The case for crowd-sourced mapping

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OpenStreetMap is an open-source alternative to big tech’s mapping.

The rise of smartphone and GPS technology has led to tens of billions of dollars in online mapping investments and acquisitions by big tech, but is it a problem to have our interface with the physical world controlled by for-profit companies?

OpenStreetMap is an open-source alternative, promoted in a blog post (I found on Reddit) by Emacsen, one of the organizers of the project. Emacsen writes big tech cannot be trusted to develop such a critical resource for three basic reasons: “who decides what gets shown on the map, who decides where you are and where you should go, and personal privacy.”

Along with being independent from big tech, OSM is customizable and maps can be downloaded to use off-line. I don’t use GPS, but I hear it can be unreliable. Apple’s turn-by-turn software can be frustrating, and recently after a few hours of roaming the streets of San Francisco with my iPhone 5’s map zooming in and out awkwardly and spinning the map so I couldn’t tell which way was north— I wished I had other mapping options on my phone.

Reddit users criticized the OSM for lack of user participation, limited options for routing, and insufficient hosting. It’s true, OSM business listings in SE Portland are incomplete— as are Google maps.

Google rarely misses when searching for a specific business or by key words, but many businesses on Google’s maps along SE Belmont near Laurelhurst Park, for example, aren’t current. And in the maps’ photos (taken in 2011) it’s funny to see boarded-up buildings along the now-vibrant street, and even the weird old sign for the Dixie Mattress Company is still up.

Google says inclusion on Maps and in their searches is free, and is an easy first step for businesses to be found in its searches. (Start here to be listed.) But even if Google doesn’t pay to prioritize businesses now, what if they decide to in the future?

I’m going to do more research on working with OSM. Registering was easy, and in under a minute I added the Belmont Bodega to the map, and corrected the location of Rocking Frog Cafe.

Crowd-sourced mapping does seems like a good idea, but I must admit: I used Google to find the address for both businesses.

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