In the wake of Google's CEO Schmidt going to North Korea on an official visit, American media has been abuzz with stories. Yesterday, CNN carried a story about how Google Maps is expanding in North Korea thanks to "a community of citizen cartographers" (that is Google's claim) allowing it work "in a similar way to Wikipedia, allowing users to add, edit and review information" (that is CNN's take on it).
Curious, I went to look at Pyongyang on Google Maps. Here is what I saw:
That's not bad. Perhaps there is indeed a community of citizen cartographers at work there, as Google claims. This got me to thinking about the crowd-sourced, Wikipedia-like map project, openstreetmap.org (or: OSM). So I decided to see what Pyongyang looked like there:
The level of detail is extremely impressive, and it only gets better as one zooms in further. You can see this for yourself at BBBike.org's Map Compare tool.
Yes, OSM does not have streetview, but using OSM via KDE's Marble mapping software I get great 2D maps complete with routing and other bells and whistles. Best of all, OSM never tells me I can't download a certain map for offline usage as Google Maps often does.
After viewing Pyongyang according to OSM, I couldn't help but feel that CNN had missed the real story here, had mistaken a corporate effort for a community one and missed out on telling the world about the real Wikipedia for maps.
Media coverage is one thing, but what would be truly news worthy, and good for humanity (which is a step up from simply doing no evil), is Google adopting OSM for its data sets. Yes, it would probably keep its advertising APIs and streetview and what-not to itself, but at least the world would be one step closer to having a shared and collaboratively maintained canonical source for maps.
If nothing else, Google would get a much better map of Pyongyang.