We Need to Stop Google’s Exploitation of Open Communities

Google’s strategy is to build market in Africa by appropriating the appearance of open data community methodologies, yet maintaining corporate control of what should rightfully be a common resource. They are specifically targetting govts and NGOs, offering to “map their country for free”, but keeping the results, and attracting customers.

What bothers me so much is how they have blatantly copied OpenStreetMap. First their MapMaker product is directly modelled on OSM, but with a restrictive data license, where you can not use the data as you see fit. Second, they have stolen the idea of Mapping Parties, a unique concept and name we developed. Third, they’re even copying initiatives to map impoverished informal settlements, like Map Kibera.

All of this with no credit, and no shame. I’m sick of Google. What can we do?

I’ve tried to stay civil with them, through years of this kinda stuff. I’m friends with many googly Googlers. But I don’t see cooperating or being quiet helping at all. They’re deceptive and need to be stopped.

Seriously, Google claimed to map “the largest slum in Africa”, with “citizen cartographers”. They’re building their business by glorifying half-baked “community” mapping initiatives, promoting their brand on the back of poverty.

I totally get why African governments and techies are excited about Google. Their moves in Africa are going to help build up the market for everyone. What is horrible is the hidden dangerous bargain they’re offering. To most people, Google is not just a company, but a force for good in the world. They even forget its a business, with so much done for “free”. But remember, it’s an extremely lucrative business, and they reason they don’t participate in OpenStreetMap, like every other major internet company (AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo…), is because it doesn’t make sense for their bottom line. They see value in owning your data. They’re moving to own the data of communities and governments in Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia. They can do whatever they like with the data, they own it. Of course, they will eventually take advantage of that. Scratch eventually, they changed the terms on Friday, so you have to pay to opt out of GMaps API advertising.

Corporations should not be the stewards of a public resource, and a potentially controversial public resource. Compare Gaza in OpenStreetMap and Gaza in Google for just one example of why this is a bad idea. We’re approaching a situation where a corporation is becoming the decision maker on international borders. Wait, did you think the UN or other international forum was supposed to have some role in these kind of things? Nope, Google is getting UN data too.

Internet, now’s the time to get pissed.

44 thoughts on “We Need to Stop Google’s Exploitation of Open Communities”

  1. You want to see pissed and citizen cartography? Try OSM talk-au. We’re bashing our heads against the wall trying to get OSM-F to see that the licence change is flawed globally and locally is going to kill the OSM community in Australia through fragmentation. We have some of the best open geodata resources in the world with NearMap providing free aerial imagery and the Federal Government offering anything we ask for in CC-BY. This year the national statisticians **came to OSM** offering their whole geographic classification system… every suburb, every local government area, many landuse hints. State agencies provide us with toilets, parks, schools, police stations, whole transit networks. And the OSM response is “uhh, but can you get them to accept ODbL”. So either we go back to the manually surveying dark ages of 3 years ago or we have to fork OSM onto whatever servers we can afford… pretty hard to get end users without a tile server, pretty hard to edit without an OSM api server. Based on the http://odbl.de/ statistics, it looks like most of the heavy users are going to leave OSM once ODbL goes through.

  2. I suspected someone would go offtopic on the license.

    Basically, this argument has been played out repeatedly. You dire forecast is wrong IMO.

    Let’s kickstarter to send Mike Collinson to Australia to help you guys sort this out.

  3. I have been following your work for a while now and find it to be very inspiring. Perhaps you also inspired Google, or they found the same problem and approached it similarly, which indeed could be possible, as both of your projects are rational. People are interested in mapping the developing world, isn’t that a good thing?

    I also see why you are upset about Google’s ownership of the data. Although, is the dilemma of data ownership large enough to counteract the positive impact Google can have with their vast resources in the larger objective of mapping the developing world? These kinds of problems are certainly wicked.

  4. We’ve just got the Govt here in NZ to agree and started releasing lots of data in CC-BY (through NZ GOAL), and now OSM is moving the goalposts, making us look like fools with our cap in hand asking ‘Can we please have some more?’

  5. While I worked there a couple years ago, I spoke to some people on the maps team. They wanted to use OSM data and contribute, but they felt they were blocked from doing so because of the license problems.

    OSM needs a public domain fork as soon as possible.

  6. I feel the same about google. All they need to do is license their data under a compatible license. Ask why this is hard for them?

  7. I don’t want to minimize the work here, good stuff. However, I would argue to them that it is a clarification, not a huge change for them. Anyhow, this is offtopic…

  8. So what? They ‘own’ the data then serve us ads based on keywords? I can handle that for a free, well-maintained product.

