, Google Maps.

It manages to duplicate most of Google Maps using primarily the contributions of enthusiastic users, too.

In my experience, OpenStreetMap is every bit as accurate as Google Maps and quite frequently surpasses it, particularly outside the US. That it is even anywhere close to Google Maps is a testament to massive amount of time and effort the OpenStreetMap community has invested in the project.

One place that Google Maps has always had OpenStreetMap beat, though, is Google Street View, for which – until relatively recently – there was no OSM equivalent.

Telenav, one of OSM's major supporters, has now launched a new project dubbed OpenStreetCam (previously called OpenStreetView) with the goal of crowdsourcing street-level photography for OpenStreetMap across the globe.

To be clear, OpenStreetCam is not at this time a project directly supported by OpenStreetMap. Also, not all of the components in the OpenStreetCam toolkit are open source – though, in the comments on the project's announcement, developers said the reason some bits are not open source has to do with component licensing issues and is apparently a known issue that's being worked on.

DIY for the OS map fan

In the meantime, if you're OK with a little bit of closed-source code running here and there you can contribute imagery to OpenStreetCam, which will publish it under a creative commons CC-BY-SA licence. You can also quickly and easily delete your contributions should you change your mind.

The new OpenStreetCam project provides the software to create, upload and host your own street view imagery. Rather than expensive, high tech-outfitted cars, OpenStreetCam uses Android phones fitted with a Bluetooth LE (or Wi-Fi) dongle. At the moment, only the Veepeak Mini WiFi OBD2 dongle is supported, but increasing hardware compatibility is a top priority for the nascent project. It's also possible to contribute using a GoPro or similar camera using OSV's uploading tools, though at this stage those tools are basically just Python scripts.

The current apps and hardware can be a little fiddly to set up and get working. It's not quite at the stage where it's ready for a general audience to participate, but if you have any experience with mapping software or contribute to OSM already, there's nothing too complicated about it. Suffice to say that mapping nerds can get up and running in a couple of hours.

And there are some nice features in the app and other tools, like built-in sign detection, which happens in the app. This means that the app detects speed limit signs in real time and can warn you if you are speeding.

If your car has an OBD2 dongle port – and if it's a newish car, the chances are good that it does – the Veepeak dongle can read diagnostic info from your car and broadcast it over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This allows the app to read speed and curve info, which helps with accuracy, especially when the GPS signal starts to fade or disappears altogether in a tunnel, for example.

As for seeing the results of your efforts at geophotography, well – at the moment that's a bit rough around the edges. There's a plug-in for OSM that will display images from OpenStreetCam on an OSM map and there's the OpenStreetCam website, which has the plugin installed and also a leaderboard listing contributions from users. Right now it would take a good deal of work to get OpenStreetCam data anywhere else.

As of this writing, the OpenStreetCam leaderboard is still dominated heavily by Telenav's efforts. The leading user is Telenavdrives with nearly 40,000 kilometres worth of images uploaded. Adding up other obvious Telenav users in the leaderboard puts the total way above any individual user's efforts. That said, users have contributed a significant amount of images.

Whether or not the project will ever go beyond those of us who just love all things map-related remains to be seen.

There's no place like GNOME

On that front, GNOME Maps might provide some help. The application is still in heavy development, but it recently added tools that allow even less-map-savvy users to contribute to OpenStreetMap through the app. For now those tools are limited to mapping edits and contributions – there's nothing directly tied to OpenStreetCam – but it's not hard to imagine that down the road an easy way to upload and use OpenStreetCam imagery might find its way into GNOME Maps.

The OpenStreetCam announcement might give some mapping nerds a sense of déjà vu.

One reason is that there was an earlier project dubbed OpenStreetView which started back in 2009 with similar goals, but was, apparently, a little ahead of its time and never quite caught on.

The other reason OpenStreetView might sound familiar is that there's another crowd-sourced "street view" project for OSM out there by the name of Mapillary.

Mapillary and OpenStreetCam have considerable overlap, though. Mapillary is ultimately a for-profit effort where, thus far, OpenStreetCam is not. Whether that helps or hurts the project over the long term – in other words, what will happen to Mapillary's data when the money dries up – is an open question and difficult to know. In terms of openness though, both appear to be about the same, using creative commons licenses to govern user contributions. OpenStreetCam makes it much easier to delete your contributions should you change your mind down the road.

Why two projects? Well, this is open source so "the more the merrier" isn't just a saying, it's a way of life. In the end, the two projects feel very similar though the philosophy behind them is very different. Right now Mapillary has a considerable lead in terms of coverage and a more polished interface for exploring street view, but OpenStreetCam, with Telenav's backing, is well poised to catch up. ®

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