Good Citizenship in Open Data

I didn’t expect my rant would strike such a nerve, but maybe I’ve been holding my tongue for a long time. Thank you for the many responses, online and off, both supportive and challenging.

We must work to understand what good citizenship and ethical behavior means in open data projects. The nature of communication, copying and competition in the space of open data is very complex. Yes, it’s not just about Google, but about raising the awareness of these issues among the people organizing open data projects, and especially the communities where we want to have an impact. The best idea I’ve heard this week (in a week of amazing ideas in Cambridge) was from Jeffrey Warren. We need a clear set of principles and ethics to guide the practice of open data initiatives in new communities. Open data collection should have: open and clear explanations of the purpose of data collection and the license of data; effort to find existing sources of data, rather than replicating and resurveying, and lobbying for the sharing of that data; effort to give the communities that collect data every opportunity to use that data in their own work, however they see fit; etc…

Participation in open data is both about the arcane topics of data licensing, and simply and most importantly being a good citizen. The impression of legal matters is usually all any non-lawyer grasps … it’s just too hard to understand the subtleties of legal text, and we rely on trusted intermediaries to explain what’s what. Google is trusted, and they’re misusing that trust with communities, NGOs, and governments. And Google has huge resources, they get a lot of attention. They’re representing their mapping offerings as free and open, when they’re ultimately controlled by their business concerns. Google has one of the slickest communication practices around, with subtle phrasing that gives an impression of cooperation, but with built in protection whenever someone digs into the details. This is deceptive.

There’s no problem with copying, it’s encouraged. Mapping Parties are not patented. There’s no license on ideas, because fair play is expected. Simply, being a good citizen, being a friend in this diverse space, means giving credit and giving back. Google has taken a concept, adapted it, and not attributed. Not until last year did they even use the phrase Mapping Party for Map Maker events (sometimes that got the attention it deserved). In places where there’s been exposure, Google didn’t “throw Mapping Parties”, because of course it would’ve been noticed as deriving from OSM. And Google is alergic to giving any notice to OSM, for example omitting any mention of the biggest open data project on the planet, which originated in the UK, from their glossy magazine on UK Open Data.

Competition is a very crude and inaccurate way of describing the relationships in the open data space, especially between OSM and Google, and is based on confusion of what OpenStreetMap is all about. OSM is essentially a commons, a data project where everyone can contribute, share and use. OSM is not a company, it’s not an NGO. It’s a collective where hackers, governments, universities, anarchists, slum dwellers, multinational corporations, and international organizations all contribute to a common endeavor to map the world. Every other major internet company contributes to OSM in some substantial way. It is Google only that has decided it’s in competition with OSM, not because of the designs of engineers and product people, but because doing so would undermine something Google thinks it can profit from.

Honestly, I would be thrilled to see Google adopt the use of OSM. The data of OSM is very different from the interfaces and the software. The site and tools definitely need improvement, but it’s not because wants to take away traffic from Google Maps. OSM’s frontpage needs to do something different: “The frontpage fails to communicate what the project does and why it does it effectively. The controls are confusing for new users (lots of random tabs and sidebar). In addition, it totally fails to connect new users to others around them and thus create a community.” Google could even be helping with this.

Never did I say that Google should stop making its products, but rather than it should stop exploitation. In more positive terms, Google must be a better citizen. I even said that a lot of what Google is doing in Africa is good for Africa. I use Google products all the time, live by Google Calendar, and think Summer of Code is awesome no matter how many spaces OpenStreetMap gets. They’ve contributed in great ways to humanitarian response. I have many friends at Google, who are not surprised by what I said, but perhaps surprised that I said it out loud on the Internet. But this is one place where Google’s Africa Strategy has fouled up directly in a space I care deeply about, fueled by business concerns, cloaked in open data clothes, but ultimately dangerous. As Ping said on Crisis Mappers (about a different OSM-Google issue, but equally valid here) …

It is okay to have issues with Google. Google is a big place; there are a lot of different people and different teams here, all trying to accomplish different things. It’s tough to assign a coherent intent to the entire company; we’re a bunch of people trying to work together even though we don’t always agree. No individual person is trying to be evil. Sometimes we screw up, though.

So yea, I’m pissed off, and can’t keep quiet. And actually, as some have asked, there is a lot more to these stories that you’ll only here about over a beer. If you only know me by this post, perhaps you’re surprised to hear that I’m usually known as a mediator, diplomatically open to all sides of an issue, generally a nice guy who just wants to map the world. And in case it wasn’t obviously clear, this all is my personal opinion. Another aspect of our open world is our multiple public representations, and I wasn’t speaking for the OSM Foundation, Humanitarian OSM Team, or GroundTruth. And yes, the OpenStreetMap community has a reputation for being “caustic”, which is based on a very small segment of our community, mostly the osm-talk list. Anyone who has ever attended State of the Map, gone to a pub meet, contributed to a HOT response, posted to nearly any other list, will have a different impression.

