Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence

As private companies play larger roles in OpenStreetMap, some volunteers worry that the open-source project is losing its way.   

Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence
A technician tests a touch-screen version of the Google Earth map software. (Photographer: Adam Berry/Bloomberg News)

What do Lyft, Facebook, the International Red Cross, the U.N., the government of Nepal and Pokémon Go have in common? They all use the same source of geospatial data: OpenStreetMap, a free, open-source online mapping service akin to Google Maps or Apple Maps. But unlike those corporate-owned mapping platforms, OSM is built on a network of mostly volunteer contributors. Researchers have described it as the “Wikipedia for maps.”

Since it launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap has become an essential part of the world’s technology infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of monthly users interact with services derived from its data, from ridehailing apps, to social media geotagging on Snapchat and Instagram, to humanitarian relief operations in the wake of natural disasters. 

But recently the map has been changing, due the growing impact of private sector companies that rely on it. In a 2019 paper published in the ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, a cross-institutional team of researchers traced how Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other companies have gained prominence as editors of the map. Their priorities, the researchers say, are driving significant change to what is being mapped compared to the past. 

“OpenStreetMap’s data is crowdsourced, which has always made spectators to the project a bit wary about the quality of the data,” says Dipto Sarkar, a professor of geoscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, and one of the paper’s co-authors. “As the data becomes more valuable and is used for an ever-increasing list of projects, the integrity of the information has to be almost perfect. These companies need to make sure there’s a good map of the places they want to expand in, and nobody else is offering that, so they’ve decided to fill it in themselves.”

(Disclosure: I’m a researcher at McGill University, focused on urban planning policy and geospatial technologies. As academic colleagues, Sarkar and I have plans to collaborate on future research.)

But some longtime OSM volunteers fear that corporate influence could threaten the map’s status as a free and open-source project, undermining their contributions and potentially reducing access for everyday users. 

OpenStreetMap was the brainchild of a small group of computer scientists and geographers. When it launched in the mid-2000s, most spatial information was owned by governments, and was difficult or impossible to access. Steve Coast, an entrepreneur who founded the project, sought to create a freely available map of the world that anyone could build upon. Users were expected to contribute to the map when they used it, setting up accounts to trace street networks, input natural features and label points of interest. 

There are currently more than 5 million registered users, about 20% of whom have edited the map, according to Sarkar and his co-authors Jennings Anderson and Leysia Palen, both computer scientists at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Historically, volunteers have tended to make edits that increased the representation of their communities on the map, or reflected humanitarian-minded interests: For example, hyperlocal features, such as a neighborhood bench or informal walking path, are commonly seen on OpenStreetMap. And road networks in developing countries are  often more extensively mapped on OpenStreetMap than they are on Google Maps. 

But as the commercial value of extensive and accurate geospatial information has grown, so has the cost of business subscriptions to Google Maps and other proprietary data sources. That has encouraged more companies that use location-based software to turn to OpenStreetMap as a free data source that they can make changes to directly. Private companies first appeared on the platform as map editors in 2014, the paper shows, a rank that has increased from a few dozen to more than 1,000. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of features — including roads, buildings, and all other points of interest — these corporate editors added to or changed grew from 1,703,107 to 9,925,463. 

Companies have placed a particular emphasis on improving road data, the researchers found. By the end of 2018, nearly a quarter of all road edits were made by company-linked accounts, including Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. “A good road network is key to a lot of future developments, such as navigation for autonomous vehicles,” Sarkar said.

A few companies stood out: Apple, which uses OSM data as one of several sources for Apple Maps, is by far the most prolific current corporate editor and was responsible for almost 80% of all edits to pre-existing roads in 2018. Amazon’s influence is also growing rapidly, as its logistics team incorporates data from delivery drivers. Neither company responded to requests for comment. 

Below, a series of maps reveals the ways these corporate editors have carved up the world, with different actors focusing on different areas. Every point of light represents an edit made since 2005 by nine companies, differentiated by color. Along with tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Uber and Amazon, a trio of mapping services — Mapbox, Kaart and Telenav — and numerous smaller companies from around the globe have edited and refined geospatial elements all over the planet. 

Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence

The paper reflects research through January 2019, but in a presentation at the 2020 State of the Map conference last July, Anderson shared more up-to-date observations about the scope of private sector influence, displayed in the chart below. Between March 2019 and 2020, he said, nearly 17% of all edits to the map came from corporate teams.

Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence

What else are the companies doing with the map? On Facebook, OSM is the base map for many products, including geolocated user posts and local business listings. Drishtie Patel, a mapping program manager at Facebook, described the map as a “priority investment [because] billions of people around the world rely on the OSM mapping data used across the company's apps.” Facebook has also experimented with using artificial intelligence-assisted mapping to plot road networks in developing countries.

Mapbox, a mapping startup, has pulled in more than $200 million in venture funding to build a customized distribution system for funneling OSM data to clients, which include media outlets and city planning departments. “We’ve used it for many different things,” said Mikel Maron, a programmer and geographer who leads Mapbox’s community relations with OSM. Grab, an on-demand mobility startup in Asia, has said it shares the same goal as OSM itself: to map “for the common good.” 

Yet the rise of corporate mappers has stirred tensions within the online forums where longtime OSM editors debate the project’s future. Several companies that use OSM data also collect geospatial data from their users — for example, fitness apps like AllTrails and Strava that trace user locations. But that information is not always fed back into OSM, leading some mappers to view corporate influence as a threat to the open-source project’s core values of data attribution and reciprocity. Before cell-phone navigation, in-car GPS units were often extremely expensive because they used proprietary data, built on a skeleton of public data. That is the model that OSM was developed to contrast, yet it is what some hobby mappers fear may lie in the project’s future, if well-resourced, highly staffed companies somehow bought their way into elected positions within OSM’s self-governance structure.

“Maps can never be a perfect representation of the world — they are instead a representation of how the map-makers perceive the world,” Frederik Ramm, a longtime OSM volunteer and software developer in Germany who also runs an open-mapping consultancy, said. “These companies don’t map for the same reasons we do, and because of that, I question deeply if our goals can align.” 

These issues have been underscored by other recent controversies within the OpenStreetMap community. In 2018, for example, an unusual surge in membership applications to OSM’s governing nonprofit led to suspicions that a mapping company was attempting to influence the outcome of a board election. The board faced more controversy the following year, when the only woman running for a position lost — highlighting longstanding problems with power dynamics within the project. Earlier research has shown that OSM is much less inclusive than it purports to be: European and North American men predominate as editors, with far less participation from women and mappers in the developing world. In that sense, conflicts over corporate editors are an extension of a bigger, older question of what OSM is — and more importantly, who gets to define it.

Others argue that it’s the combined efforts of corporate and volunteer editors that make OSM more powerful and accurate. “The beauty of the OpenStreetMap project is its ability to incorporate different viewpoints,” said Coast, its founder. “There’s always going to be disagreements and conflicts; they are a fundamental part of a structure like this. I don’t think any of the arguments about what exactly OSM is will ever be resolved — and that’s OK.” 

While Sarkar agrees that a diversity of perspectives can be a strength, he also warns that the private sector could overshadow the work of the hobbyists and humanitarians who have made OSM what it is to date. Volunteer editors could lose interest in participating if they feel their work is devalued, which could in turn diminish the map’s quality and coverage, he said. Such devaluation could lead to what he called “digital gentrification,” in which the very attributes of OSM that drew its earlier users are degraded by its newfound fame. It is a trend seen across the internet, as “a small number of high-powered corporations have come to have significant control over what the web looks and feels like,” Jessa Lingel, a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in 2019.

Sarkar said that he could see various scenarios playing out, including a stronger OSM, built by a bigger community with new resources. “If the data quality increases and the community stagnates, OSM becomes something entirely different,” he cautioned. “If both struggle because of these changes, OSM as a whole might die out.” 

“Spatial data in OSM is founded on the principles of equal access,” he continued. “Corporate contributions make this even more interesting.”

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