Crowdsourcing with OpenStreetMap to drive new version of Scout app

OSM founder Steve Coast says crowdsourcing with volunteers lowers costs and improves map data quality

Scout for iPhone, a free turn-by-turn navigation app, will be automatically updated this week with map data that can be altered and improved by the app's users through the OpenStreetMap (OSM) community.

The Android version of the free Scout navigation app will be updated with OSM mapping in June, according to Telenav, which makes Scout.

The Scout crowdsourced app. (Photo: TeleNav)

Earlier this year, Telenav acquired Skobbler, makers of a GPS navigation app. Telenav also announced today it will incorporate that GPS information within Scout for global users with maps and navigation for nearly 200 countries. Until now, Scout, which launched in January 2012, has focused only on the U.S.

In an interview, Steve Coast, who founded OSM in 2004, called OSM a credible alternative to proprietary maps because near-instant updates from the OSM community are possible. With proprietary maps, such as Google Maps, updates might not arrive for weeks, months or even years. Coast now heads the OSM division at Telenav.

The OSM community today is 1.6 million registered editors, but will mushroom by millions more with the launch of Scout with OSM, he said.

"No map is perfect, but the main thing is that with OSM, people are editing it because they enjoy it as they bike and hike trails and roads and so there's passion that comes along with that," Coast said. "That's as opposed to paying people for proprietary maps. So the upshot is you get higher quality data out of our volunteers than from paid staff."

OSM also helps in creating and refining maps in remote areas of the world, while proprietary maps tend to focus on North America or developed countries, he said.

Users of the updated Scout app will be able to submit information, including correcting mistakes and reporting on traffic, for both OSM maps and turn-by-turn directions, which are reviewed by OSM editors before changes are made. Users will be able to report with a single touch on a smartphone display to correct inaccurate directions, audio or text guidance, an error in a map, "not the fastest route" and more.

Coast said Scout also collects anonymous GPS "traces" from Scout users to fill out data in maps. If all the traffic is going in one direction on a road, for example, then that road can be designated a one-way roadway, he said.

Coast also said that proprietary maps cost companies like Google billions of dollars to create and update, compared to OSM, which he called "an already exploding free and open-sourced project."

Apple, Foursquare and Craigslist all rely on OpenStreetMap data, Coast noted.

For those skeptical of crowdsourcing for providing sensitive data for maps or the crowdsourced Wikipedia online encyclopedia, Coast had a strong defense of OSM.

"At a high level, I understand the concern over crowdsourcing. We can ask how reliable is the Encyclopedia Britannica, but we won't even go there. Wikipedia tries to find a neutral point of view out of multiple opinions on various controversial topics, but we don't have the same problem with OSM because we're building a factual map of the world with people on the ground using it.

"We know Chicago is here and there are not many different points of view over whether Chicago exists or not. Admittedly, we have issues. One is when roads have two different names in different languages, so the question becomes which road name will be listed first. That's a good thing."

This article, Crowdsourcing with OpenStreetMap to drive new version of Scout apps, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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