OpenStreetMap is Having a Moment

The Billion Dollar Dataset Next Door

Special thanks to Jennings Anderson who looked over an early draft of this post and helped me refine it. Also, as usual, the views expressed herein do not represent those of my parents, my wife, my dentist, or my employer.

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The first time I spoke with Jennings Anderson, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I mean that genuinely — I did not believe him. He was a little incredulous about it himself. I felt like he was sharing an important secret with me that the world didn’t yet know.

If I write it here, I probably wrote it first on Twitter.

The open secret Jennings filled me in on is that OpenStreetMap (OSM) is now at the center of an unholy alliance of the world’s largest and wealthiest technology companies. The most valuable companies in the world are treating OSM as critical infrastructure for some of the most-used software ever written.

The four companies in the inner circle— Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft— have a combined market capitalization of over six trillion dollars.¹ In almost every other setting, they are mortal enemies fighting expensive digital wars of attrition. Yet they now find themselves eagerly investing in and collaborating on OSM at an unprecedented scale (more on the scale later).

What likely started as a conversation in a British pub between grad students in 2004 has spiraled out of control into an invaluable, strategic, voluntarily-maintained data asset the wealthiest companies in the world can’t afford to replicate.

For the Uninitiated: What is OpenStreetMap?

I will admit that I used to think of OSM as little more than a virtuous hobby for over-educated Europeans living abroad — a cutesy internet collectivist experiment somewhere on the spectrum between eBird and Linux. It’s most commonly summarized with a variant of this analogy:

OSM is to an atlas as Wikipedia is to an encyclopedia.

OSM acolytes hate this comparison in the much same way baseball players resent when people describe the sport as “cricket for fat people.” While vaguely truthful, it doesn’t quite get to the spirit of the thing.

OSM is incomparable. Over 1.5M individuals have contributed data to it. It averages 4.5M changes per day. The stats page on the OSM Wiki is a collection of hockey sticks that look like this:

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Cumulative registered users over time. Source: https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Stats

You can think of OSM in several ways:

  • A distributed community of mappers contributing information about the geography of the world to a common repository
  • A free web map hosted at https://www.openstreetmap.org/
  • A loosely affiliated collection of free and open source tools for mapping the world
  • A real-time stream of instructions representing how to add, change, or remove cartographically projected geometries and associated metadata based on a prior state
  • …Google Maps, but openly licensed

It’s hard to get people to agree on what exactly OSM is, but almost everyone agrees on one thing: it’s extraordinarily valuable and important.

What Jennings Told Me about OSM

For those paying attention, none of what I outline below will be news. However — outside of a relatively small cluster of weirdos who pay attention to trends in geospatial technology— almost no one seems to be paying attention.

That’s mostly because so few people have even heard of OpenStreetMap, despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people rely on it during any given month. If you’ve ever opened Snap Maps or Apple Maps or Bing Maps or even just peeked at the dash of your obnoxious neighbor’s new Tesla…you’ve used OSM.³

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Always check the attribution. Source: Bing Maps

In May of 2019, Jennings co-authored a paper with Dipto Sarkar and Leysia Palen titled, Corporate Editors in the Evolving Landscape of OpenStreetMap. If you prefer the research in presentation form, this talk is a fabulous summary of their findings:

Dr. Anderson’s talk at State of the Map 2019, “Corporate Editors in the Evolving Landscape of OpenStreetMap: A Close Investigation of the Impact to the Map & Community.”

In that talk, Jennings outlines the findings presented in his research. Not only was there already significant corporate investment happening in OSM in 2018, but in many cases corporate editors were responsible for the majority of edits in the specific geographies they were focused on. For instance:

For areas where corporate teams are active, on average, the non-corporate editors are now responsible for less than 25% of total road editing activity, which is down from closer to 70% in 2017.²

Jennings noted, importantly, that as of 2018 non-corporate editors were still responsible for the majority of activity on OSM (about 70% of all edits) and were significantly more active on edits to buildings, places of interest, and amenities.⁴

In a more recent talk from State of the Map in July 2020, Jennings presented updated figures showing that the torrent of corporate contributions only increased from 2018 to 2019 and beyond with Amazon and Apple trending along the steepest slopes:

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Seriously, watch the entire talk, it’s amazing: Curious Cases of Corporations in OpenStreetMap

Also interesting to note is Mapbox’s apparent decision to stop investing significantly into direct OSM edits and contributions. Apple was responsible for more edits in 2019 than Mapbox accounted for in its entire corporate history…I don’t have a good explanation for that. I wonder if they decided their effort could be more highly leveraged on core web mapping technology rather than manual digitization.

The Clash of Cultures Happening in OSM

I’m in no position to comment on most of the things I write about. But in this instance, I’m particularly unqualified — OSM has amassed a long-lived, fantastically diverse, and inherently fragmented community. I’ve never even commented in one of the forums.

But one thing that is clear even to a casual observer like me: one of the consequences of increased corporate involvement in OSM is a significant backlash from members within the OSM community that feel the community (and data) is being irreversibly adulterated by these profiteering intruders.

At the last OSM annual conference Frederik Ramm, a prominent and quite thoughtful OSM community member, summarized the attitude toward corporate contributors this way:

“[…] none of these companies is essential to OpenStreetMap. They are contributors, but OpenStreetMap could work perfectly well without them […] the mainstay of OpenStreetMap is the millions of hobbyists, individuals that contribute to OpenStreetMap.

