OpenStreetMap Anyone? OpenCage Is Making the Data More Accessible

Amy Castor
Aug. 08 2013, 08:00AM EDT

The fact that so many people these days are walking around with smartphones that track exactly where they are has opened up big opportunities for location-based services.

If you are developing a location-based app, OpenStreetMap, the crowd sourced map project, may be a cost effective way to incorporate geodata into your platform. The problem is, even though OpenStreetMap data is free, extracting it can be tricky. OpenCage Data, a company started by UK-based Lokku, wants to make it easier to get data from OpenStreetMap.

OpenCage provides OpenStreetMap geodata in the format you need and delivers it to you on a schedule you want. While OpenCage does not offer an API, it offers a service that makes it easier for organizations to access the data they need to build their APIs. (OpenStreetMap does have APIs, but not for extracting the large data sets you'll need.)

Lokku cofounder Ed Freyfogle has long been a supporter of the OpenStreetMap movement. Another company he cofounded, property search engine Nestoria (also backed by Lokku), originally relied on Google Maps for its business model. But two years ago when Google changed its rate limits and started charging high fees for use of its Google Maps API, Nestoria got serious about implementing OpenStreetMap. What it found was, incorporating OpenStreetMap into your platform is not an easy process. (You can read Nestoria's blog post detailing how they did it.)

If you are not familiar with OpenStreetMap, it is an open source project that maintains an editable map of the entire globe. The movement was started in 2004 by a single individual Steve Coast in response to proprietary services in the UK that made maps difficult to access.

Anyone can edit OpenStreetMap and you can use the data for any purpose you like. Note that what you download from OpenStreetMap is data. When you go to the OpenStreetMap website, you will see a “slippy map.” This is simply a rendered display of OpenStreetMap data as an example of what you can do with the data.

When you download data from OpenStreetMap, you do not get pretty map tiles like what you see in the slippy map. You get the raw underlying data. This is what sets OpenStreetMap apart from Google Maps, Bing Map and Yahoo Maps. OpenStreetMap doesn’t just give you pretty pictures, it gives you the raw data to do with as you please.

The data consists of nodes (points, such as towns, pubs, churches), ways (lines, such as footpaths, roads, rail lines, and power lines) and relations (generally groups of ways, such as highways, bike routes, and administrative boundaries). Once you have the data, you can parse and import it to do a lot of innovative things, like find specific points of interest near you. You can also use the data to render specialized maps, which is what OpenCycleMap has done.

So why use OpenCage? Why not simply download and convert OpenStreetMap data yourself? You can do that, but be prepared to get your hands dirty. OpenStreetMap is a dynamic project that is constantly changing, explains Freyfogle. It gets updated all the time and in some instances, the documentation is up to date, and in others, it is not. That's where OpenCage can help.

“With OpenCage, you don’t have to learn how OpenStreetMap works. You don’t have to format [the data]. You don’t have to stay up to date on how it works. We do that for you,” Freyfogle said.

Freyfogle believes one day OpenStreetMap will become ubiquitious similar to Linux, the open source software project that started 20 years ago as a reactive alternative to DOS, Windows, and commercial Unix. As more and more people began contributing to the code, Linux got better and better, and usage spread around the globe.

OpenStreetMap is already spreading around the globe, and OpenCage is part of a growing ecosystem that is making that happen.

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