[Editor’s note: As my music prof was want to remind, the only difference between amateur and professional is one gets paid and the other doesn’t. My hope is Google Maps starts offering user-generated geodata back to the community, like OpenStreetMap.org now does. Left image is before community edits, right is after. Thanks Nora!]
Republished from the New York Times.
SAN FRANCISCO — They don’t know it, but people who use Google’s online maps may be getting directions from Richard Hintz.
Mr. Hintz, a 62-year-old engineer who lives in Berkeley, Calif., has tweaked the locations of more than 200 business listings and points of interest in cities across the state, sliding an on-screen place marker down the block here, moving another one across the street there. Farther afield, he has mapped parts of Cambodia and Laos, where he likes to go on motorcycle trips.
Mr. Hintz said these acts of geo-volunteerism were motivated in part by self-interest: he wants to know where he’s going. But “it has this added attraction that it helps others,” he said.
Mr. Hintz is a foot soldier in an army of volunteer cartographers who are logging every detail of neighborhoods near and far into online atlases. From Petaluma to Peshawar, these amateurs are arming themselves with GPS devices and easy-to-use software to create digital maps where none were available before, or fixing mistakes and adding information to existing ones.
Like contributors to Wikipedia before them, they are democratizing a field that used to be the exclusive domain of professionals and specialists. And the information they gather is becoming increasingly valuable commercially.
Google, for example, sees maps playing a growing strategic role in its business, especially as people use cellphones to find places to visit, shop and eat. It needs reliable data about the locations of businesses and other destinations.
“The way you get that data is having users precisely locate things,” said John Hanke, a vice president of product management who oversees Google’s mapping efforts.
People have been contributing information to digital maps for some time, building displays of crime statistics or apartment rentals. Now they are creating and editing the underlying maps of streets, highways, rivers and coastlines.
“It is a huge shift,” said Michael F. Goodchild, a professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is putting mapping where it should be, which is the hands of local people who know an area well.”
That is changing the dynamics of an industry that has been dominated by a handful of digital mapping companies like Tele Atlas and Navteq.
Google is increasingly bypassing those traditional map providers. It has relied on volunteers to create digital maps of 140 countries, including India, Pakistan and the Philippines, that are more complete than many maps created professionally.
Last month Google dropped Tele Atlas data from its United States maps, choosing to rely instead on government data and other sources, including updates from users.
“They have coverage in areas that the big mapping guys don’t have,” said Mike Dobson, a mapping industry consultant who once worked at Rand McNally. “It has the opportunity to cause a lot of disruption in these industries.”