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The Street View From the Cheap Seats

Thoughts on maps.

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All it takes is for one person to visit Stockton

As previously pointed out, there are interesting things happening in open-source geo right now. So here’s another interesting thing: OpenStreetView, which is a sort of open-source/crowd-sourced Google Street View but maintained by an independent company (Telenav, TNAV on NASDAQ), referenced to the data in OpenStreetMap. So instead of pictures of roadways coming from Google Cars topped with big spy knobs, this data comes from the sorts of folks who like to drive around with their phones up against the windshield.

The project was officially announced a few weeks ago and there’s more background on it on the OpenStreetMap wiki. There’s also a leaderboard of who drove the most—right now maxolasersquad has 88,000 kilometers under his/her/its drive belt. The coverage is extremely biased towards the Bay Area right now, as we have come to expect from early-stage geo products, although there’s a little going on in NYC in Queens, too. People like mapping stuff and claiming territory. So it’s only a matter of time before there are millions of miles logged around the globe.

If you’re like me learning about a project like this can bring about a state of mild panic. I don’t know where to put it in my brain. Is it a tool or a threat? That’s a lot of data. How will they process all the data? What happens to the archives? If they say that people can remove their Street View data at any time then what kind of assurances can I make when I link to the data? What will a for-profit company do with this open data? Should I use the app when we drive back from vacation? What about privacy? They’ll be blurring faces, like Google does, but—

Then there is the fact that the uploaded images are available basically in realtime. Unless there is a humanitarian need I think it would make sense to block access to tracks for a random time period, maybe up to a month. When the images do become available they could fudge the timestamps by ±1 week so that it’s not easily possible to organise them into a time series.

That’s by Tom VK7NTK, on his blog. And, of course, this being open source and created by a corporation, the comments on the post reveal a complex backstory involving competing efforts, licensing, and powerful map-related emotions. I don’t know what to think and who will even tell me?

Coupla little bugs to work out

There are a lot of ways to think about this new map thing, moving beyond the tool/threat dichotomy: As an open source effort, as a tool for humanitarian work, as a potential privacy mess, as a new independent layer atop the already excellent OpenStreetMap work, as a civic data source without civic oversight, as a new widget in the growing open-sourced map stacks, as a new way of seeing the physical world, as a tool for marginalized and underserved people to represent themselves in physical space, as furthering the deeply car-centric approach to the world, etc. Working, open code—which is what OpenStreetView provides—means we have a reference from which to ask those questions, even if we’re seriously lacking in answers.

Story published on Aug 25, 2016.