A vocal minority of voluntary contributors to OSM seem to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the suits. A consistent undercurrent that I’ve noticed is skepticism about the motivations and incentives of for-profit firms. Here’s a typical sentiment excerpted from Serge Wroclawski’s magnificently controversial blog post, Why OpenStreetMap is in Serious Trouble (published in February of 2018).

Many of the founders of the project, as well as others, have launched commercial services around OSM. Unfortunately, this creates an incentive to keep the project small and limited in scope to map up the gap with commercial services which they can sell.

I think the playing field has changed significantly since Serge wrote those words — he was likely referring to projects like CloudMade (now defunct) and Mapbox ,which sought to offer generic map services on top of OSM’s dynamic map database (rather than enhance in-house products where mapping is ancillary to their core value proposition like it is for FAAM). He makes an interesting argument that OSM itself should be offering these services rather than letting companies piggyback on the efforts of countless volunteers while capturing all of the economic value.

What’s Motivating These Companies?

I wrote earlier this year about the concept of “Commoditizing Your Complement,” in my explanation of why Facebook acquired Mapillary and then gave away all the data they had just purchased for free.

The concept is simple: undermine your competitors’ intellectual property advantage by collaborating with aligned entities to cheapen it with a free and openly licensed alternative.

I would wager that corporate participation in OSM is less about directly monetizing souped-up versions of OSM data provided as modern web services and more about desperately avoiding the existential conflict of having to pay Google for the privilege of accessing their proprietary map data.⁵

Whatever the motivations of these mega-corporations, they’ve succeeded in carving out a niche for themselves within the OSM community whether the hobbyists like it or not. I’d like to highlight a nuance often lost in this discussion — just exactly who are these companies hiring to add data to the map? They are often already-active, enthusiastic contributors to OSM. These are people living the open data fanatic’s dream: getting paid to do a job they find so fulfilling they would otherwise do it for free in their spare time.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than just sticking it to Google. Facebook, for instance, has ambitions of building new types of digital experiences that interplay with the real world (as evidenced by their focus on augmented reality and acquisition of novel user interface technology like CTRL-labs). Apple has added LiDAR to its new line of iPhones and iPods allowing customers to scan the 3D world in high fidelity among other exciting uses:

These firms have outgrown your office and your living room. They want to be with you literally every where you go, and constantly seduce you with entertaining and immersive experiences. The more of your attention they can monopolize, the more money they can make from selling chunks of it to advertisers and people developing software on their platforms.

Whether you like their motivations or not, the result is a desire to map the world in higher fidelity and at larger scale than even they can afford to accomplish independently. And that has, for better or worse, brought their interests into alignment with the grassroots OSM community.

Why Does it Matter?

Well, anytime the wealthiest institutions in history are quietly collaborating on something, I think it’s worth noting. I’m not sure there is a precedent for such a collaboration — if you know of a case where otherwise embittered mega-corporations worked with a global community of volunteers on a public dataset…let me know. I’d love to learn about it.

The question on my mind is how idiosyncratic this situation really is. Does OSM represent a model for strategic corporate sponsorship of public goods moving forward? Or is it tragically inimitable?

For instance: I work for a company called Azavea that, among many noble efforts, maintains Cicero. It’s a database of elected officials and legislative districts in several countries around the world that gets updated daily. You can imagine that this should be a public good — like, doesn’t the government already have this information? Turns out…nah. Cicero requires ceaseless, grueling work to keep updated, and that means serious investment of time and money.

One of the key differences between Cicero and OSM is a community of contributors. Community is what makes OSM special. Without it, the project is “default dead,” as they say in Silicon Valley. Much like elected official information, map data goes stale fairly quickly and therefore requires constant life support.

OSM’s community seems conflicted about whether or not corporate participation is ok (let alone good) for the future of the project. And yet the community is precisely what attracts corporate contributors. OSM provides two advantages over just buying privately collected data:

  • Existing data is free and growing apace
  • Proprietary data contributed to OSM may be expanded upon and/or maintained at no additional expense by the community

Some may squirm at the idea that their contributions to OSM help FAAM…after all, do they really need the help? But what’s beautiful is that FAAM is contributing (rather than passively mooching) because of the compounding value of having any/all data make it into the community’s growing number of hands.

I’m kind of shocked to be saying it, but somehow — almost inexplicably — the goals of the OSM community and corporate contributors seem to be largely aligned. They all want an accurate, ubiquitous map of the world that can be maintained in perpetuity as sustainably as possible.

It’s the opposite of the Tragedy of the Commons — all of the private property holders, acting in their own self interest, are enriching the common resource rather than depleting it.

¹ True as of November, 2020.

² https://youtu.be/gAIoDFVwMJA?t=442

³ As an astute commenter on Hacker News pointed out, Tesla uses Google Maps for its dashboard. They only use OpenStreetMap for the auto-summon feature, which incidentally has resulted in lots of parking lots being added to OSM by the Teslarati as covered in Jennings’ most recent SOTMUS talk!

⁴ The 2019 paper is full of amazing tidbits like this: ~1.4% of contributors account for ~90% of the edits to OSM. This roughly adheres to something called the 1% rule of online communities which states that, “1% of Internet users are responsible for creating content, while 99% are merely consumers of that content.”

⁵ …but it’s definitely also about enriching their own applications and cloud services.

Written by

Comedic relief at @azavea. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm@gmail.com

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