Cartographically Speaking; Data (Lots), Maps (Not So Much), Problems (Many)

In September I’ll be at the 46th. Annual Society of Cartographers Summer School at the University of Manchester where I’m lucky enough to have been asked to give a talk on geographic data. This topic should come as no surprise to anyone who’s come across one of my blog posts.

I’ll be talking about Welcome To The World Of The Geo Data Silo; Where Closed Data Is Open And Open Data Is Closed; the talk abstract is now up on the SoC web site and it’s reproduced below.

We’ve been mapping the world around us for centuries, even before the Mappa Mundi first appeared in Hereford Cathedral. But now, as location becomes ubiquitous (if you have a smartphone and you’re not in an urban canyon), as the major and minor players coalesce into the nebulous thing we call the “geo industry” and as there’s sources of geographic data everywhere, suddenly the map isn’t the important thing anymore. Now, it’s all about the data.

At this year’s Where 2.0 in the heart of Silicon Valley, a veritable geo-fest if ever there was one, the map was strangely absent. Instead we have data, lots of data.

data slide

Some of it commercial and authoritative (Navteq and Teleatlas), some of it niche and authoritative (Urban Mapping), some of it country specific and authoritative (Britain’s Ordnance Survey) and some of it crowd sourced and growing aggressively (OpenStreetMap). But there’s also data from unlikely allies, from geo-tagged photos (Flickr), from location based social networking services (FourSquare and Gowalla) and from forward thinking experimental authorities (Vancouver’s Open Data Catalogue).

Data, data everywhere. Some physical, some spatial, some subjective, some colloquial. But all of it locked in its own private little data silo. There’s much irony here as well, as previously proprietary data becomes unlocked and open (Ordnance Survey) and open, crowd sourced data become locked behind a well meaning but restrictive license.

You could call this Geo-Babel and we’re in the midst of it right now. How can we recognise this and, more importantly, how can we as part of the geo industry dig ourselves out of this hole?

… now I just need to write the talk and the accompanying slide deck in time.

Photo Credits: bionicteaching on Flickr
Written and posted from Berlin Tegel Airport (52.5545447, 13.2899969)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.


Russ Nelson

Any license is going to be restrictive. The OS license prohibits one sort of thing, and the OSM license prohibits another: making proprietary versions of the data. In other words, OSM is open now, open forever, as opposed to a less restrictive license which permits open now, closed tomorrow.


Thanks for the insightful commentary Russ. This wasn’t specifically aimed at OSM but at open community geographic data in general. But while you’ve made explicit mention of OSM, I don’t want to get into a discussion on the merits of different licensing schemes, terms and conditions. But as things currently stand, a lot of commercial organisations don’t feel able to use OSM data. That’s preventing the rich data source that OSM has from attaining (which I believe to be) its full potential and reach. This in itself is something that needs to be discussed openly, which is but one facet of what I intend to discuss in Manchester. OSM has to much to offer the geo community and the geo industry and I want to see that happening.

It’s worth considering a comparison though. The Apache Foundation has been able to both protect the investment made in the code base and apply itself to use of the Apache web server in commercial ventures in a way which benefits both the Apache community and the commercial community.

It’d be great to see OSM have that same degree of use and application, in addition to the uses its already put to.

Stepping off my soap box now.

Richard Fairhurst

Russ – I’m not sure that _any_ licence is restrictive. The WTFPL, as used by Potlatch 2, doesn’t have a whole lot of restrictions.

Interesting post. As an OSM activist and commercial cartographer both, I find myself using OS OpenData more and more… yet have never even started using OSM data for commercial purposes.

Comments are closed.