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.

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