Charles Basenga Kiyanda

“Google Maps” for bicycles

Just saw this on the OpenStreetMaps mailing list:

I were just told about an bikerouting application for Gotheburg, Sweden. It’s all in swedish but may be interesting anyway. It is at <>, try for example enter “parkgatan 7” as start/Från and “torggatan 1” as destination/Till and then click “Beräkna rutt”. You get a route in green in the map and a list of turns in the lower right part. There are setting for if you cycle slow, medium or fast. Also if you want the “most appropriate” or fastest route.


This is cool. For those not in the know (and I assume there’s a few of you, not so long ago I had no idea that OSM meant more than Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal), OSM stands for Open Street Maps. It’s community effort, people riding/walking/driving around with their gps units and recording where the streets are. So far, it’s basically an “open source google maps”. Except, as in most open source projects, it ends up being more than that. People don’t just record the location of the streets, they record the location of pubs/restaurants/parks… Ok, so far it still looks like something Google does with the added burden of the randomness of data availability. Except it’s not only that! Mappers also record the position of walking paths, cycling paths, etc. Now that’s definitely something Google doesn’t do, at least not right now. So why bother when google does it for free? Well, for starters, the bike routing example I gave just above is a great idea that’s impossible with Google. There is someone who decided to reuse this free data to make something cool and innovative. It might not be so useful in the land of Uncle Sam, but in other countries with a developped cycling infrastructure, this would be wonderful. Granted locals learn how to cycle somewhere quite fast without needing to constantly use a map, this would still be a perfect tool for a slightly longer trip. I could see myself having used such a tool back when I lived in Montréal, in Québec.

There’s more to this than a cycling navigator, though. The data is free (as in free speech and free beer), which means you can take it and reuse it. How does that impact your life? As an example, let me take wikiscuba. It’s a wiki and all the information is free (as in free speech and… you know). This site would benefit a whole lot from having maps included. We have installed all the required code on the site to use the google maps applet and it works. Some people have started using it. It’s completely legal. It’s free, as in free beer, but not free as in free speech. What this means for us is that we can use the google maps applet with no legal worries, but this restrict the further uses that can be done with out site. While it’s legal for us to display google maps within the wikiscuba site, it makes it illegal for someone to print off the page and distribute it to people. So if, at some point, we have enough information on a page for a dive shop to say “Ok, let’s just print off the page from wikiscuba and distribute it to students so they know where to go for the certification”, they wouldn’t legally be allowed to. At this point, you may thing it’s probably not a big problem. After all, Google is probably not going to tour all the dive shops of the world to make sure they haven’t printed a page from our site with one of their maps. Sure. Only, our data is completely free. So theoretically, someone could decide to write a book using the stuff we have written on the wiki. But they wouldn’t be allowed to use the maps. You couldn’t, also, directly make a set of pdf files from pages from an area that interests you and just distribute those on your website. You’d have to edit the maps out beforehand. Something like “The expanded guide of scuba diving sites in Northern Europe”. Now that starts restricting what you can do with our site. At this point, you may think “So what? Just edit the maps out!” and you’d be right. It’s just not as nice. I’d like to be able, on the licensing page of wikiscuba, to say:

“Go on. Do what you will. It’s free! (as in free speech)”

But I can’t. I have to say:

“Almost everything on wikiscuba is free. The text is all licensed under a creative commons license and you can use all the text you want in other uses. Images should also be similarly licensed, although it’s a good thing to check. Some of them may be in the public domain, in which case you can do anything you want with them. In other cases, some images may be licensed under various flavors of the creative commons licenses and certain restrictions may apply. Above all, you are not allowed to re-use the google maps applet information…”

Not as nice. Not all of it is Google’s fault, you’re right. The bit about the images will have to be there no matter what. But “some images have some restrictions and many have absolutely no restrictions” sounds a whole lot better than “you can’t re-use the information.” Reading the bit about google maps, stumps the reader. It may make re-using our data appear more difficult than it is and lower your desire to undertake a project that would re-use what we offer. I don’t like that. There’s really no incentive for us (who legally own wikiscuba and make it run) to restrict the way in which you use our data.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking “I disagree. If you restricted what can be done with the information on your site, you could make money everytime someone reuses your data!”

And you’d be right.

But you’d be forgetting one, small, detail; This is a community effort.

People don’t like to work for something and then not be allowed to use it if they want to.

Nobody would contribute to our site if we did that.

The site wouldn’t be cool.

I wouldn’t have a great scuba diving encyclopedia (although we’re still far from that) when I’m looking for info about a dive site.

I wouldn’t sleep well at night.

Again, I’m not blaming Google. They’re not sharecropping here. They license map and satellite data from companies and government and use it on their site. In fact, it appears that the restrictions they put on their maps and the google maps applet is because of those licensing deals. So it’s not entirely clear it’s even their fault from the start. Still, OSM is better in that respect. The data is free. Yes, the data is spotty. You don’t have good coverage in the US and in many other parts of the world. But the coverage is expanding. Companies are licensing their map data to the OSM community for use in the project. So, some bits of the world see their coverage expanded very, very rapidly at times. It’s a relatively young project. It’s getting there. When their coverage is really good, maybe I’ll be able to include that data in my site instead of google maps. That will be a great day. Oh yeah, and I’ll be able to have great street navigation on my gps without having to pay 200$ to garmin. That’ll be even better!

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