Friday, January 15, 2010

Haitian Earthquake Emphasizes Danger of a Split Geo Community

My career has afforded me the opportunity to be part of what I believe to be a wonderful and generous community; the world geospatial community. A typically happy group of geo-nerds armed with laptops, gps enabled gadgets, and a strong foundation of thinking spatially.

Now, this community certainly has some big business motives behind it, but whenever there is a disaster, or crisis like we are seeing now in Haiti, this community comes together and throws everything it has to offer to help. It energizes me to do what I can to help in these times of need and dedicate myself to applying my trade to the cause. And as a Google employee, I'm blessed to have the full support of my management to work full time when necessary on these events.

While the first few hours of this particular disaster were frustrating as I watched the machine slowly gear up, I am blown away at the response we've pulled together - we're actually learning from these events and each one seems to get a little easier to manage - even if the scale of the disasters always seems to increase.

I sat on an early conference call with representatives of all the major GIS vendors, first responders, geo-nerds, NGOs, govies, and the media where everyone brought what they could do to the table and people teamed up to go do what they do best together.

For example, I watched Google, DigitalGlobe, and GeoEye all work together to get stunning imagery collected, processed, and published FREE to the international community to help a wide array of aid workers and first responders within 24 hours.

I watched the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the US State Department, and other government agencies get critical and informative data and applications out the door and into the hands of people that needed them within mere hours of the disaster - a far improvement from the Katrina days!

Perhaps most impressive has been the response that Mikel blogged about to the utter lack of vector data that the Geo Community had access to just after the earthquake.

Stealing his images, just look at the difference in OpenStreetMap Port-au-Prince in just a few days of the Geo Community swarming and finding old CIA library maps, public domain maps, etc and the new imagery released by the commercial satellite providers.

OSM just after the Earthquake

OSM Today

Now, that transformation is wonderful - it is astounding - but it isn't complete because there is a Split in the Geo Community that isn't being well addressed.

OpenStreetMap is not the only community data collection platform - Google also has MapMaker which has similar tools and goals, and has done a very great job of expanding Google Maps to areas of the world where data was not traditionally available. If I lived in an area that previously had blank Google Maps coverage, I was given the tools to fix that problem and many users around the world have been happy to work on maps of their own area so they can enjoy Google Maps, Directions, etc.

I thought it was great that in addition to the countries from which Google already allows non-profits to download MapMaker data, that Google added the data from Haiti and is now allowing any non-profit to download and use Google's data to help during this crisis.

But OSM and MapMaker aren't talking and I think it is a big problem - if you want to help rescue efforts in Haiti where do you go to digitize? OSM? MapMaker?

How can 2 projects be expected to be in synch? Which is more "correct"? Which is more current?

This split means that these questions have to be asked by first responders, and by those working to create products for them.

"Is that road up there passable?" "Does it really exist?"

It means that the Geo Community is responsible for an extra decision between a first responder and a VICTIM.

As it stands right now, even though the MapMaker data is free for non-profit use, projects like OSM can't use the data because there are commercial uses for OSM and the data belongs to Google, not OSM.

These are the old fights of GIS data; these are Navteq and TeleAtlas bugaboos IMHO, not what I expect to see today!

The differences are pretty glaring between OSM and MapMaker in some cases - take a look at the data I downloaded from both over Port-au-Prince.

The data is similar, but different, and needs to be conflated. Where that conflation happens, how it happens, I don't know - but I do know that we need to do something to fix this split before it gets people hurt.

That said, it is good to have 2 or more different projects; it forces competition in the tools, each project has different goals and metrics of success, and it probably ultimately means more community contribution as different groups migrate to different platforms  - all adding to the cumulative Geo Community base data.

However, the data ultimately has to be conflated somewhere - and I urge OSM and MapMaker to work more closely with each other and build some sort of cross platform utility that lets users share edits and co-create data.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sean,

Great post and I could not agree more - especially from the perspective of interacting with both communities. At the end of the day it really come down to the license.

In an ideal world both would be CC0 (creative commons zero) and then it would only be a technical challenge to combine them. That is straight forward. The current gulf between the licenses much less so.

Google restricts use, so we (GeoCommons) or anyone else can't remix and repurpose the data. Which in general does not make the data very Web friendly. OSM's ODBL license is viral which makes it tough for companies like Google to get it past their lawyers. Sadly it is a bit too much about business decisions on both ends.

It would be great for the purposes of the disaster if both data sets, limited to the location in question, could just be released CC0. that would be the easiest solution IMHO.

sean gorman

Robert said...

It's all very well for you to spend your time on google stuff - you're a google employee. The thing is, google uses MapMaker to get contributors to do their work for them. The contributor has no real rights over their work. They are essentially unpaid google employees.

Sure, google may 'generously' allow free uses of data in extreme circumstances like this (and reap the credit for doing so), but in the general case submitted data becomes very much google's property.

So no, I don't see it as navteq vs teleatlas. Google MapMaker is simply co-opting of the openstreetmap idea for its own ends.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean,

nice blog post. I agree with many of your points including that it would be great if OSM and G MapMaker could work closer together to produce the best possible maps. I also agree that a nice friendly competition with a permeability of ideas and data would be great, where the strengths of OpenStreetMap (its great diversity, producing maps for various handheld GPS devices, for all sorts of mobile phones, both online and offline, maps in many different rendering styles, vector data used in computer games or even to produce artwork like wooden clocks or many of the other innovative uses, both commercial and non-commercial, as well as the very passionate community) could be combined with the strengths of Google ( the ability to deliver very well polished apps, great usability, scalability of resources, superior marketing power and an awesome base product) to create an unbeatable crowd sourced map.

However, I don't quite see how that will happen (although I would very much be interested in your views on how it should / could work), as the licenses of the two projects currently seem irreconcilable.

Either, Google has to give up their non-commercial clause and give everyone the same rights to the user generated data as Google gets and thus allow anyone to fairly compete with google, which I presume won't happen? Or, OSM has to give Google the write to use the data without being able to incorporate Google's data back into OSM, which will also not happen.

A compromise would be for both "sides" to go CC0. But then what would be there to prevent either project (or third party projects) to take the data and move back to a more restrictive license? You would have to put in some licensing to prevent that, which would get you basically back to a viral license such as CC-BY-SA or ODbL.

So I suspect that is not going to happen either :-S

Another compromise could be that all sides release at least the "Crisis Data" CC0, as that is where duplication and a split is most costly, and the benefit of sharing greatest. I think that is at least something for which I can see a chance of happening and would be a great start. As you say, it is so wonderful to see all the dedication and effort people from both communities put into trying to help in anyway they can in these terrible crisis situations and it is rather disheartening to see the effort not at its highest efficiency due to legal obstacles.

Thus, as I said before, I as a OSM contributor would be very much interested to hear your views of how this sharing could happen. Both in the short term for the Haiti data, and in the longer term for general cooperation and future crisis.