17 November 2009

Volunteer mapmakers: Changing our views

Do you use Google Maps? Do you know where they come from? Have you ever had a GPS device problem?

In summer 2007, I spoke at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento (California). The president drove me from the train to his house, cautioning me to watch his GPS device. As we neared his home, the voice repeatedly said "turn left" at the next intersection, but my friend was in the right lane. As I checked our surroundings on the left, I saw a large building (no road through it!). As he made the right-hand turn into his street, he said that he enjoys showing that to visitors and that complaints were made but nothing had been updated.

Perhaps by now it has been updated by local residents, who are tired of being told to make a left turn where there is no such possibility.

People on-the-ground in their own neighborhoods and cities know when there are local map errors or changes in roads or new buildings. According to a New York Times technology story today, Google and other websites now understand that local residents can fix problems more quickly than professional digital map providers.

The new philosophy of mapmaking and geo-volunteerism was addressed today in the story by Miguel Helft. Read it here.

Geo-volunteerism is a new term to Tracing the Tribe, and the story began with Richard Hintz, 62, of San Francisco, who enters map details into atlases accessible online. Using GPS devices and simple software, volunteers create digital maps that never existed and, on existing maps, fix mistakes and add data.

Google says accessible maps are even more important these days as so many cellphone users rely on them to get where they want to go. You can't get there from here without reliable data, and local users are providing it.

According to the story, Google is dropping traditional providers and using volunteers to create maps of 140 countries, which are more complete than those from professional providers.

Other online resources are mentioned, such as the non-profit OpenStreetMap, whose 180,000 contributors have made free maps available to anyone. Its maps are used in IPhones and even on a White House website. WikiMapia creates maps that are layered on top of Google’s.

There's information on how this data is being used in GPS devices.

A most interesting read at the link above.

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