Category Archives: copyright

FOSS4G – First Report

The FOSS4G conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, is almost over. There has been a lot of talk about Free, Open, geo-data and quite a lot of interest in OpenStreetMap. Much of the interest is generated from the restrictive geo-data licensing that we are all too familiar with – it seems that people across the world share the same problems with accessing data. There is also an interesting case of “grass is always greener” that exists between people in the USA (where the government provide basic geo-data for free) and most of the rest of the world where we pay for the map data. The US representatives point out how crude their geo-data is, and also that private geo-data vendors supply data under licenses that are equally as restrictive as those of the Ordnance Survey or other European mapping agencies.

So there is a lot of discontent within the Geo and wider community, which catalyses projects like OpenStreetMap and is also drawing the attention of larger organisations. OSGeo have had a massive presence at the conference. They are an organisation that have been recently set up to support open source geospatial software – products like GRASS, Mapserver and GDAL are all benifitting from their assiciation with OSGeo. In a discussion session about open geodata, OSGeo expressed a lot of itnerest in helping grass roots projects, possibly by providing legal advice or by providing contact with a wider community and also by providing representation Governments and administrators who pull the strings. They are definitely worth taking a look at.

OSGeo themselves are partially supported by Autodesk, who have just made the move into Open Source with their Map Guide Open Source product. For a proprietery software house like Autodesk to release an open source project may have been unimaginable a few years ago and demonstrates the turning of the open source software tide. How long will it be until the open geo-data tide turns the same way?


Google Maps vs Mapstraction, pt II

This was going to be part of an earlier post, but should now stand alone.

When we’re not working on free geodata creation for OpenStreetMap, we like to make the best of the current free beer commercial mapping APIs to make neat things like GPX viewers and pub maps. In the light of some of the more amazing Google Maps mashups out there (here’s a recent decent), these sites might seem underwhelming, but if you consider how quickly they could (or couldn’t) have been put together a year ago then it’s clear that thanks to Google Maps we’ve come a very long way.

Tim O’Reilly recently asked the Mapping Hacks people, and others, why Google Maps was so much more popular than all the other APIs available. Schuyler pretty much nailed it, though after my Mapstraction research I think he’s too generous towards Yahoo and Microsoft.

I note with disappointment that neither Yahoo nor MS offer polyline support, which leaves my desired cross-vendor demo of a GPX viewer dead in the water. It also means that anyone requiring that functionality for drawing routes or boundaries is stuck with Google for the time being. Ironically for Google however, their recently developed open source Explorer Canvas might offer a cross-platform way for Y! and MS to compensate for this. Further disappointment with alternatives to Google Maps comes with the realisation that Yahoo’s maps only cover North America so far (although I was pleasantly surprised to find Microsoft is the only provider to give any road or placename data outside of North America, UK and Japan).

Microsoft’s Virtual Earth SDK feels clunky to code with, shirking the fashionable javascript idioms which help make Yahoo and Google‘s offerings feel elegant, and their API is completely malnourished with regards to easily placing nice looking map pins. Sure, it might be flexible, but Google and Yahoo’s offerings look good out of the box which is really important. (The same can be said of the developer documentation, too).

Whilst looking at all of this I took a look at OpenStreetMap’s slippy maps interface to see if I could allow plotting of pins. Unfortunately, although the Civicmaps code base we started with supports plotting GeoRSS, it looks like in the process of adding in support for Mercator projection that the marker features were broken. This means that for an OpenStreetMap-powered javascript maps implementation you can put on any website, there is still lots of work to do. However, following this exercise I’ve discovered that if anyone wants to seriously compete with Google in this space, then we all have a lot of catching up to do too!


Free Web Mapping APIs and Mapstraction

When I first got involved with OpenStreetMap, my aspiration was to make free maps to enable something like Wayfaring or Platial to be built. Even though those sites and many others are storming ahead without us and creating great services on top of Google’s Maps API, I still think it’s important for them to be able to access and build upon free geodata and avoid lock-in with commercial vendors. This is especially important for sites like Placeopedia that use Google Maps to geo-code things, because as Mikel Maron and Richard Fairhurst have pointed out (see the comments) it’s entirely possible that the map owners could claim ownership of the geodata they are creating.

