Driving some value into Google's Street View
The Reg calls on Google to open Street View
Perhaps Google should pay some penance for its evil. As luck would have it, we’ve got a lovely idea for how it can redeem itself.
But first, some back story.
Mapping is a murky business. UK taxpayers have the pleasure of supporting Ordnance Survey’s activities to create maps of the entire UK. Ordnance Survey then gleefully sells these maps back to us, so we can actually use the maps we helped pay to create. Google Maps might be free to you, at the point of service, but behind the scenes Google are handing over cash for the rights to use those maps. It is similar to what it is doing with YouTube and all those pesky video "rights holders".
As The Guardian notes: "Nearly half of the OS's revenue comes from selling its data to the public sector, and the public sector is funded by us, the taxpayers."
Back in 2004 a small bunch of rebels came along and set up Open Street Map. This is the mapping equivalent of Wikipedia. Take your GPS and go walk, cycle or drive around a bit. Upload the data from the GPS to your computer, drop it into the Open Street
Wiki Map and, bam!, instant "open source" Map 2.0 of the UK for everyone to use. And no annoying royalties to pay for the privilege. Plus permissive licences to use the data as you see fit.
Nice idea, right? Here’s what they had achieved by May 2006, almost two years after starting:
Amazingly, two years later, they had this:
The live map lets you explore further.
After a little more detail? Try the festive city of Edinburgh in May 2006:
Compared to two years later, July 2008:
Again, the live map has more.
A lot happened in two years, but the progress has much more to do with pictures from space than it does with geeks wandering the streets with GPS trackers.
We have Yahoo! to thank for this. The company made its satellite imagery available to open street map, crucially granting a licence to allow free and open map data to be built from these aerial images. Rather than having to travel every street in person with a GPS, the freetards could just trace the roads from the images, without ever having to unplug themselves from their computers. Once you’ve mastered the rather cumbersome tools you can add a bunch of streets in no time, simply by "tracing" over the aerial images. Open Street Map exploded with detail.
Sadly, Señor Diablo is also in the very same detail. Lines on a map are one thing, but you also need road names, and aerial pictures aren’t much use for getting at them. What you’d need is a much closer view of the street.
So, back to Google, which is spending real money driving fancy GPS-connected cameras all over the UK. It isn't going to give all those pictures away to any old fool for free.
But it doesn’t have to. Just like Yahoo with its aerial imagery, the ownership and copyright of the StreetView pics remains with Google. Only Google can use them to provide StreetView.
Without handing over the crown jewels, Google could happily grant Open Street Map a licence to derive data from the images, just like Yahoo! did. Find a street sign on Google’s imagery, look at where that image was taken on Open Street Map and huzzah! we’ve just named that street. While we’re at it, let's plot some post boxes, bus stops, taxi ranks, pubs, cinemas, schools and who knows what other useful information, and get all that mapped as well.
For the accountants among you, this is the “compound interest” effect that open source data has. Lots of other applications and uses now become possible because you don’t need a successful business model to pay for the right to use the OS maps. Take the UK’s National Cycle Network, rendered on Open Street Map, which we encourage you to compare against the government’s own version, as powered by the OS data. Can you guess which one is dog slow and probably cost a good chunk of public money?
The icing on the cake? Google gets to take all that open map data and use it to improve their own service too. And unlike all the money we’ve already piled (and continue to pile) into Ordnance Survey’s maps, Open Street Map’s maps are free for everyone and anyone to use for the rest of time.
How’s that for organising the world’s information while simultaneously doing no evil? ®
M. Walker is a software developer at The Register.