The ongoing competition to create the best digital world map took an interesting turn on Thursday with the release of a new mapping editor for OpenStreetMap, a free crowdsourced competitor to Google Maps and Nokia’s Here Maps.
Called “iD,” the editing software was developed by MapBox, a D.C.-based startup company that uses OpenStreetMap’s data to power custom digital maps and mapmaking software used by other major companies and organizations including Foursquare, NPR and Greenpeace, among many others.
“The goal is to make something that anyone can pick up and use,” said Saman Bemel Benrud, a designer at MapBox who worked on the new iD editor, in a phone interview with TPM.
On that note, the iD editor is much more intuitive than the current editing tools for building and updating OpenStreetMap’s data, which were designed by developers and passionate contributors to the project, but which are also too technical for many new users, especially casual ones.
By contrast, iD editor is indeed simpler — giving users a familiar satellite imagery overview of a particular location, while also allowing them to click and add and name roads, and new points of interest such as restaurants and cafes. Check out a screenshot and video demo below:
The interface is still a bit bewildering to those not interested in mapping, though, as Benrud readily admitted.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Benrud said. “There’s a lot of design work that still needs to go into it.”
Still, MapBox felt that its progress on the editor had put it in “a solid enough place right now” to open up an early but workable prototype for editing data live on the actual OpenStreetMap website.
But MapBox hopes that by making OpenStreetMap easier and quicker to edit, more users will join the open source project. Similar to Wikipedia, anyone can create an account and begin contributing to OpenStreetMap.
Since the project began as the idea of sole computer programmer in the U.K. in 2004, it has gained over 1 million registered users around the globe, with almost 500,000 accounts added in 2012 alone. Yet only about a third of the total number of accounts are actually active contributors, with most just sitting idle.
MapBox wants to see more users sign up and participate in editing OpenStreetMap, to improve its accuracy and comprehensiveness.
It’s important to note that MapBox’s interest isn’t entirely altruistic — it is a for-profit company that builds proprietary mapping software on top of OpenStreetMap’s data and sells it and map hosting to other companies, though there is a basic plan that’s free up to a certain level of map views.
“Our work on OpenStreetMap definitely benefits MapBox,” Bernud affirmed. “We believe in open data and want to help make the best map in the world.”
At the same time, MapBox’s origins are philanthropic: The company was spun out off another data visualization firm, DevelopmentSeed, in 2010. DevelopmentSeed was founded to work with grassroots organizations on economic and social development goals.
So even though MapBox still hopes to reap some tangible benefits from improving OpenStreetMap, it also just wants to build the map up for others to use, too.
Ultimately, iD will have succeeded if it makes “maps better for people living in developing areas,” Bernud said. “Some of those areas are ignored by the larger commercial mapping companies, and there’s people in all areas of the world that have local knowledge that they could use to build maps that would benefit their communities.”