Finally, I regret to say that Unosat got caught in the cross-fire of this post. Unosat has an evolving cooperation with many entities, including HOT, where we have been given access to imagery in Japan and Liberia. While I find fault with their Google MapMaker cooperation, they aren’t giving Google any data, rather using Google data. They are well versed in the details of open data, of licensing, and are wise to explore opportunities equally. They’ve generously explored how they can work together with OSM, most recently in Japan and I look forward to more.

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.

Holidays, in Snow and in Kibera

The snow has been falling steadily outside in Chicago, bringing the pleasures of snow shoveling: a little Sisyphean circulation in an overfed and over-rested body. That body has too gladly fell into near hibernation on our holiday return from Kenya. I can’t help thinking of Kenyans here, this unimaginable climate, people who even turn down iced drinks on hot days in fear of catching cold. Their relationship with holiday foods is a lot more healthy and real than what’s happened here, unless you’re a vegetarian like me (again nearly inconceivable back in Kenya).

For me, the icey temperature and the holidays have forced us to do absolutely nothing, after two of the most intense, rewarding, difficult, successful, frustrating months ever. I’ve been so tired I’ve totally missed the pleasure of reverse culture shock; it’s been just like a dream. There’s hardly been time for reflection and writing. Erica somehow managed to record her experiences and thoughts, the dedication of a professional. I hope I can recapture this incredible time in retrospect. Time to rejuvenate in 2010. We feel the strong pull to get back there, and we’re landing in Nairobi towards the end of the month.


Two weeks ago we left Nairobi. And we had to squeeze in one more conference before leaving, TedXKibera #2, very much the best meeting of the entire trip. Every presentation and conversation was lit with such excitement and optimism … of doing some genuinely innovative and impactful and astonishing.

Our friends from the Kibera Film School presented, their positive attitude, technical mastery, and connection to the wider world, an inspiration in the toughest moments of mapping in November. Organic farms are harvesting right in Kibera, built on the site of old dumping grounds, building local food security … the kind of land reuse and consumption issues challenging the status quo everywhere. PeePoople are introducing innovation to water and sanitation, a flying toilet that actually breaks down waste to safe fertilizer, and considering work on green roofs to harvest rain water and reduce heat in metal roofed homes … in addition to other group’s incredible work in sanitation, like the biolatrines. The excellent venue for TedXKibera, Mchanganyiko Women Self-Help Group, was itself built on a former dumping site, and entirely driven by women empowering themselves.

All these things need mapping … the organic farms are already on the map, and the map can be used to locate more. The stories of Togetherness Supreme, the locations where it was shot, those can be mapped for promotion and for advising on locations with Hot Sun clients. Sanitation facilities, of course are mapped … some mappers even complaining that toilets are littering the map (a good thing!). The Map Kibera group, they fully represented at TedX, and have been meeting in our absence to plan how to institutionalize the work we’ve started.

Working in Kibera is important to innovation everywhere. Working in Africa is important to innovation. Necessities are driving incredible creativity, a creativity the rest of the world needs to pay attention to for tomorrow’s challenges in urban and rural living … sanitation, food, water, and how to peacefully live together. Even the design challenges tomorrow’s technologies, augmented reality, have everything to learn from how space is negotiated in off the grid, on the edge places. Kibera is innovation.

That’s why I’m very excited about the TedXKibera Fellowship program, announced last month … there are so many enthusiastic people, that only need advice and connections and pathways. Before I get back, I’ll practice clearing paths on the snowy Chicago sidewalks.

Comparing OSM and Google Services in Kenya and the Developing World

After reading Erik’s post on Google driving directions in Kenya, my thoughts wandered to how services built on OpenStreetMap data compared in Nairobi and Kenya. The main difference I can see is that with OSM services, when something is deployed anywhere, it’s usually immediately available globally, so we aren’t left waiting for opaque corporate processes to gift us with new features.


I’ve compared MapMaker and OSM coverage before, and found them to be nearly equivalent in areas with high resolution satellite imagery. Yahoo has less satellite coverage generally, over a smaller area of Nairobi, so that is where you see the highest concentration of OSM data. Outside Nairobi, OSM relies mostly on the FAO Africover import, with select places surveyed in more detail .. I think mainly vacation spots :). This is quickly being supplemented as Map Kibera folks are borrowing GPS for their travels up countries in the festive season.

