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Inside the ‘Wikipedia of Maps,’ Tensions Grow Over Corporate Influence

As Apple, Facebook, Amazon and other private companies play larger roles in OpenStreetMap, some volunteers worry that the open-source project is losing its way. 

Ten companies have emerged as big behind-the-scenes players in OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping service. 

Ten companies have emerged as big behind-the-scenes players in OpenStreetMap, an open-source mapping service. 

Jennings, Sarkar, and Palen, “Corporate Editors in the Evolving Landscape of OpenStreetMap.” International Journal of Geo-Information, April 2019.

Corrected

What do Lyft, Facebook, the International Red Cross, the U.N., the government of Nepal and Pokémon Go have in common? They all use the same source of geospatial data: OpenStreetMap, a free, open-source online mapping service akin to Google Maps or Apple Maps. But unlike those corporate-owned mapping platforms, OSM is built on a network of mostly volunteer contributors. Researchers have described it as the “Wikipedia for maps.”

Since it launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap has become an essential part of the world’s technology infrastructure. Hundreds of millions of monthly users interact with services derived from its data, from ridehailing apps, to social media geotagging on Snapchat and Instagram, to humanitarian relief operations in the wake of natural disasters.