Global Positioning Tech Inspires Do-It-Yourself Mapping Project

Mark Anderson
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2006

Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

"Trap" streets, phantom churches, and typos are just some of the dangers travelers might face when navigating the streets of Great Britain.

That's because, unlike in the United States, the British government holds copyright on the data it produces—including maps—and it licenses that data mostly to corporate buyers.

In rare cases, corporate map producers have added a ghost or two to the government's data: nuggets of false information known as Easter eggs that serve as clues for protecting copyrights.

Earlier this year London's Guardian newspaper cracked one such Easter egg—a trap street identified as the nonexistent cul-de-sac of Lye Close—in the A-Z Map Company's street map for the English city of Bristol.

After the report was released, an A-Z representative promised to delete the fake feature in all future maps.

But such tactics are just one of the reasons that critics such as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, say that government-monopolized data stifles innovation and hinders the public good.

"There's a moral argument that says, for a well-run country, we should know where we are, where things are, and that data should be available," Berners-Lee told an audience at Britain's University of Oxford in March.

Open-Source Maps

In response to this charge, some map enthusiasts are doing for geography what the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia has done for reference books.

Armed with the latest global positioning system (GPS) technology, volunteers are creating a wholly user-generated alternative to commercial maps (related news: "21st-Century Maps Reflect Changing Technologies and Needs" [April 30, 2001]).

The results so far are no match for the depth and breadth of government and corporate products. But industry innovators say they just need time to grow.

Continued on Next Page >>


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