Sunday, 11 April 2010

Openstreetmap.org & Cyclestreets.net

As the number of winters I've seen clock up I'm becoming more and more a fan of Open Source software. Many people mistakenly think Open Source = free, which isn't always the case, but I'll not spend any more time on that.
Instead I want to talk about Openstreetmap.org, which is an Open Source site and free as well!
Maps historically have been expensive to produce and were copyrighted to the hilt. With the explosion of technology, and specifically the Internet, more and more people wanted to use maps for various reasons.

Don't think of maps as dusty things poured over by old men (although sometimes that is true). Instead, think of geo-location instead - as in, where are you right now and what benefit can you get from being there? For example, when shopping for something specific, mapping data can tell you where to find the product the cheapest. Digital maps are SO much more than just Tom Tom.

Trust me when I tell you geo-location is the next truly big thing!

Google was a life-saver with Google Maps, giving most of us our first ever access to aerial photographs of almost anywhere! Google continued to innovate with Streetview and fortunately for us, they made all this available free of charge.
Except.... Google doesn't own the maps & aerial photos it dishes up and Google itself is bound by restrictions. Those restrictions are passed on to us, meaning there are limits on what we're allowed to do with their maps.

The UK's Ordnance Survey maps are even more restrictive (although they seem to be loosening up a tad). OS maps are great because they show contour lines - essential if you want to know whether you'd be cycling up a gentle incline, or a murderous mountain.
Finally there's Royal Mail. Yes, I know they don't do maps, but Royal Mail does have geo-location data for all of the UK's postal codes. Anybody that's ever tried to use Google Maps API to create a bespoke mapping application that uses postal codes will know how inaccurate it is. And why? Simply because Royal Mail for some bizarre reason feel they own our data and won't disclose it except under extortionate prices & restrictions. Madness!

Enter the new heroes: Openstreetmap.org and YOU! Yes, YOU!
Please excuse the image of Lord Kitchener - perhaps in another blog post I'll write about him and tell you how he invented concentration camps (and other nasty things).
Openstreetmap.org operates as a Wiki. This means anybody can edit, alter or add to the maps. You can add street names, seeing as there are a lot of missing street names, local amenities, foot paths and yes, cycle paths. Three years ago Openstreetmap.org was still so incomplete as to be almost useless, but thanks to the collective efforts of various individuals, and with a huge boost from Yahoo, it is now a very good app.

The best part is that you can use the maps in any way you feel like, as it is Open Source. As would be expected of digital maps, there is a wealth of hidden, back-end data, including height measurements as released by NASA. If each of us simply added our own street's postal code, well, goodbye Royal Mail monopoly, hello new & interesting geo-location & mapping apps.

For example, just go look at Cyclestreets.net - a marvel built on Openstreetmap.org maps. Cyclestreets.net has a very good journey planner that will end up in offering you three routes. They vary from fast, to medium to slow. Predictably the fast route will involve busy roads, while the slow route will be longer. Go have a play with it! They even have localised versions of it - if you lived in Plymouth then your localised version would be http://plymouth.cyclestreets.net. Simply substitute your town or city name for Plymouth and off you go!

BUT (and you knew there was a but, didn't you?) your help is needed. Please do go and update Openstreetmap.org. Specifically, go and add those little shortcuts, those routes that require local knowledge, and let's all make it an even more useful app.