OpenStreetMap is published under a share-alike license, the so called Open Database License (ODbL). The license says that if raw OpenStreetMap data is mingled with raw third party data, and the result is used publicly, you are required to release the result under the same ODbL. This is, in short, the share-alike principle under which OpenStreetMap data is available today - under certain circumstances, it extends the license of OpenStreetMap data to data sets it’s mixed into.
Sounds like a great idea at first, right? You’re promoting the idea of opening data by making sure anyone who uses your data opens their data too. Well, there’s a big gotcha: we wind up more often with OpenStreetMap not being used rather than with previously closed data opened up. This in turn hurts the project which thrives on increased adoption.
Photo: Alan Levine
Organizations or individuals who want to mix OpenStreetMap data with third party data often can’t because they aren’t in a position to make licensing decisions on that third party data. The reality is that opening data under a specific license is usually too slow or plain not possible.
Often times confusion about what’s allowed and what is not allowed under the ODbL is just as bad. Ever seen advice opening with “I’m not a lawyer, but…”? That’s what I’m talking about. Ever tried to get an actual lawyer to provide guidance on the ODbL? That’s what I’m talking about. Tried to use the OpenStreetMap Wiki to learn about how the ODbL is interpreted by the licensor, the OpenStreetMap Foundation? That’s what I’m talking about.
The result is that OpenStreetMap is not being used in situations where it should be used, which undermines a project whose success depends on increased adoption.
Not only is OpenStreetMap not being used as much as it could, the assumption that share-alike encourages contribution is a myth. I have yet to meet the individual, company, non profit or government agency who contributes because that’s what the license calls for. And I have yet to witness the troves of data opened under the ODbL in compliance with the license. OpenStreetMap gains no extra benefit from share-alike. The reality is that OpenStreetMap is only used extensively in situations where the share-alike license does not apply, for instance, map rendering.
Here are examples of what should be possible with OpenStreetMap but is not because of share alike:
The Wheelmap community manages wheelchair accessibility information for over 400,000 thousand places in OpenStreetMap. Ideally Wheelmap would be able to syndicate this data into any other map - think Nokia, Google, Apple. Today they can’t because of share-alike limitations of the ODbL. Woulnd’t people using this data on Google maps mean more people with an interest to maintain and improve it on OpenStreetMap since they would know that adding data to OpenStreetMap means adding it to all the maps in the world?
Currently, New York City building and address data is being imported into OpenStreetMap (disclaimer: I’m involved). Ideally the government of New York City would just copy changes from OpenStreetMap to help maintain their own datasets - but they can’t. Many datasets managed by government behind closed doors today should just be managed by the same maintainers on OpenStreetMap tomorrow - with gains for everyone. Think of the US Census Bureau whose TIGER data we’re all benefiting from. This vision of citizens and government collaborating around OpenStreetMap is severely cut short by the ODbL. Governments will never use OpenStreetMap in an extensive way until they can make it part of their workflow, and as long as the ODbL taints any data that touches it, it can’t. Look at the United States - many government datasets are public domain, government can’t use OpenStreetMap directly because the ODbL is not compatible with it.
And what about exchanging data with our big sister project Wikipedia? We should be copying a lot more data back and forth between OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia. OpenStreetMap could be Wikipedia’s geocoder and gazetteer. And yes, if it wasn’t for Wikipedia’s own share-alike license, we could mine Wikipedia for addresses, phone numbers, home pages, and populations without a bad conscience. Wikipedia can’t use OpenStreetMap because OpenStreetMap is not truly open, and OpenStreetMap can’t use Wikipedia becuase it is not truly open. What better examples of two sucessful open data projects are there than Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap - but we are not open enough for our data to touch? This makes no sense.
If we dropped share-alike, nothing would stop players like Google or Apple from mixing OpenStreetMap data extensively into their mobile maps. And this is a good thing. OpenStreetMap’s opportunity is not to compete and win against the Google Maps of the world, but to say what’s on their maps. With adoption on established mapping platforms OpenStreetMap would instantly reach many millions of users with its data, drastically increasing the project’s impact and playing a bigger role than stale backfill. OpenStreetMap’s current licensing is stunting our growth - and diminishing the impact of all of the amazing data that we have.
Under the current license, these example cases are either outright impossible, or require time, good lawyers and programmers to avoid share-alike to infect third party data with the ODbL. The ODbL imposes unnecessarily onerous hurdles at no gain for the project. Worst of all, just the license’s ambiguities kill adoption.
If OpenStreetMap is to turn into the data set that makes geo data a true public good we have to drop share-alike. Let’s make OpenStreetMap data actually open.
OpenStreetMap is at the verge of being the dataset that powers the world, quite literally. What’s between where we are today and making OpenStreetMap the source for global geographic data, is that OpenStreetMap simply can’t be used in many applications where it would be the ideal solution. These lost opportunities matter because they are what keeps OpenStreetMap from having the impact it should have. As Serge Wroclawski succinctly argued in his essay on why the world needs OpenStreetMap, OpenStreetMap’s purpose is to democratize who decides what’s on the map:
Every time I tell someone about OpenStreetMap, they inevitably ask “Why not use Google Maps?” From a practical standpoint, it’s a reasonable question, but ultimately this is not just a matter of practicality, but of what kind of society we want to live in.
OpenStreetMap simply won’t matter if it doesn’t power the applications that millions of individuals use to search, navigate and contextualize each day. The more OpenStreetMap is used, the more impactful each of our work is, and the more incentives we create to join the movement. We should not be afraid of that.
For your reading pleasure: Here’s are the entire 4,000 words of a license we should be throwing out: ODbL 1.0. I will be speaking about this topic at the State of the Map US conference in Washington DC. Join the conversation here or on Twitter.