openstreetmap | style is violence

Scott Morrison posted a good article today in the Wall Street Journal about our hire of Steve Coast, OpenStreetMap‘s founder, and our announcement a week ago that we’d be sharing aerial imagery with OSM.  OpenStreetMap, in case you don’t know, is a sort of Wikipedia for maps, contributed to by all, owned by all.  It’s been up since 2004.

Steve is a wonderfully creative hacker, both idealistic and sardonic.  (Maybe nothing sums the latter up quite so perfectly as his Fake Mayor iPhone app, which spoofs the Foursquare “you’re the mayor” screen and might score you a free cappuccino at some overly-wired coffeeshop.)  In short, he’d be at home as a character in a Cory Doctorow novel.  Hell, he probably is a character in a Cory Doctorow novel.

Like Steve (and Cory) I’m a fan of Creative Commons.  When we released Photosynth in 2008, we had several CC options among the rights structures selectable for uploaded photos, and shortly afterward I prevailed on our program managers and legal people to change the default to Creative Commons Attribution, the most re-mixable variety.  I think it’s important for people to be aware and exercise choice in controlling the rights to their own data.  Most people who post media on the Web in a public forum don’t plan to sell or license those media.  In that case they should be encouraged to share with each other and with the world in a way that prevents the media from ever becoming a corporation’s walled asset.  The CC-Attribution and ShareAlike licenses do that.

Shortly after the Photosynth release, I saw the beautiful “OSM 2008: A Year of Edits” video, an animation showing all of the contributions to OSM over 2008.  It’s a lot better than it sounds.  Actually, I remember it sort of putting a lump in my throat at the time.  Eerily, it reminds me a bit of voltage-sensitive dye neural imaging videos.  As if the Earth is a giant brain wiring itself up.

One of the things that’s exciting to me about OSM is the way it empowers grassroots mapping of places where there’s not enough economic incentive to produce the sort of commercial maps Tele Atlas and Navteq specialize in (and that Bing licenses).  Major OSM projects took place last year in Haiti and in Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world (home to roughly 1M people).  Even in the US, while the commercial providers have far more precise and complete maps of the areas where people tend to navigate, OSM has a surprising density of small roads and paths in the wilder places, and details of footpaths in parks.

We have a collaboration underway with DigitalGlobe to do one of the largest aerial imagery surveys ever undertaken, covering the US and Western Europe at 30cm resolution.  (The camera we’re using to do this is an impressive technical achievement, developed by our Vexcel team in Graz, Austria.)  By sharing use of the imagery with the OSM community, we hope to enable more OSM goodness.  Maybe one day we can find a way to fund this kind of imaging over less developed parts of the world.

Most of the OSM community has responded very positively, though there are a few of the usual anti-M$FT trolls, like spacecube writing

In my eyes OSM just sold its soul to the devil.

To be clear, OSM’s legal status is like a one-way valve– it’s free and open forever, and any edits made to it from any source become free and open too.  It can be used by anybody, but it can never be “bought” or “owned” by any company.  If a trail over the Rockies can now be positioned with 30cm accuracy by tracing over our aerial imagery, that’s bad for OSM how exactly?

This is quite aside from the question of whether Microsoft can still be considered the devil in the company of its younger brethren– maybe, but at most in an old fashioned, Rolling Stones sort of way.

Kind words from Blaise