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The Freedom To Innovate

Consumer mapping can see a greater degree of innovation if the user community takes the initiative of experimenting with new ideas for developing new products

Consumer mapping is in a rut. Yes, MapQuest, Google and Bing have helped hundreds of thousands of people to put maps on their websites, which in turn serve hundreds of millions of users around the world. These companies should be applauded for doing all this on their own dime.

But have you noticed that today's maps look a lot like maps from 2005. Visit http://googlemapsdev.blogspot.com, take a walk down memory lane, and see for yourself.

Compare that with the Internet, which has experienced extreme innovation over the same period: cloud computing, pervasive social networking, IPTV, and smartphone LTE networking, to name a few.

If the Internet had evolved like consumer mapping, we'd still be logging into America OnLine over a dial-up connection. Why hasn't consumer mapping experienced the same degree of innovation?

Let's look at innovation itself. It begins with an idea, which through experimentation evolves and is either abandoned or is pushed to market as a product. The successful products act as catalyst for yet more ideas, which propel the cycle of innovation.

This cycle requires lots of time, effort and money. It also requires freedom: the freedom to challenge; the freedom to disassemble and reassemble; and the freedom to share. It was this freedom that allowed TCP / IP, GNU and Linux to evolve to where it now supports a trillion- dollar Internet economy.

So, it makes little sense for us to wait for Google, MapQuest and Bing to create the next big thing in consumer mapping (The map mashup didn't even come from Google, but from Paul Rademacher, an outsider who hacked the Google Map platform. His idea was a complete surprise to Google. They didn't even see it coming). Fortunately, Google generously sponsored his idea (they could have sued).

A consumer mapping platform contains four elements:

The last three are freely available — you just need some elbow grease and a cloud server. The vector data, however, had until very recently been accessible only to those with an army of lawyers and millions of dollars to spend. This is where OpenStreetMap (OSM) comes in. Essentially a Wikipedia for vector map data, OSM has for seven years collected and published a digital map of the world, which now tips the scales at 300 Gigabytes. Its 500,000 users have contributed world-wide coverage of roads, hydrography, point and polygon-based places of interest. Flickr, Foursquare and others now use OSM to power their consumer mapping solutions. And, Apple will announce a new map platform at this month's World Wide Developers Conference that is expected to use OSM.

Two weeks ago, I visited OSM at http://www.openstreetmap.org and added a large park that was missing from their map. The following week, I revisited their map, and sure enough, my contributions were there for all to use. A small industry has formed around OSM to supply the other three elements of what is a free and open consumer mapping platform. I'd like to clarify that free means the freedom to innovate, and this does not come without financial cost. If your goal is to publish markers on a map to a limited sized audience, Google, Bing and MapQuest remain your best solution. They are free- of-cost but offer limited freedom to innovate.

I'll finish with this quote from Paul Rademacher, who created the first Google Map Mashup: Innovation is possible only when companies let you tinker with their creations... Too many good ideas are squandered ... because the tools needed to realise them are locked away.