For years, open-source advocate Tim O'Reilly has excoriated some companies such as Mapquest for failing to open up their storehouses of data to creative outside programmers who could create new services on top of that data. The benefits can be huge, essentially getting people to come up with ideas the companies hadn't thought of or don't have time to do themselves. Amazon.com, for instance, has made its massive warehouse of data on books and other products available to folks who have created services like a stripped-down product search page for mobile devices.
So it was interesting to see so many professions of openness yesterday--including one from Mapquest--at O'Reilly's Where 2.0 San Francisco conference on newfangled mapping technologies. (More here from the opening address.) "We want to create a more open environment," Mapquest's Matt Gross said at a panel on "What Is a Sustainable Business for Data." Likewise, said David Nevin of the mapping data firm Tele Atlas, "We have to be an enabler. We can't be a prohibitor."
I heard a lot of waffling, too, as did others. That's understandable, since the companies on the panel make their money from selling the data. But they seemed to realize they'll have to open up. Robert Denaro of map data provider Navteq suggested companies like his should charge only those who extract commercial value out of the data. As Gross noted, that's a pretty fuzzy line. But it's one that Web data companies will have to draw intelligently, or face getting written out of the picture by the growing hordes of volunteers building their own databases and services like this one.