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CloudMade pushing open-source alternative to Google Maps

o Mark Hattersley
20.11.2009 kl 15:04 |

Macworld caught up with Nick Black, founder of CloudMade to talk about the upcoming Mapzen product and how open source mapping may be better for both customers and developers.


CloudMade is gearing up to release a set of tools that will enable people to quickly and easily contribute to the OpenStreetMap project.

At the same time the company is looking to create a developer model that will enable developers to use OpenStreetMap data and databases in their web sites and iPhone applications.

We caught up with Nick Black, Founder of CloudMade to talk about the new service. He said "there are really two sides to this, there's a community facing side called Mapzen and a developer platform."

Mapzen is an online tool that aims to simplify the process of editing data in OpenStreetMap. Much of the data in the map is based upon satellite imagery. Individual users can then use Mapzen to draw over the satellite image and create a map of streets and other routes. Nick Black told us: "Google Maps is really focussed on roads, but OpenStreetMap has much more information on paths and cycle routes - it's much better for pedestrians". As well as roads and paths, users can also add local landmarks to the map, attaching features such as post boxes, shops, restaurants and cafes.

CloudMade also has an iPhone application called Mapzen POI Collector awaiting approval from Apple. This enables users to search the OpenStreetMap and to add points of interest. There are already a few apps on the iPhone that access OpenStreetMap data, including MotionX GPS which enables users to track outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling and trekking. (Click here to read an interview with the makers of MotionX. One slightly disappointing aspect of the CloudMade iPhone app is that in its first incarnation it will not enable users to use the GPS of the iPhone to track routes. This is a technique whereby individuals track paths using the GPS of a device and use the paths to create accurate maps. It seems that the initial aim is to use a combination of satellite imagery and user-added landmarks to create maps - with the more in-depth tracking applications to follow.

Not that there's any shortage of data already on OpenStreetMap. We were surprised to find it contained far more information than Google Maps on our local areas in London. Nick Black explained: "There are over 185,000 users adding to OpenStreetMap so it has a much greater level of detail than other maps on the market. Sometimes the level of detail is actually too much, but we provide tools that enable users to customise the view of maps so see a lower level of detail."

Of course, much of the detail depends upon what area of the world you are looking at. Although we were surprised to find that the level of detail provided by OpenStreetMaps exceeded Google Maps when we searched for the remote island of Koh Samui (recently visited by Macworld's editor-in-chief Mark Hattersley). The search results also seemed more accurate - Google seemed more intent on providing businesses in London referencing Koh Samui than the actual island itself. Nick Black told us that Google's real focus is on expanding its search results.

Why OpenStreetMap can change the world

OpenStreetMap is a community-based mapping project that uses so-called "crowdsourcing" to map out the world. Rather than top-down models such as those provided by the Ordinance Survey or, to a large extent Google Maps, OpenStreetMap uses the power of the community to create an accurate map of the world.

In many senses the project is user-generated, in a similar vein to Wikipedia and all of the content you provide becomes part of an open source model backed by the Creative Commons.

The push to create an open source model for map data also has an important social implication. The lack of competition in the map ownership market has been of concern to many companies - including Apple. There are essentially two main companies that own and supply the world's map data: NAVTEQ which is owned by Nokia, and TeleAtlas which is a subsidiary of TomTom. Everybody else sources data from these two companies. Google maps was initially dependent upon NAVTEQ, although Google is now using TeleAtlas and making moves to become independent.

The limited number of map ownership in the world was recently of concern to Apple, especially in the light of its relationship with Google cooling and Apple having an impact on Nokia in the mobile handset space. Macworld reported in October that Apple had purchased a company called Placebase that produced a Maps API for Open Places, a company busy building a database of map information. Apple now has its own Geo Team and we wouldn't be surprised if it also rolls out an alternative to Google Maps.

Competition in the map market is also good news for developers looking to implement location aware services in their iPhone apps. Nick Black explained that CloudMade offered a really competitive alternative to other map services. "You only have to pay a fee once you have over 5,000 users, so there's plenty of freedom to build up your business. Plus we work really closely with developers to integrate the kinds of information they need with their apps. You can, for example, create an app that locates all the restaurants in Paris and combine that with your app."

There is also a database angle to CloudMade where people can add custom data to the maps and sell this data to other users.

One other benefit OpenStreetMap is that there are no restrictions on turn-by-turn map data, unlike Google Maps which does not allow this usage. So developers could use the CloudMade API to create satellite navigation apps for the iPhone, which could be a lot more cost-effective than those provided by Tom Tom and Navigon.

Cloudmade will be launching Mapzen and the developer APIs at the end of November 2009, with the iPhone Mapzen POI app pending Apple store approval.

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