Maps for the People: Free, Useful, and Precise

Fifteen years ago, aboard a boat in an OC marina, the youngest Bluth sibling attempted to navigate to open sea using knowledge gleaned from $80,000 of cartography lessons. Consulting the map he affirmed, “Obviously this blue part here is the land.”

In 2003, Arrested Development and probably everyone else at the time, understood  expensive cartography degrees to be about as relevant to the real world as knowledge of 18th-century agrarian business. But now knowing cartography is like knowing how to code.

The big guys, Google, Apple, Uber, and all those companies pursuing self-driving cars, are dumping loads of money into making maps better and more accurate in service of the bottom line.

So for something completely different, here are three map organizations making maps for the people, by the people, to help the people better find their way in the world — even Buster.

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OpenStreetMap of Disneyland


Think of OpenStreetMap as the Wikipedia of mapping. That’s what the founders were going for when it launched in 2004 as a completely blank map. Since then, millions of international contributors have input locations, freeways, coastlines, streets, and all those other things that make a map a map. That community of amateur and professional cartographers as well as map-enthusiasts keep OpenStreetMap up-to-date and eternally improving using their own GPS, open domain aerial imagery, even field maps and their own surveys of an area. And the coverage is impressive.

As an open-source operation governed by Creative Commons Share Alike licencing, anyone can use their maps for any purpose and anyone who publishes or builds upon the data, such as creating a timetable using chunks of their maps, or providing a service using OSM as the foundation, has to give OSM contributors credit and make any derived work available to anyone who asks for it.

Potentially the coolest thing about OpenStreetMap is who owns it: You do. That’s not the case with say, Google, who spends a billion dollars a year on its maps. Yes you can look at those maps all you want (and they’ll recommend a few must-see sponsored spots), but you do not own the data.

Cool stuff that’s been done, and continues to be done, with OSM include very pretty weather maps, an old-school SimCity-style rendering of major cities, a map showing you businesses that accept bitcoin, and a map that pulls in tiles of different map styles to help you visualize the sheer volume of maps out there.

StreetCred map of MapNYC


One company getting ready to put open-source mapping data to work is StreetCred. Focusing on filling in point-of-interest details to maps, StreetCred wants to make a “permanent, decentralized solution to the place data problem.” Is that restaurant still open? Is that playground still there? Did that library close to deal with a flooded basement? StreetCred intends to entice armies of actual people to find out.

They’re running four tests before they launch and their first, MapNYC offered a bitcoin reward for those who got out and discovered, logged, and verified restaurants, doctors’ offices, carpeting stores, bus stops and more. In the end, 761 New Yorkers contributed data for 20,505 places in all five boroughs. And that data is available over at GitHub for anyone who wants it.

Their next test will happen at CES in Las Vegas this coming January. People will compete over three days for a chance to win 1,000 USDC (basically cryptocurrency backed by the mighty dollar) each day. To win, contestants will map the insides of the buildings hosting the giant consumer electronics convention and in the process, StreetCred will learn more about its future business.

The end goal is building a system where people, with the right incentives, will be willing to map their worlds, and the resulting data will be open and accessible (while not entirely free, StreetCred plans to be far more affordable than the current map behemoths).



Regardless of who it belongs to — you, Google, TomTom, or OSM — every map is just a visualization of places, locations, addresses. But what if a place doesn’t have an address? What if one location is so big, like the Met or Yellowstone, that an address becomes very unspecific? How do you talk about place then?

What3Words has an idea. Fifty-seven trillion ideas to be exact. They divided the planet into trillions of squares, each three meters by three meters, and gave each square a permanent, unique name made up of three words.

Addresses now look like this: alarm.hats.cross (a square on the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London) or this: (a tiny spot inside the very huge Northern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area in northern Australia).

What3Words uses OpenStreetMap data and assures that their service and addressing system will always be free for individuals and many organizations, though some businesses can buy certain software packages (companies like AirBnB, Dominoes, and Mercedes Benz are already on board). They also promise that if What3Words ever goes out of business, they will release their source code into the public domain.

This idea will absolutely help in very important ways like getting emergency responders to people who need help, giving developing countries reliable delivery, and providing a way for your friends to find you at Coachella without having to say “near the porta-potties next to the churro cart.” But to be honest, I’ve made the best use of the service by entering three random words into their map and seeing where I end up. (Try typing in something like settlements.ripe.prune. It’s multiple notches above mildly interesting.)