“What a crazy week,” said Eric Gundersen, CEO of MapBox, a cloud-based digital map publishing company, in an interview with TPM.
Gundersen’s point is well taken, given his small 25-person startup, based in Washington, D.C., just won a $575,000 grant from the journalism innovation nonprofit the Knight Foundation.
The grant was awarded to MapBox specifically to allow the company to focus most of its resources over the next few months on improving its own main source of map data, OpenStreetMap, a free crowdsourced world map created by volunteer cartographers. It’s helpful to think of OpenStreetMap (OSM) as the “Wikipedia” of digital maps (although it’s not actually tied to Wikipedia). MapBox is an outside private company that uses the OSM data to build maps and mapping software, much of which it makes open source, for anyone to use for free, but some of which is proprietary and which it charges high prices to other companies and government agencies to access.
Here’s an example of MapBox maps of an employee’s running routes, made using OSM data:
But when he said the week was crazy, Gundersen wasn’t just referring to the half-million-dollar award that will allow most of his team to take what he calls “almost a paid sabbatical” to work on improving OpenStreetMap.
Instead, he was also directly responding to two other massive developments in the digital mapping industry.
The first: Apple’s recent bungled attempt, when releasing its new mobile software update iOS 6, to replace Google Maps on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch with a considerably inferior, glitchier map system of its own making, a map system that uses some data from OpenStreetMap and Dutch GPS company TomTom.
The second: Amazon’s announcement on Monday that it would be launching a maps platform of its own, using data obtained from Nokia, which in turn acquired it along with a company called Navteq, which then started, as many digital map makers do, with data from the U.S. Census, known as TIGER.
All in all, as a result of these developments, Web and smartphone users’ interests have recently been piqued in the digital mapping space — a space which until this week remained primarily the providence of professional companies, trained cartographers and highly devoted amateur map-makers, the lot of whom were mostly obscure to those outside their communities.
“Weeks like this are gamechangers for the space,” Gundersen told TPM. “For many people, like ‘Holy shit, there’s more than one map in the world. Maps are different from one another. Maps matter on a really fundamental level.’”