Online Maps---Petaluma to Peshawar and Kashmir
"From Petaluma to Peshawar, these amateurs are arming themselves with GPS devices and easy-to-use software to create digital maps where none were available before, or fixing mistakes and adding information to existing ones", said the NY Times, referring to the volunteer mapmakers contributing to digital maps offered by Google, OpenStreetMaps and others. While both Google and OpenStreetMaps are community created, the main difference between the two is that OpenStreetMap provides its map data under a Creative Commons license and the maps created by users of Google Map Maker are the intellectual property of Google.
Open Street Map (OSM) is a geo project that lets anyone update it. Volunteers donate time and energy uploading GPS tracks, building supporting software, and editing the core data. OSM is growing quickly. As an open data project, OSM makes its data freely available to anyone. This enables custom mapping applications like the OSM Cycle Map. It is also being used commercially by a real estate site Nestoria and by VC-funded startup Cloudmade.
Google Maps has varying levels of coverage of the entire globe (as do its competitors like Microsoft Bing Maps and Yahoo! Maps). Most of the data that is used by Google Maps and displayed comes from Tele Atlas (owned by TomTom) and NAVTEQ (a wholly owned subsidiary of Nokia). More than year ago Google released the ability to move addresses or add a new place. With this feature any logged in user can make an edit; you can even watch the edits in a realtime viewer. If your change is accepted it will show up in Google Maps. Road geometry and address changes derived from Tele Atlas data will be sent back to Tele Atlas to help improve its information. The updated data will eventually make it into new-owner Tomtom's GPSs and potentially Google's competitors who also use Tele Atlas. The data collected via MapMaker will not be shared with Tele Atlas.
Google is gradually dropping its dependence on the traditional commercial map vendors like TeleAtlas and Navteq. Instead, it is relying on unpaid volunteers to create digital maps of 140 countries, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, that are more complete than many maps created professionally. One such volunteer mentioned in the NY Times story is Faraz Ahmad, a 26-year-old programmer from Pakistan who now lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He took one look at the map of India and decided he did not want to see his native Pakistan left behind by its traditional rival. So he began mapping Pakistan in his free time, using information from friends, family and existing maps. Faraz Ahmad is now the top contributor to Google Map Maker, logging more than 41,000 changes.
India-Pakistan rivalry took on a new dimension when Faraz tried to work on Azad Kashmir, and he found that Map Maker wouldn’t allow it. He said his contributions were finally accepted by the Map Maker team, which is led by engineers based in India, but only after a long e-mail exchange.
At his request, Google is now preventing further changes to the disputed region, after people in India tried to make it part of their country, Faraz told the NY Times. “Whenever you have a Pakistani and an Indian doing something together, there is a political discussion or dispute.”
In addition to Faraz, there is a whole community of Pakistani volunteer programmers and mapmakers currently adding roads, streets, businesses, crossings and various points of interest (POIs) for areas for which there are no maps defined yet. Then other users approve or disapprove the additions and changes. Eventually, the maps are posted to Google maps and Google maps mobile. Fairly detailed Google maps for mobile are available today for Pakistan. Such searchable, navigable and routable digital maps are expected to help grow real estate, travel, transportation, retail, financial services, healthcare and emergency services and other service sectors.
The reason why mobile maps have come first is because of the large user base of about 80-90 million mobile phone subscribers. Pakistan has a vast data network over GSM/GPRS/EDGE and EVDO and there are no alternative street navigation systems, with the exception of fairly expensive car navigation systems costing tens of thousands of rupees. Google has a database of cell Towers in Pakistan, and with the help of these towers it identifies the location of the user in real time, within about 10 to 20 meters and sometimes up to 3000 to 4000 meters, depending upon the density of cell towers in a given area. If the mobile phone has data service enabled, the user can download the Google mobile map application from m.google.com/maps. After downloading the application and installing it, it is available in the applications folder of the mobile phone.
A number of GPS enthusiasts have also developed Garmin compatible navigation maps for Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and a few other cities in Pakistan. But it's rare to see car navigation systems in Pakistan.
As painful as it is to watch the constant media coverage of blood and terror in the streets of Pakistan, the NY Times story of volunteer cartographers and the recent Karachi Fashion Week illustrate that there is more to Pakistan than meets the eyes or reaches the ears of the passive consumers of the western and Pakistani news media.
I am glad that there are enough volunteer programmers and amateur cartographers in Pakistan to attempt to build detailed digital maps and maintain them in their spare time--without the assistance of commercial vendors like Tele Atlas and Navteq who did the same for North America and Europe at huge costs. The main contribution of the government under President Musharraf was to invest in the growth of the telecommunications, higher education, and the Internet infrastructure, a pre-requisite for online volunteer collaboration in projects such as map making. It shows what the Pakistani people are capable of doing with just a little help, in spite of the continuing institutional failures in Pakistan. As I have said before, and I repeat here again, it is better to light a candle than curse darkness.
Here's a video clip explaining Google Maps for mobile:
Life Goes On in Pakistan
Pakistan's Multi-billion Dollar IT Industry
Routable Maps of Karachi, Pakistan
Online Maps: Everyman Offers New Directions
Google Maps Come to Pakistan
GPS Automotive Navigation in Pakistan
SatNav in Pakistan
Pakistan Cartography Wiki Project
Light a Candle, Do Not Curse Darkness