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If Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Uber, Amazon, and many others take on larger roles in OpenStreetMap Hobbyists worry that the private sector could overshadow their group’s work.

What does Lyft, Facebook, the International Red Cross, the U.N., and the Nepal government Nepal as well as Pokemon Go share in the same? They all have the same geospatial information: OpenStreetMap, an open-source, free online mapping service that is similar in concept to Google Maps or Apple Maps. However, unlike the companies that own mapping platforms, OSM is founded on a community that is mostly made up of volunteers. Researchers have described OSM as the “Wikipedia for maps.”

Facebook Uber Amazon Open StreetMap Dickinson

Since its launch, OpenStreetMap has become an integral part of the technology infrastructure around the world. Many millions of users per month use applications that are based on its information such as ride-hailing applications, geotagging social media on Snapchat and Instagram as well as humanitarian relief efforts following natural catastrophes.


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However, the map of recent times is changing due to the increasing influence of private sector businesses that depend on the map. In a research paper that was published by the ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, an inter-institutional team of researchers analyzed the ways in which Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and other companies have gained popularity as map editors. Their goals, they claim, are causing substantial changes in the way things are being mapped, compared to the previous.

“OpenStreetMap’s data is sourced by the public and has always left those who follow the site a little skeptical about the accuracy of its data” adds Dipto Sarkar Professor of Geoscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, and one of the co-authors of the paper. “As the data gets more valuable and used to support a growing number of initiatives, the accuracy of the data has to be near-perfect.

Companies must ensure that they have a thorough plan of the areas they’re looking to expand in And nobody else is providing that information and so they’ve decided to create it themselves.”

(Disclosure I am a researcher at McGill University, focused on urban planning policies and geospatial technology. As academic collaborators, Sarkar and I plan to work together on future research.)


However, some long-time OSM members worry that corporate influence could undermine the status of the map as an open-source and free project, weakening their contributions and reducing access for regular users.

OpenStreetMap was the idea of a few computer scientists and geoscientists. It was launched in the mid-2000s most geographical information was controlled by government agencies, and not accessible or even possible to access. Steve Coast, an entrepreneur who was the founder of the project, set out to create a free accessible map of the globe that could be used by anyone to build on. The users were required in contributing to the maps each time they used them by setting accounts to map streets, adding natural features, and marking the points of importance.

There are at present five million active users on the site, and roughly 20% of them have modified the map, as per Sarkar, and colleagues Jennings Anderson and Alysia Palen both computer researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder. It has been the case that volunteers tend to make changes that have increased the visibility of community members on maps or reflect humanitarian interests.

For example, hyperlocal elements like benches in the neighborhood or informal walking trails, are frequently found on OpenStreetMap. In addition, roads in countries that are developing are generally more extensively depicted by OpenStreetMap as compared to Google Maps.

However, as the importance of comprehensive and precise geospatial data has increased, so has the cost of subscriptions for business for Google Maps and other proprietary data sources. This has prompted more businesses using location-based software to use OpenStreetMap as a data source that they could modify directly.

Private companies first joined this platform in the year 2014 as the study reveals the rank has grown from a couple of dozen to over 1,000. From 2015 to 2018 the number of maps — which included roads as well as buildings and other places of interest that these editors from corporate companies have added to or modified from 1,703,107 up to 9,925,463.

“These businesses don’t map their operations with us for the same reasons that we do. Because of this, I am unsure of the possibility of our goals being aligned.”

Businesses have put special importance on improving the quality of road data, as the study found. At the end of 2018, almost a quarter of all road edits was created by companies’ linked accounts, which include Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. “A solid road network is crucial to many new developments in the future, like autonomous vehicle navigation,” Sarkar said.

Some businesses stand out as notable. Apple also makes use of OSM Data in one of the sources to create Apple Maps and is the most prolific corporate editor. It was responsible for more than 90% of the edits to roads already in the year 2018. Amazon’s influence has also grown quickly in its logistics department, which integrates the data of delivery drivers. The company hasn’t been able to respond to inquiries for information.


