Open Source GPS Data: Navigation By and For the People

On the way up to Ft. Wayne to take my broth­er home yes­ter­day, I came up with* the idea of open-sourced navigation.

Half a decade or more ago, I was a huge fan of Microsoft Streets & Trips. Streets & Trips, unlike any oth­er nav­i­ga­tion tool I’ve ever used, had one fea­ture to rule them all: up-to-date detour/construction information. 

In oth­er words, when I opened Streets & Trips, I could run its update to get the lat­est con­struc­tion infor­ma­tion, allow­ing the sys­tem to be smart enough to direct me to Mar­i­on or Indi­anapo­lis with­out wor­ry­ing about the con­struc­tion on Indi­ana 1 or Cen­tral Avenue or what­ev­er. Because let’s face it, hav­ing a nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem smart enough to direct you to anoth­er inter­state or high­way right from the start may save hours when com­pared to fol­low­ing the detour routes laid out road­side by the trans­porta­tion depart­ments of the world.

But Streets & Trips is old hat. Nowa­days I get my direc­tions from Google Maps direct­ly, if I even get direc­tions at all.

But it’s not smart enough to know about detours, road blocks, or oth­er trav­el nui­sances, it seems. That would have been handy com­ing home from Ft. Wayne yes­ter­day, actu­al­ly; it decid­ed to direct us back a dif­fer­ent way than we had come, and the new route home just hap­pened to have a lit­tle detour, which itself was rather poor­ly marked.

So my idea is an open, com­mu­ni­ty-edit­ed map. Per­haps this could be built on Google Maps — why any­one would use any oth­er map­ping set­up online is a bit beyond me — and per­haps also be tied into Google Earth. But it would only tru­ly be use­ful if the infor­ma­tion was avail­able to the Garmin and Tom­Tom devices of the world (not to men­tion the smart phones).

When detours are put up in an area, it would only take one user going in and adding it to the map, per­haps draw­ing out the detour rec­om­mend­ed by the trans­porta­tion depart­ment. Map pro­grams and nav­i­ga­tion devices could then use that infor­ma­tion to plot the best pos­si­ble course.

But detours are just one pos­si­ble appli­ca­tion of a com­mu­ni­ty-dri­ven map data­base. Truck routes could be accu­rate­ly drawn in. Bridges or oth­er height- and weight-lim­it­ing ele­ments could be fac­tored in, which would allow devices to ask you how tall and heavy your vehi­cle is so that it can plot a safe course. Non-exis­tent roads could be marked for removal (Google Maps and many oth­ers show a road next to where my mom lives that sim­ply does­n’t exist). Speed lim­its, stops, and oth­er such things could be added in, allow­ing devices to take them into account when deter­min­ing fastest routes, arrival times, and so on.

I’m pic­tur­ing some­thing akin to the Wikipedia, allow­ing for the com­mu­ni­ty to map the world. I’d be sur­prised if such an endeav­or would­n’t be suc­cess­ful. If Wikipedia has taught us any­thing it’s that such efforts are at least most­ly accu­rate, and the more peo­ple who use it, the more peer review it is bound to receive. Actu­al­ly, I’d be sur­prised if such a project was­n’t cur­rent­ly under­way somewhere.

Google Maps already allows you to repo­si­tion address­es to be more accu­rate, which I had to do for my house — it dis­played my house num­ber about a block away from its true loca­tion. I like that I was able to fix that. But that does­n’t help nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems. Yes­ter­day, for instance, our nav­i­ga­tor had us arriv­ing at des­ti­na­tion a full block before we were actu­al­ly there. It’d be nice to be able to hop onto a web­site, fix the loca­tion, and know that every­one else using a device com­pat­i­ble with the data­base has access to that tiny bit of more accu­rate infor­ma­tion, should they ever be head­ed to the same place.

3 thoughts on “Open Source GPS Data: Navigation By and For the People”

  1. Rick: I’m from Aus­tralia and don’t have a GPS. I did just buy one for my broth­er-in-law (a Tom­Tom) and I believe they have what you are describ­ing already. You can edit maps, noti­fy of speed cam­eras, etc., and it will be updat­ed to their com­mu­ni­ty data­base. As the user you can select whether you want all the updates from *any­body* on your own device or whether you only want those mod­i­fi­ca­tions that have been ver­i­fied by TomTom.

    I’ve not used this ser­vice, nor do I have much expe­ri­ence as I don’t own a GPS. Thought I should let you know that it may already be hap­pen­ing in a sim­i­lar form. I also stum­bled across a site in my research (it may have been ille­gal) which was offer­ing all the “real-time” updates for free and with­out hav­ing to be linked to a Tom­Tom ser­vice etc. I can’t recall the site name.

  2. That’s real­ly cool! I’ve nev­er used a Tom­Tom, so I actu­al­ly know very lit­tle about them. We have a Garmin, and I don’t think it has any­thing like that at all.

    The prob­lem is that it does­n’t seem like­ly that Tom­Tom would let oth­er devices (such as Garmins or smart phones) ben­e­fit from their com­mu­ni­ty. That’s why a plat­form-inde­pen­dent solu­tion would be need­ed. If I were to pre­dict the future, I would pre­dict such a ser­vice to be built on Google Maps as it can do pret­ty much every­thing that would be required — plus using it as an appli­ca­tion plat­form is free already. The infor­ma­tion gath­ered could be licensed under Cre­ative Com­mons or sim­i­lar, allow­ing any nav­i­ga­tion device or ser­vice to draw upon it. That’s what I think we need.

    I’m glad that Tom­Tom has such a ser­vice, though. That means they are at least aware of the awe­some pos­si­bil­i­ties that com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment entails!

  3. That’s real­ly inter­est­ing. I won­der if it would work at all in rur­al areas where no one uses the com­put­er much, like out here in west­ern Cana­da. Most of my neigh­bours just final­ly mas­tered pro­gram­ming their VCR and arte think­ing about get­ting a DVD player.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Use your Gravatar-enabled email address while commenting to automatically enhance your comment with some of Gravatar's open profile data.

Comments must be made in accordance with the comment policy. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam; learn how your comment data is processed.

You may use Markdown to format your comments; additionally, these HTML tags and attributes may be used: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Rick Beckman