Mapping the city collaboratively
Thanks to an email from ravages and sagaro, i find myself sitting in IIM B attending the FreeMap India workshop over the weekend. The focus is on the OpenStreetMap project and its related tools. OpenStreetMap is a mapping service like Google maps, with a twist, its a map that anyone can edit, just like wikipedia. Although i was already familiar with OSM, having dabbled with it very early on about two years back, what drew me to the event was the possibility of meeting people in the mapping domain and a reason to bunk my college cat which the fools have scheduled on a saturday.
Anyway, a 6 hour chilly train ride later im greeted by the bangalore dawn, inhaling the smoky smell of the city mixed with depressing weather and a runny nose. With a touch of good fortune i get a lift to the IIMB campus on a bike. The workshop had attracted a respectable crowd, mostly guys related to the mapping/gis industry in one way or the other. And funnily enough i wasnt the only nut to come from Chennai for this, i bumped into a 2nd year IITM guy and a final year bloke from coimbatore who was doing a project related to location based services.
So coming to OSM itself, Schyuler and Mikel give an intro session about the project, and it really got me thinking. Once upon a time i had dismissed this and other mapping services when Google maps had entered the arena and put up an impressive show back in 2006 and over two years has only become better, offering unparalleled coverage and detail to push yahoo and msn into the web gutter.
But then toaday, i realised the real power of OSM that lay beneath, its wiki aspect and the fact that its licenced under CCbySA. OSM is to Google Maps what Wikipedia is to Encyclopedia Britannica. The bottom line is that Google is still a profit making organisation and not a charity, so whatever work or service they offer is ruled by economics, and that is precisely what will ultimately restrict google maps – in accuracy as well as coverage. While at first i was sceptical at how normal users can ultimately map the entire earth, i realised that when the process had worked so successfully for wikipedia, then there’s no reason why it wouldnt for this.
I thought i’d do a comparison of both OSM and GM for a sample city like London (OSM and Google) , and was clearly impressed with the power that collaborative mapping wielded. There’s almost nothing that cannot be mapped and tagged, right from post boxes to shopping malls. Given that mapping data for the country is extremely limited in coverage and grossly inaccurate, only a community approach such as this can bridge the gap to completeness.
While the freemap workshop lay emphasis on using a gps unit to create vectorised data and may sound a little complicated, its neither necessary to have a gps or have a background in mapping to create maps. The available online editor, potlatch, makes map creation as easy as tracing out the roads on a yahoo satellite image. Next time you stumble upon errors in google maps or voids in coverage, dont hope google to fix it, cause they most probably never will, instead map your neighbourhood yourself. If everyone were to do that we would no longer be bound by the google leash, they control our lives enough already.
The workshop itself has been quite a good learning experience, now i know the ins and out of using a GPS, thanks to FindNearYou- Chennai who were generous enough to lend me a unit especially for this, and also met a lot of interesting folks working with a wide range of projects, like mapunity, iciti, pathfinder and numerous others including government ones. Just imagine, with free mapping data for India, we would have so many developers working on creating map based services that it will eventually be the end users who benefit. For, that is reason enough to be part of the open map project.