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OpenStreetMap, the free map platform in which several Silicon Valley giants are putting their employees to collaborate

Contrary to popular belief, OpenStreetMap was not born as a collaborative and free alternative to Google Maps (in fact, it was launched half a year before this one, in August 2004), but in response to the high prices charged by the Ordnance Survey (the UK's official mapping agency) for providing geographic information.

Two years later, its creator, Steve Coast, turned the OpenStreetMap project into a non-profit foundation. Told like this, it looks more like a cartographic version of Wikipedia, but less popular. Or, in other words: an idealistic project but with a lesser relevance.

After all, when was the last time you yourself went to to consult some information? And do you know someone who is dedicated to contributing geographic information to that platform? Most likely, your answers were "I have never done it" and "No, nobody". And yet ...

Silicon Valley is strongly committed to OpenStreetMaps

OSM receives an average of 4.5 million changes every day. Who carries them out? A talk by Jennings Anderson, a geoinformation expert at the Univ. Of Colorado, recently offered an unexpected answer: corporate editors do it, that is, paid by large companies, like the technological Apple, Amazon and Facebook.

And some are betting very strongly on OSM: without going any further, the majority of corporate contributions received by Apple throughout its history They were made by Apple only during the past year (and in 2020 it has gone to more):


Number of elements edited by corporate teams n OpenStreetMaps in recent years. (Via Joe Morrison on Medium)

Jennings pointed out a revealing fact when he explained in his conference that, in those geographic areas that are of interest to corporate publishers, Volunteer editions have been reduced to 20% of the total, when in 2017 they represented almost 70%.

Those corporate edits are not disinterested, of course: the non-existence of OSM would leave its market niche entirely in the hands of Google Maps, with which its Silicon Valley rivals would be forced to pay large sums to integrate your API into your own applications.

Thus, keeping OpenStreetMap updated they only make sure that it remains a rival to the height of the Google platform, a rival with open APIs that they use to maintain their own platforms: Bing Maps, Apple Maps, Snap Maps ...

One of the most prominent volunteer contributors to the OSM community, Frederik Ramm, stated during the platform's last annual conference that

"[...] neither of these companies is essential to OpenStreetMap. They are contributors, but OpenStreetMap could work perfectly without them [...] the mainstay of OpenStreetMap is the millions of fans, individuals who contribute to OpenStreetMap. "

Who are the owners of the maps in the world?

There is no doubt that it would continue to exist: in fact, in its early years the weight of OSM's growth was on the shoulders of the community, but the truth is that for some of the largest companies on the planet, has become a critical infrastructure for several of its most popular services, and that this determines how the platform will evolve.

As Joe Morrison, an employee of the geospatial technology company Azavea, states on his blog

"When the richest organizations in history quietly collaborate on something, I think it is worth pointing out. I'm not sure there is a precedent for such collaboration: if you know of a case where this class of mega-corporations have worked with a global community of volunteers to create a public dataset ... let me know. "