With all that in mind, I took a look at what could be done to make it as easy as possible to switch mapping providers. In the short term, this would mean making it easy to flip between Google Maps, Yahoo Maps and Microsoft Virtual Earth in response to changes to T&Cs, introduction of ads, addition of better data etc. In the long term, a common javascript mapping API would mean that free offerings such as OpenStreetMap or Worldkit could quickly be adapted as drop-in replacements for commercial providers. I’ve been collecting my thoughts on this at based on discussions with Steve and Mikel, and there’s an illustration of how it might work here.

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines, of course. The Open Source Geospatial Foundation has a cross-project mailing list for people interested in similar issues, and numerous hacks and comparisons abound as people work out how similar but different the various mapping platforms are. Hackers everywhere have been murmuring about their dependence on Google for some time, and maps aren’t the first area where Google’s initial offering invites obvious commoditisation.

Looking at the common features of the mapping APIs, it’s clear that the bar is currently set quite low: it’s scrolling tile-based maps with map markers, folks. With tongue in cheek, Schuyler Erle refers to this as “red dot fever” (more context here, though I don’t know if that’s Schuyler’s writing or a like-minded collaborator). Numerous open source equivalents have emerged, but none has taken hold to my knowledge. This cements the general feeling among the responses to Tim O’Reilly’s open question about Google’s Mapping API dominance: Google Maps is actually very good, it was first to market, its maps look nicest, its terms and conditions are reasonable and as a developer it’s pretty easy to work with. It’s clear to us that OpenStreetMap has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s also become clear to me that Yahoo and Microsoft do too. I’m watching this space.


Podcast: Ed Parsons

One of the cool things about wordpress 2.0 is that you can drop an mp3 in to it and it magically becomes a podcast, including the RSS feed bits (so yes, you can subscribe to this feed in iTunes). I thought it would be useful to talk to people within openstreetmap and slightly further afield in the geo community as openstreetmap grows beyond everyone knowing each other. If you have a story to tell please get in touch, it’s likely I might ask to talk to you anyway :-) You can discuss this cast, and maybe help transcribe it if that’s useful here. The first cast is me speaking to Ed Parsons who is CTO of the OS and says some pretty intersting things, but has detractors. You can find the 21Mb mp3 here. Enjoy.

freeourdata gets wings

The Guardian campaign has hit liftoff rather quickly with a site and blog. I wrote a response which turned in to a bit of commentary to the OSM mailing list:

FAQ entry:

‘Wouldn’t it be better to create an open-source database of geographic and other data?

Much though we admire the stoicism of the people at XXX, when you compare it to the Post Office’s thousands of postcodes – which it has to verify – and the Ordnance Survey’s billion-odd bits of data, which would cost perhaps £200m in taxes to keep updated to their present quality – that is, about £4 per taxpayer per year – you have to say that it makes more sense to free the existing data than to reinvent the wheel. It’s a very large wheel.’

This misses the point of what’s useful. We don’t have to have millions of postcodes to be useful. We don’t need to know where trees are to the milimeter to create a map that’s 99% useful. Even Ed was saying this, I think, when he was saying that what OSM is doing is not the same as what the OS is. To the best of my knowledge the OS leaves streetmap work to mastermap derivation by third parties. They do mastermap.

It also misses that OSM and FTP are collaborative efforts with social and innovative technological angles.

If the campaign is about money then as a friend said the other day, let an economist decide IP law. There is no ‘right way’ to do government IP policy. The US has public domain, we have crown copyright, others have others. public domain is not magically better, it’s worse in lots of ways than, say, viral licenses like CC. I’ll leave the BSD vs. GPL argument.

But again, some economists should decide the IP law. Not the rightsholders (the OS) or us as consumers because we’re equally biased. What’s the overall benefit to the UK economy? That’s the question.

Personally, having been involved in campaigns, I think it’s going to take *ages* to have any effect. This will stir up a hornets nest. The OS may be big and evil, but as people said on Ed’s blog (I think): the treasury isn’t going to pay for this. They’ll privatise the OS if anything. Then what? Then we’re all suddenly competing with someone who has all the data, most of the expertise, and no need to play nice. Because I think at the moment they _do_ play nice with some people, compared to their options should they be privatised.

This is not an argument that the debate is pointless or that the ‘campaign’ should not be supported, but that we should be careful what we wish for. Oh, and that we shouldn’t dismiss the people at XXX.

So personally, I’d avoid polarising this issue about public domain vs. crown copyright. My personal judgment is that I will have more effect on the availability of free mapping data by working on and promoting OSM than lobbying europarl or within Westminster.

OpenStreetMap is way bigger than me though. I could spend time lobbying. What does everyone think? Are these seperate parallel inititives or more closely intertwined?