Both Google and Yahoo imagery are over four years out of date. Anyone familiar with Nairobi’s rapid recent building spree can see it clearly from comparison with satellite imagery with known timestamps. This means that provider’s satellite imagery alone is not sufficient to map here .. you need both up to date imagery, and in situ surveying. That’s where GPS and Walking Papers show their strength in data collection.


OSM has a very active developer community focused on routing. The products aren’t quite a slick as Google’s offerings, but just as powerful, mostly based on pgRouting. CloudMade’s routing is based on adding pins to the map, rather than search, but otherwise do a comparable job to Google’s routing choices.


Like Google, CloudMade routing lacks traffic data in Nairobi. I do know that there are folks in Nairobi working on deploying traffic sensor systems. And folks working on matatu routes. Now t>he key thing is how we will see their data in maps. They could negotiate with Google to have their data included, and I can only wish them luck and a prayer for something like a good deal. But there is no need to wait for Google bureaucracy to start helping improve Nairobi traffic. They could simply build their own routing application with open source data and tools, that integrates their traffic sensor network.


Erik seems to be having fun playing with his iPhone in Nairobi 🙂 (I stick to my solar powered, mPesa enabled phone here). Not many folks have iPhones in Kenya yet .. though you can find Chinese knockoffs on streetside mobile kiosks downtown. There’s no iPhone OSM routing yet. Still, there are a couple apps which offer really key features for Nairobi, and I hope Erik finds a chance to give these apps thorough testing here too.

OffMaps is local caching of maps on your iPhone, which means you can store all of Nairobi locally with no need to spend buckets of airtime repeatedly downloading maps.

MapZen POI Editor is collection of OpenStreetMap points of interest on your iPhone. It’s probably the most user friendly way to contribute to OSM. Now I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Google that Erik critiques the misplacement of his father’s office on Upper Hill. The whole idea with collaborative cartography is that the map can be improved by anyone. However, with OSM or MapMaker, you usually need to keep notes on mistakes you see in your business (I have several of these filled with corrections). MapZen allows this to happen right there in situ, as you see the errors on the street you can immediately correct them.

The Point

Now I wouldn’t mind buying drinks for Google employees. Now, most of the folks hired by Google to fill in data on MapMaker aren’t working there any more, so they may appreciate the drink more than ever (just kidding guys!).

Yes, I did say “hired by Google”. Though they claim to be working within a community, the overwhelming contributor is Google themselves. What percentage is internal or external to Google, I don’t know, because they don’t release the data to calculate those sort of stats. For OSM, we can plainly see which individual contributed how much, and produce all manner of stats. Though OSM has jsut a few folks producing the majority of data, that curve is flattening out rapidly.

It’s great that Google is extending it’s services in Kenya and the developing world. Heck they even have a bus in India (we’re working a mapping matatu here ;). But the point is that with open source and open data, people everywhere don’t have to wait for Santa Google to gift them with new features .. all the tools are readily available for maps to leap frog in the developing world even more than the mobile phone.

Hout Bay OpenStreetMap Mapping Party!

Absolutely stunning and fun day yesterday in Hout Bay & Cape Town.

Cape Town is pretty well mapped. So we went afield 20km south to a lovely little beach town of Hout Bay, and based ourselves at the welcoming porch of Tobi Crescent Beach. Hout Bay is chilled out but also an interesting recent history, with a economic/land/racial political conflict recapitulating the issues facing the nation as a whole. That meant we couldn’t wisely go into the informal settlement of Imizamo Yethu, which is probably not mapped anywhere, and deserves to be .. would love the chance to meet someone with ties there, who like to go in for some mapping. Yahoo is ok over Imizamo Yethu. update .. apparently the city of Cape Town maps the footprint of each dwelling individually using aerial photography, for census and liability purposes. Not freely available data however…

Good mix of newbies and experienced mappers, so teams collected around the half dozen GPS accompanying us for OpenMappingAfrica2008. The nearly 20 folks were all enthusiastic and pulled together a great event.

Hout Bay before:


Hout Bay after:


AND Party Render Hout Bay

After mapping proper, we were entertained to a great, impromptu lunch at Trevor’s restaurant, the Wild Fig. In the middle of Cape Town, yet wild open and idyllic. Lovely. Then some free wifi and editing. This is a style of mapping I can get used to!

Thanks to Gavin and the FOSS4G team for support and promotion, Tobi and the Wild Fig, and everyone who took part.