Below, a collection of maps show Below, a set of maps shows the ways that these editors from corporate companies have created a new world, with various players focusing on distinct areas. Each light point represents an edit since 2005 by nine different companies that are distinguished by color.

Alongside tech giants such as Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Uber, and Amazon, three mapping companies such as Mapbox, Kaart, and Telenav, and a myriad of smaller businesses from across the world have refined and edited geospatial components across the globe.

Aspects of company OSM mapping at the time of January 2019, are divided into the company. Jennings, Sarkar, and Palen, “Corporate Editors in the ever-changing landscape of OpenStreetMap.” International Journal of Geo-Information April 2019.

The research paper is based on data from January 2019. However, in the presentation at the 2020 State of the Map conference in July of last year, Anderson shared more up-to-date information about the magnitude of influence from the private sector, as shown in the graph below. In the period between March of 2019 to the year, 2020 Anderson said that nearly 17% of all changes to the map were made by corporate teams.

A rise in the popularity of the mapper for corporations OpenStreetMap, 2014-2020.Courtesy of Jennings Anderson

What else are these businesses using the map for? For instance, on Facebook, OSM is the base map for numerous applications, such as local user posts as well as listing local businesses. Drishti Patel, a mapping program manager at Facebook, described the map as a “priority investment [because] billions of people around the world rely on the OSM mapping data used across the company’s apps.” Facebook has also experimented with using artificial intelligence-assisted mapping to plot road networks in developing countries.

Mapbox is a mapping company, that has pulled in more than $200 million in venture capital funding to develop a customized distribution system that will funnel OSM data to its clients including media outlets as well as city planning departments. “We’ve utilized it for many different purposes,” said Mikel Maron Geographer and programmer who is Mapbox’s chief of community relations with OSM. Grab, an on-demand mobile startup located in Asia has said that it has the same vision as OSM itself mapping “for all the good of humanity.”

However, the growth of corporate mappers has sparked tensions on the online forums where long-time OSM editors discuss the future of the project. A number of companies that rely on OSM databases also obtain geospatial information from their users.

For instance, fitness apps such as AllTrails and Strava track user location. However, that data isn’t always available to OSM and has led some mappers to perceive the influence of corporations as an obstacle to the open-source project’s fundamental values of reciprocity and data attribution.

Before the advent of cell phone navigation, car GPS units were usually costly because they utilized proprietary data, based upon a foundation of publicly available data. This is the model OSM was created to oppose with, and yet that is exactly the model that some amateur mappers worry could be in the future, especially if well-funded and well-staffed businesses have somehow managed to get the OSM self-governing structure.

“Maps cannot be the perfect description of reality they’re instead an expression of how mapmakers view their world view,” Frederik Ramm, an ardent OSM volunteer and software engineer from Germany who also operates an open mapping company and a mapping consultancy, said. “These organizations don’t map because of the same reasons as we do, and for this, I’m unsure of the possibility of our goals being in sync.”These concerns have been highlighted by the recent scandals in the OpenStreetMap community.

In 2018, for instance, an unusually high number of applications for membership to the OSM’s governing non-profit organization caused concerns that a mapping company tried to influence the results of a board election. The board was the subject of more controversy in the year following, in which the sole candidate for the position was defeated, highlighting the long-standing problems with the power dynamics of the organization.

Research has previously revealed that OSM is far more skewed towards the excluded as it claims as being: European or North American editors are dominated by men and editors, with much less participation by women and mappers from the emerging world. In this sense, the conflicts about corporate editors are part of a larger, more enduring issue of what OSM is and, in particular the definition of the term.

Ru is an entertainment nerd who likes to spill the beans about what's happening in the entertainment industry. She comes up with well-researched articles so that you can "Netflix and Chill." Come join her as she has a lot to tell her readers.


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