Google is not the Enemy

OpenStreetMap is often perceived by outsiders to be Google’s nemesis. Or maybe, with less delusions of grandeur, a competitor. When I explain OpenStreetMap in one paragraph, the phrase “unlike, for example, Google maps” will usually make an appearance. And, maybe in reaction to that, some OpenStreetMappers believe that Google is the enemy.

But is it really?

We used to have a good rapport with Google. Ed Parsons, Google’s “geospatial technologist”, and Steve Coast have known each other for a while; Steve founded OpenStreetMap mainly out of frustration about the licensing policies of the UK national mapping agency, Ordnance Survey. At the time, Ed was the CTO at Ordnance Survey, and frequently had to defend the OS’s business model against newcomers like us. (Some sources say he might have been as frustrated with the OS as we were.) In 2006, Steve even interviewed Ed for the OpenGeoData blog. In 2007, Ed (now with Google) did the keynote speech at the first ever State of the Map conference in Manchester, and he’s been a guest and speaker at several others of our conferences, writing after SOTM 2011: “Great weekend at state of the map, openstreetmap feels like a really mature project now.”

Google has sponsored State of the Map, has awarded us several places in its Summer of Code programme every year since 2008, and Google has even participated in our first server funding drive in 2009 as the biggest single donor to the tune of £5,000 – without us even having had to ask.

And not only that – technologically, we profit from Google’s trail blazing every day. The reason we can simply pop an OpenLayers map onto a web page and everyone instantly knows how to use it – Google. The projection we’re all using to cut through a bunch of Gordian GIS knots and make web mapping pragmatic – Google. The space-saving storage format we increasingly use for our geodata – based on Google protocol buffers. And the list goes on. I don’t believe that OpenStreetMap has profited more from any other company than from the direct and indirect support we received from Google. Personally, I have saved countless hours by explaining OSM with reference to Google Maps: “It’s like Google Maps, just that everyone can edit it, and you can download and re-use the data.”

There were a few instances in the past where bits of OpenStreetMap data showed up on Google’s map, and they were usually resolved without much ado through quick and friendly communications at “boss level”; as far as I could see, all of these problems were down to over-eager suppliers or MapMaker users. Conversely, every now and then an OpenStreetMap mapper oversteps the line and traces data from Google, which we quickly remove without (to my knowledge) ever having received a nastygram from Google lawyers.

I’m not a Google insider but I think it is fair to say that their agenda is aiding – and watching – the flow of information on the Internet, thereby gaining valuable insights into what was known to pre-Facebook generations as the “private sphere” and being able to sell advertising. Google reads your e-mails – not because they’re evil but because you choose to use their superior e-mail software they offer free of charge. Google even reads internal OSMF papers before you and I get to see them (if ever) because OSMF uses Google Docs. I freely admit that I’m a bit frightened of their omnipresence and near-omniscience, but that doesn’t make them our foe. I’m sure that Google would love to distribute OpenStreetMap data and watch people consume it – it’s what they do. It seems that our license terms didn’t appeal to them until now but I can hardly blame them; I hear that other big players, too, have projects ready to launch as soon as OpenStreetMap is through with its license change because they fear the current CC-BY-SA.

We’ve approached Google a number of times because we would like to use their aerial imagery (Google’s coverage and quality is often better than what we have from Bing); to no avail. Their official line is that they don’t have a license to derive data from that imagery, which sounds a bit hollow given MapMaker – but I’m prepared to give them the benefit of doubt; who can say what arcane regulations IP lawyers come up with. Their “StreetView” imagery would also be helpful for us to use in some cases, and while we don’t have a blanket OK to use these images, we have sometimes been allowed to gather information from them for specific projects.

We’re not trying to be a “better Google Maps”. We could never be; we’re lacking a few sea containers of computer hardware for that. Google has recently made some headlines by saying that they’ll charge for heavy use of their maps API, triggering a little switch2osm movement – but the truth is, if you want the quality of service that you get from Google, with their CDN and their high-load capability and their redundancy, from an OpenStreetMap based setup, you’ll not get it any cheaper. OpenStreetMap won’t even start to offer you aerial imagery and other bells and whistles that Google users take for granted.

What OpenStreetMap wants to be is an alternative to government-procured or commercially produced geodata. In doing so, we’re more a competitor to Navteq or TeleAtlas than to Google. Yes, Google is starting to survey their own geodata, but only because they suffered the exact same problem that OpenStreetMap started out with: the absence of data that you could license for a decent price.

Two of our directors at the OpenStreetMap Foundation – Steve Coast and Mikel Maron – have in the past sprinkled a little bit of venom in the general Google direction; there was a vandalism incident where both prematurely assumed Google was complicit or at least negligent, and Mikel has used his personal blog to criticize Google quite loudly for their business strategy in developing countries which he saw as an affront against the open data movement. Google has also recently struck a deal with the World Bank which, if implemented as reported, would fly in the face of World Bank’s commitment to open data, prompting more criticism from Mikel and others.

Google is just an organisation like every other organisation; they’re not exempt from the rule that if you aren’t careful, self-serving managers will rise to the top, where a personal agenda or reaching this or that far-fetched goal to boast your manager creds might be more important than doing the right thing. It is good of us to watch Google, and to elbow them in the ribs every now and then. But in the grand scheme of things – in the whole “crowd-sourced hive-mind world-wide collective vs. government-and-business-controlled data cathedrals” arena – Google is on the same side as we are. More so, perhaps, than a couple other organisations who vie for our affection.