    Having said that, Openstreetmaps is a great product. Never knew about it. The advantage of a corporation over something like Openstreetmaps is that strategy can be more directed. Openstreetmaps could map Africa for free too, but it would take various NGOs and community groups to band together. Nothing is stopping them right?

  9. Google hasn’t given an ounce of credit to OSM … why? It looks to be about the bottom line.

    Is it good for the developing world to have data owned by a corporation, who can choose to change the terms at any time? For instance, just last week ads on gmaps API applications became mandatory, unless you pay.

  10. I asked Marissa Mayer at the end of her talk at SXSW this year, why Google doesn’t allow me to at least choose when I give them data through their map editor to release it under a open license which would be compatible with OSM, her answered sounded to me that they would be happy to allow this, however I can’t find any footage of the talks to verify.

  11. This is part of a [bad!] pattern that I call ‘open season’. Roughly speaking corporates and some large NGOs, singing some kind of ‘we’re all friends, public good, open everything’ song suck out ideas, resources, code from citizens and genuinely open communities. It’s notable in this case that Google, also sucks in open-source code like some kind of black hole and doesn’t spit that much back out.

    I call it open season, because of the [obvious] hunting metaphor, but it’s open season on ‘us’ for the purposes of ‘enclosure’, make no mistake.

    In the case of Google, one ‘solution’ is probably a ‘people’s search engine’ leading to a steep decline in advertising, for example. This is the equivalent of me [in the UK] moving my banking to the cooperative away from the shareholder owned banks.

  12. interesting post, choose only one remark to respond too:

    “Corporations should not be the stewards of a public resource, and a potentially controversial public resource.” This depends very much on the trust people put in government vs corporations and that differs per culture/continent. Take a look at the German google streetview “paranoia” and try to explain that.

    I argue that government has not done a very good job everywhere and that corporations, under license by government, deserve a chance. The middle road are government owned corporations. Corporations should also clearly “show their appropriation”, as Google is doing now.

  13. Agreed. I’d say that both governments and corporations should participate in commons based resources.

  14. Stop blaming Google for all your troubles they have their hands tighted they can’t do anything about the fact that gov wants to shut them down, believe me those guys would be more than happy to have georgian maps or others but they can’t…

    Osmap on the other hands are not as popular and that’s why they don’t have that prob

  15. Hi guys, I agree with you on the risks. We should absolutely continue these discussions, as i am also exploring ways to broaden the Google Apps. it is onlt by exchanging like this that we may evaluate the lesser evil. Note that nothing is risk free. One thing I can say however is that, the extent of Google’s mis-deeds if indeed they are mis-deeds can only be measured by the extent that people or local communities are mis-treated by their own authorities or governments. When local communities will become less victims of the powers that are suposed to protect them, then they will also become less vulnerable to the antics of the likes of Google–for now lets us keep moving!

  16. I remember the 2009 State of the Map (annual OpenStreetMap) conference, Ed Parsons (head of Google maps/geospatial-stuff) was speaking and got asked “Can we have your maps/images to use for OpenStreetMap?”. I think the answer was, erm we’d love to but we only have a license to use it ourselves not derive map data. Now they created/own so much data or images(aerial and streetview), but have they let us use it so they can use OSM, or have they shifted us away from helping OSM? When they started the mapping parties they had some other name, I think being careful not to just copy the OSM idea, now it’s a blatant copy-what’s-good and easy..

  17. Aren’t there restrictions on how Google can adopt these methodologies for profit if they were originally developed under a Copyleft license?

  18. We had an open fundraiser to buy Digital Globe imagery, which along with Yahoo was traced by all volunteers. Later and in response, the West Bank mapping project was expanded to Gaza by JumpStart International

  19. No legal restrictions.

    Rather, good citizens would give at least give credit and continue to contribute to an idea…

  20. Thank you Mikel,
    Your post seems quite timely here in the US. Google just added the US to their map maker product and the PR-fed media is just running with “Google enabling citizen cartographers…” stuff with zero mention of OSM in most cases.

  21. Thank you for this excellent post I discovered lately.

    I may be optimistic, but I for one consider what OSM is going to do to private maps is quite the same as what Wikipedia did to the other encyclopedias. You can still choose them, but W is the one.

    I definitely can say my next GPS will be OSM-based; the only remaining open question now being which system it’ll be based on (trying to avoid monopolies is harder there: neither Apple nor Google nor Windows… maybe the now-dwarf Blackberry playbook?)

  22. Tried OpenStreetMap – couldn’t figure out how to switch it from Spanish to English.

    Why don’t you auto-detect the browser language settings? It’s easier to do than you might expect. You would instantly broaden your appeal by doing that.

    What language(s) is OSM written in? PHP? If so, just send me an email about this if you want some code samples.

Comments are closed.