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Knight Foundation Announces Support for New Open Mapping Tools

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, September 20 2012

DevelopmentSeed will receive a $575,000 grant from the Knight News Challenge to improve tools for working with OpenStreetMap, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced Thursday at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco.

OpenStreetMap describes itself as the Wikipedia of map data. At the best of times the flexibility and speed afforded by a community-driven mapping project can make OpenStreetMap an engine of creativity. As an open-source map, it comes with far fewer licensing restrictions and can be used in a variety of ways. That's the incentive for users to improve it as opposed to improving some other mapping data — invest time in OSM and use it exactly the way you want to use it, rather than navigate the licensing terms of, for example, Google Map Maker. OSM especially shows its usefulness in places where Google cannot or does not often go, like Islamabad, Pakistan, or Jalalabad, Afghanistan, or Tbilisi, Georgia — anyone can contribute to OSM regardless of how they or their government feels about big, largely Western, multinational corporations.

But at the worst of times, OSM reveals itself as a volunteer-driven project without the polish of a commercially supported product. For example, reports indicate OpenStreetMap is backing up primary vendor TomTom as a data source for the by-all-accounts-awful performance of Apple's new Maps program, included as part of iOS 6 in lieu of Google's mapping offering.

The DevelopmentSeed grant will be put towards making it easier for users to improve the data in OpenStreetMap, DevelopmentSeed CEO Eric Gundersen said in an interview Thursday morning.

"OpenStreetMap doesn't have cars to drive 5 million miles," Gundersen said. "It doesn't have a fleet of planes. What it does have is a really rich community of people who want to map around their house.

"We maintain a full worldwide basemap," Gundersen said later on in our conversation. "A basemap that folks like Foursquare are using is all part of OpenStreetMap. We want to make sure that that data in our basemaps is highest quality and there's the best data in there. Improving these tools within OpenStreetMap is going to put us down that path."

DevelopmentSeed maintains MapBox and TileMill, a set of web platforms and open-source applications for building maps and map-driven applications. He told me that he's going to be putting a significant amount of DevelopmentSeed's resources into building out the tools to improve OpenStreetMap's community functions.

"This is about making it easier to trace satellite imagery and about making the user interface really dead simple to use," Gundersen said.

"Make it easy to add a road, just a road. Make it easy to add just a road name. Make it easy to tweak a direction. Make it incredibly straightforward."

In other words, this money is going towards making OpenStreetMap's "wiki" functionality a better competitor to the tools people use to update Google's famously sophisticated map layers.

The OSM community and Google have a complicated relationship. On the one hand, several OSM projects are being funded through Google Summer of Code and the search giant is in general a supporter of open source. On the other hand, Map Maker and OSM sometimes compete for market share.

I mused aloud on Twitter earlier today that Apple might even invest in improving OpenStreetMap as a means of further undermining Google's geospatial dominance. Tim O'Reilly gestured at this — Apple may be using its Maps offering to challenge a competitor's core competency, just to weaken the competition, and backing OpenStreetMap would make that a stronger play — in a recent post on Google Plus.

The Knight News Challenge just announced the DevelopmentSeed grant and five other winners of a grant challenge program focused on data in civic life, and there are a number of other projects here worth noting.

Perhaps the most immediately obvious is Open Elections ($200,000), a project of the New York Times' Derek Willis and the Washington Post's Serdar Tumgoren to make certified election results available as developer-friendly data. But each of the six projects, receiving a sum total of $2.22 million, is notable for other reasons. Code for America's Detroit team has already built LocalData, a research tool for community groups to collect and store data about their neighborhoods, then export it in a variety of formats useful for developers. That project is also getting a $300,000 grant.

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