Forget (just for a minute) online music: there’s a new battle underway between two of the biggest dotcom survivors. This one’s being fought over maps. The winners? Everyone.
Both Google and Yahoo have recently released online mapping services — given an address, they will show you the location, how to get there, and allow you to search for nearby businesses. Yahoo’s service covers just the US and Canada, whilst Google already has the UK online as well, with plans for global coverage. Want to find a curry in London E1? Easy.
So far, so dotcom — these services may look like Streetmap on steroids, but the business model is the same old same old — show some search results, and hook in some relevant ads as a revenue stream.
But shortly after the launch of Google Maps, something important happened. Hackers took the code apart, analysed how it worked, and started building their own services using Google’s data. We’re not talking just sending a friend the link to the map co-ordinates for a party, we’re talking fully-functional, complex applications based around the Google data and (gorgeous) Google Maps interface. Early efforts include Paul Rademacher’s housing map, which hooked into the Craigslist database of available rental properties across the US, and the (in)famous Chicago Crime Map, which is searchable down to individual police beats. A nice way to find a safe route home (or as a cynical acquaintance would have it, ‘a neat way to locate a dealer’).
Hackers have exploited online services in this way before — in the UK there has been a long-simmering dispute between Streetmaps and coders about the reappropriation of their data. Such repurposing has generally stripped out the ads which create Streetmap’s revenue stream. The understandable response of a traditional business to seeing its profits eroded? Call in the lawyers.
But Google and Yahoo did something altogether untraditional — impressed by the creative work being done without their permission, they formally published the programming interfaces to their mapping systems, and officially opened the system to hackers under reasonably accomodating free licenses. Crucially, they’ve done so in such a way that they can still place ads and make money from systems developed by others. It’s win-win: coders get to make cool new services, and Google and Yahoo still make a profit: a ‘very now’ business model.
But why are people so fired up about free access to good maps? In the UK at least, the answer is simple: maps cost money. Lots of it. The official UK map data is copyrighted and maintained by the Ordnance Survey. Commerical use of their data is expensive. As a reaction against such mapping monopolies, there is a worldwide movement for the development of copyright-free, grassroots-maintained cartographic data. Understandably, it’s a slow process. So the sudden availablility of excellent map data, with the bonus of complete working programming tools to harness it simply for all manner of new applications, is a godsend to developers. The only real concern is articulated by the ‘open maps’ activists: that Google and Yahoo are, after all, commercial services, and as such reserve the right to change the terms of service, or even pull them completely at any time. This is a powerful argument in favour of the grassroots approach, but for many developers, its a moot point: they have a cool idea and they want to do get it online today, not years from now when the openmappers have finished pacing out London street by street.
So far, there has been little sign of UK-specific applications built on Google’s or Yahoo’s systems. The UK is an epicentre of the open mapping movement, and many of the most impressive UK-based projects, such as Heath Bunting’s Skateboarders’ Map of Bristol are already built on free data. But as new developers get on the mapping bandwagon, that’s sure to change — ethical concerns aside, the newly licensed commerical services are easy to use, pretty to look at, and have already picked up impressive momentum.
Today you might not have access to a continuously-updated anti-gridlock site, or an at-a-glance map which will help you find an affordable property in a high-ranking school catchment, but don’t blink — give it a couple of months and the way we look at our city will probably have changed forever.