Misled By A Map? Fix It Yourself With OpenStreetMap

August 4, 2010
OpenStreetMap screencap

OpenStreetMap screencap

Updated (see below)

There are three constants here on Planet Earth: death, taxes, and missing street signs. We can't do much about the first two -- yet -- but now there's a tool to help with item number three, and it comes from Microsoft: OpenStreetMap.

OpenStreetMap is a new service available through Bing Maps -- the same Bing Maps that many folks already use on their smartphones. At heart, OpenStreetMap aims to be a Wikipedia for geographers, allowing users to add or change data that's been layered onto satellite and street maps. So, if you should find that a road has been closed or that a new one has sprung up, you can adjust your local map accordingly.

While that sounds like a great innovation -- one that drivers and map fans should love -- OpenStreetMap is plagued by a handful of problems. First: OpenStreetMap requires you to have a user account before editing. That's not a terrifically big deal, but it's an obstacle standing between you and the editor, and if we remember anything from Marketing 101, it's that more obstacles between customers and services means a lower rate of adoption.

Hurdle #2: the process of editing isn't especially intuitive. There are a number of Microsoft-approved clients that facilitate the editing process, as well as Bing's built-in "Potlatch" feature. Potlatch doesn't require any special software and it's probably simpler to use than the alternatives, but it's still somewhat complicated. Here's a video walkthrough of the process (which, it should be noted, doesn't exactly match up with our own experience with the service). For added hilarity, please note that the demo is being run on a Mac:

Which brings us to the third problem: Bing Maps and OpenStreetMap seem to operate on two different sets of aerial photographs. In our test, Bing appeared to make use of newer shots, while OpenStreetMap used images that looked several years old. That means that OpenStreetMap -- which should theoretically be the most up-to-date, since it's editable -- may not list every new road or map element. And in the best of all possible worlds, the maps used by the two services should be identical, since at least one goal of OpenStreetMap would seem to be providing better navigation info for Bing users.

At the moment, we suspect that only truly dedicated Vespuccis will likely make the slog through OpenStreetMap, but everyday folks who just want to toss in a new cul de sac may avoid it altogether.

That said, the service might not be perfect, but it's admittedly a start -- and so far as we know, it's a service that the Big Kahuna known as Google Maps doesn't offer.

Furthermore, making roadways difficult to edit might not be such a bad idea. We all know how far off-point Wikipedia can go -- just imagine what that sort of misinformation could do to your GPS next time you're riding over the river and through the woods to grandmother's new condo.

Update: A commenter below has helpfully (and shrilly) corrected us on one significant point: OpenStreetMap is not a Microsoft property, it has only been integrated into Bing Maps as layer option. That doesn't fix problems #1 or #2 above -- requiring a user account or the learning curve of the software. It does, however, explain the disconnect between the newer (in our case) satellite imagery used by Bing Maps and the older (in our case) imagery used by OpenStreetMap. That doesn't excuse it, but it explains it.

[Bing, OpenStreetMap, OpenStreetMap wiki]

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