Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap

What does Apple's iPad announcement mean for real estate?

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The recent announcement of the new iPad, which supersedes iPad 2, contained a small but very interesting bit of information. Buried in the details of the new iPhoto and its "journal" feature we find Apple using a new source for map data.

Apple has ditched Google Maps in its new iPhoto tool.

I don’t think anyone needs to be running around declaring that the sky is falling or that Google is doomed or that Apple will move away from Google Maps for any other applications. However, this change is significant.

What other mapping service did Apple use? OpenStreetMap.

Why is this mapping shift by Apple relevant to real estate?

At first blush, what one technology titan chooses to use for a mapping data source probably isn’t such a big deal for the real estate industry. It certainly isn’t anything over which the real estate industry has any control.

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However, there are a few reasons I think this development is worth watching by real estate players who have a direct interest in mapping technologies and locative media.

First, OpenStreetMap is a mapping data service that is, as the name implies, open source. This allows organizations that use the system to innovate at their own pace. I believe this to be the primary reason that Apple went with this option over other map data providers.

Any organization that relies heavily on map data would be well-advised to have the freedom to use that system to innovate at its own pace. An open-source project allows for that flexibility.

Second, should the experiment prove successful for Apple, that company will likely devote resources to making OpenStreetMap better. There is no question that Google Maps has more location data than OpenStreetMap. If Apple decides to continue using OpenStreetMap, then Apple must improve it.

In addition, the locative/social media company Foursquare switched to OpenStreetMap this year. Foursquare has a much higher need for creating a rich data set around OpenStreetMap, as that company’s software is practically custom-made to improve feature descriptions in maps.

One of the valuable aspects of working with open-source projects is that you can benefit from the contributions of others. As different parties improve open-source projects to solve their own problems, everyone can benefit. This helps to offset some of the organizational challenges, or lack of an out-of-the-box, service-level agreement (SLA).

Third, should Apple decide to push OpenStreetMap to other, more prominent, uses on the iPhone, then it will be obvious why participation in OpenStreetMap will be useful for real estate organizations. Apple’s operating system, iOS, currently accounts for about 60 percent of mobile browsing, according to NetMarketShare.

Finally, since OpenStreetMap is an open-source project, organizations have the opportunity to directly influence the map data. This can, of course, be a double-edged sword. I can certainly imagine all the spammy and silly shenanigans that will likely arise in an attempt to influence how maps work via OpenStreetMap. I implore you not to be one of those people.

What can be done with OpenStreetMap today?

I think it’s perfectly acceptable to simply observe and see what happens. Or even to just throw your hands up and go about your day-to-day business.

But if you want to have control of your ability to deploy and innovate using map data, then you might want to do as Apple and Foursquare have done and give OpenStreetMap a try.

Here are some things you can do in OpenStreetMap:

  • Join up. You have to join up and agree to the open-source nature of the project to do anything with OpenStreetMap.
  • Add data from your own local knowledge: street names, locations of shops and offices, etc.
  • Your own photography (which you will be granting license for the project to use, so be honest with this).
  • Fix errors in existing maps.
  • Put OpenStreetMap maps on a website.

Using OpenStreetMaps is deep "geekery." Using it is harder than leaving a comment on a blog post but easier than programming your own map data service from scratch. Which is to say: This is a technologist’s tool and not an end-user tool.

However, one of the challenges for the project is that data needs to come from people with solid local knowledge. Real estate practitioners will likely fit that description.

A couple possible starting points for working with OpenStreetMap:

  • Make sure your real estate office is listed accurately.
  • Report a bug or some other feature that needs fixing via OpenStreetBugs.
  • Provide the data and tag for a coffee shop or other hangout place.
  • If you get into all of this, provide a GPS boundary for a neighborhood or community that isn’t already identified there.

By playing with OpenStreetMap you can get a sense of some of the capabilities and limitations. This will, in turn, help you determine if, perhaps, it is a viable solution for your own real estate mapping project. In addition, should Apple create a mapping application for the iOS based off of the OpenStreetMaps project, you will be well-situated to have your data properly displayed.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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