A viable alternative to Google Maps: OpenStreetMap

Post by Spencer Hartberg

OpenStreetMap is a free, open source mapping platform that has emerged as a viable alternative to Google Maps. We’ve been working on a few side projects involving online maps, and have been impressed with the capabilities of OpenStreetMap. So we decided to share a bit about what we’ve learned.

What is OpenStreetMap?
Most online maps get their data from copyrighted sources. For example, Google Maps gets a lot of their U.S. data from NAVTEQ. This means that any third-party app built on top of Google Maps is considered a derived work. Any information taken from their map, such as a location’s latitude and longitude is still under their copyright. This puts restrictions on how a third-party app can work. For a developer looking to charge money or build a completely open-source application free from restrictions, this presents a problem. The solution is OpenStreetMap, a user-generated map released under a Creative Commons license.

Standard Map View

Standard Map View

How does it work?
OpenStreetMap follows the Wikipedia model by letting users freely edit a user generated online map. Some existing map data is already in the public domain (like TIGER data) and has been imported into the map, but most map features are user created. After making an account, a user is free to add or delete anything from the map. Users import coordinates taken from handheld GPS units, or trace satellite photos to map out features. OpenStreetMap uses the powerful Potlatch flash program to make edits within a web browser.

In-browser edit mode

In-browser edit mode

There are several projects that mimic Google Maps API functions to provide developers with the ability to embed maps and add interactive features. A popular one is OpenLayers, which implements an open source Javascript API. When combined, these two software projects allow developers to build totally open source geographic web applications on par with anything built with Google Maps API. Developers interested in building mapping applications should definitely check them out.


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