Summary:

With location becoming a key part of many new apps and services, the use of free OpenStreetMap data seems like a no-brainer. But, as OpenCage Data company Lokku learned, there’s a lot of complexity involved.

OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a fascinating phenomenon. The eight-year-old crowdsourced geodata project is powering mapping apps (Skobbler and, in places, Apple Maps), recommendation tools (Foursquare), sports watches (Leikr), classifieds (Craiglist) and property search engines (Nestoria). However, given that OpenStreetMap data is both free to use and impressively detailed, how come even more businesses aren’t using its data?

That’s the question Lokku, the London-based company behind Nestoria, asked itself when it switched from the Google Maps API to OpenStreetMap a couple of years back. The problem, Lokku found, was the data was complex to use. As co-founder Ed Freyfogle explained to me:

“The data is freely available but it’s quite technically complex. It’s a rapidly evolving system with all kinds of people contributing – it’s a highly chaotic project… There are email lists you can get on where you get hundreds of [data update] emails a day. It’s very exciting but it’s very hard to get an overview on it.

“If you just want some data to build the cool thing you’re wanting to build, it’s going to be a challenge.”

Complexity = opportunity

So Lokku decided to try lowering the technical hurdles associated with OpenStreetMap by creating a service called OpenCage Data. The service basically provides OpenStreetMap data as a custom feed, formatting the data in the way customers want and delivering it on the schedule they want.

This makes OpenCage Data a rival to commercial data suppliers such as TeleAtlas, rather than to Google Maps. In the OpenStreetMap world, a better point of comparison with Google Maps is MapBox, which is the service Foursquare started using instead of Google’s offering. “The real power of OpenStreetMap is in the underlying data,” Freyfogle said. “It’s a little like in Excel – Google is giving you the chart, but with OpenStreetMap you can get the spreadsheet.”

So, for example, OpenCage Data provides a relatively straightforward (albeit paid-for) way to get a CSV file of all the schools in Singapore, or a TSV file of Ukrainian town names in multiple languages. For someone setting up a new business that would use such data, this could represent a valuable shortcut.

Ecosystem boost

Freyfogle made a reasonable comparison between OpenCage Data and the profit-making parts of the Linux ecosystem. Businesses can download the source code of Linux and use it as they will, but doing so is complex, so they just use something like Red Hat Enterprise Linux with its associated paid-for services. Just because open-source code or data is free, doesn’t mean you can’t make money off it.

“The next step is OpenStreetMap as an input into everybody’s ordinary business,” he said. “Linux started as a hacker project of a weird guy in Finland – hopefully this whole ecosystem around OpenStreetMap is a stepping stone to getting to [where Linux is now].”

OpenCage Data is still a side-project for Lokku, although Freyfogle noted the company wouldn’t have embarked on the project unless they saw it as a viable business – indeed, the first invoices just went out a month after launch. The business also has an impressive roster of advisors from the OpenStreetMap and wider geodata community, interestingly including Gary Gale, the director of global community programs for Nokia’s Here platform.

And what’s more, Lokku is also preparing to invest in new startups that have a location-based angle. Perhaps the OpenStreetMap ecosystem really is nearing a tipping point.

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