You’ve probably noticed by now, or at least heard, that Groundspeak has changed the background basemap they use on the geocaching.com website, from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap. They cite cost as the main reason for doing so in this brief Latitude 47 blog post. This sparked off a lively debate, as seen in that same blog post’s comment section.
For those not familiar with OpenStreetMap, or OSM, it is often referred to as the Wikipedia of geography, because all of the mapping is done, and updated, by the user community; a method known as crowd-sourcing. The maps are then made available for free.
One of the main complaints reiterated in the Latitude 47 blog’s comments was that the OSM maps are not nearly as accurate as Google Maps. While this is probably a legitimate concern in certain parts of the country, especially in some of the more rural areas, I don’t think this is true overall. Not only are the OSM maps in my neck of the woods just as accurate as Google and Bing Maps are, they are also more detailed in many respects (similar to the example shown in the Latitude 47 post). For example, the OSM maps of the parks and open spaces here in the San Francisco Bay Area contain far more trail detail (with labels) than Google maps does.
OSM View of Redwood Regional Park
The same view in Google Maps. Where'd all the trails go?
Of course, I am fortunate enough to live in an area with a very active OSM community that is constantly updating and adding features to the maps. I realize that’s not the case everywhere.
My two main complaints, however, with the new map interface vs. the old is that the satellite imagery is poorer than Google’s, and the rendering speed is much slower than before. I understand that Groundspeak is addressing the drawing speed issue, but I think we’re stuck with the imagery resolution problem for now. Oh well, we can always copy and paste a cache’s coordinates into Google Maps and open up street view; as long as it’s still free for us to do so. ;)
You may be interested to learn that there has been a concerted effort underway for some time now, advocating that people, and companies, switch to OSM as their online mapping provider. And it’s not just Groundspeak that realized that the “free” online mapping services that Google offers isn’t really free at all. Just this week, Foursquare announced that they too are switching from Google to OSM, for mainly the same reason that Groundspeak did.
OSM has been very popular in Europe for years, and just seems to be starting to gain momentum here in the U.S. It’s likely that OSM’s popularity will continue to grow as the maps continue to improve in quality and more companies begin to dump their pay-for-geography services for the OSM alternative. And the growing interest in OSM isn’t limited to just online mapping: NavFree touts itself as "The world's first free professional GPS navigation software for the iPhone and iPad, for free." How can it be free, you ask? Because it uses OpenStreetMap.