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Can You Trust User Generated Mapping?

A couple of days ago The Next Web ran an interesting and detailed article about the rise of Open Street Map and their ongoing attempt to compete with Google Maps as the go to mapping solution.

Open Street Map data has achieved several notable successes as companies have switched from using Google data to theirs, but the critical question is whether the data is any good?

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with user generated mapping solutions. As you will see elsewhere on my blog I’m running Open Street Map based maps on my handheld GPS, and my satnav of choice is Waze, which although it doesn’t use Open Street Map, uses maps made in a similar way with user generated mapping.

The strength of both platforms is that anybody can edit the map, so problems get solved a lot quicker than errors in the major suppliers maps get sorted, but that is also their biggest weakness.

IMG_3839I’ll give an example, a couple of weeks ago I was driving to work, and I came across this on the map just south of Eversley, a route I drive most days.

To explain what you’re looking at, the map was showing that the roundabout where the B3272 splits from the A327 was about five times as big as it actually is, and was a residential street rather than a main highway.

Getting home and taking a look on the Waze map editor confirmed there was a problem with the map data.

IMG_3841What you can see on here is the editor view overlaid on a satellite view of the same junction. The roundabout is highlighted in red which indicates that there is missing location data for the road. Checking the road elements the new roundabout had been put in place by a new user who had done little editing before, and who had obviously accidentally damaged the map at that point, messed it up and left it. The problem of course being that nobody else spotted it until it was too late and the update went out to all the users.

To the credit of the community shortly after this screenshot was taken one of the higher level editors sorted the problem as needless to say it got reported fairly quickly, and unlike errors in TomTom or Garmin maps the fix appeared on my copy of Waze within three or four days.

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 22.50.53Of course the professional mapping firms don’t get it right. For example this is the dual carriageway that Google Maps has on the B3272 in the middle of Eversley Cross – if you live near Eversley you’ll be forgiven for having missed it previously. What they have now is a bit of an improvement over what they had originally where the westbound carriageway followed the footpath across the front of the houses fronting on to the green.

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 22.48.50There is also this long standing problem in Camberley on the TomTom maps. Again it’s been improved over time but it still incorrectly labels Charles Street as New Southern Road, and still has two connections at the northern end of Southern Road that just don’t exist.

Screenshot 2014-03-01 23.00.26In both of those cases, Waze and OpenStreetMap are right, this is the Eversley Cross dual carriageway on OpenStreetMap.

So can you trust User Generated Mapping?

I’d say that you can trust it to the same extent as “professional” mapping – both have errors and problems and you need to be aware of that and use your common sense using them as you should with any map, even one with the long established reputation of the paper Ordnance Survey maps. The key advantages that user generated mapping can bring is that if there are mistakes they get sorted quickly, and new roads or changed layouts will often appear in Waze or OpenStreetMap long before they turn up in one of the periodic updates for a regular satnav.

Really the comparison of Wikipedia with OpenStreetMap is a good one, both are excellent sources of information, as long as you are aware that they might be wrong…

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I’m Not Sure Harry Beck Would Believe It…

Screenshot 2014-01-25 19.55.54I’m not sure Harry Beck would believe it, but amongst the variations of his famous map of the London Underground that are now produced, this is a special version that shows the location of all the toilets on the system, including details of whether you have to pay, whether you have to find a member of staff who has the key, and even whether there are baby change facilities. It may seem a strange thing to have, but when you’re taking a little boy who doesn’t give you much notice of needing to go on his first trip to London, it’s an essential bit of kit!

Ever since he heard that there were trains that went underground, and trains without drivers, my son has wanted to see them, so since his sister was off at a party – seriously she has a busier social life than anybody else in our family – we headed off with Grandpa to go ride some trains.

We started off from the mythical Rickmansworth (Tom Phillips of Buzzfeed doesn’t seem to think the outer reaches of the Metropolitan line exist) and took the now rather slow train into London. Back in my youth the Met line from Rickmansworth ran down the other tracks from Moor Park and didn’t stop at Northwood, Northwood Hills, Pinner and North Harrow, today we saw the lot – it was only thanks to engineering work that we didn’t get Northwick Park and Preston Road too. This kept the interest for a bit, but we did get to the “are we there yet” by Harrow.

Things got more interesting beyond Wembley when we started overtaking the little trains on the Jubilee Line, and then at Finchley Road we crossed over and took a ride on one of those down into the depths of London. When we pulled into Swiss Cottage and we were still in a tunnel this was fascinating, although there was a definite concern as to whether the toilets were underground too, a fixation that continued all the way to St John’s Wood and beyond. Checking my toilet map I can see that whilst the toilets aren’t underground (or indeed anywhere) at Swiss Cottage, St John’s Wood even has baby change facilities.

We rode the Jubilee on under London, and there was another burst of interest when the platform doors appeared on the newer stretch. We jumped off when we got to Canary Wharf, and after much excitement at stairs that moved by themselves we headed onto the Docklands Light Railway for the even more exciting trains without any drivers.

Riding Up Front on the DLREven better, when we got onto the train, we got one where the seats right at the front were empty, so we could look at the track ahead.

Cue one transfixed little boy, especially when we got on the last stretch into Bank where the train is underground and there are lights along the tunnel so you can see where the train is going.

From there we headed along the Central Line to Bond Street, and picked up a bus where there was even more excitement about riding on the top deck, before ending up at Marylebone for a much faster journey back to Rickmansworth on the Chiltern Line – although much of that was missed as the excitement was all a bit too much and a nap was needed!

So we’ve now seen the trains that go underground, and the trains that have no drivers, and even had a go on a bus as well. I’ve also sampled the much maligned new trains on the Metropolitan line, which still bounce you all over the place when they run up to speed – methinks perhaps the track needs to be a bit flatter or something. I’m not sure any of them surpass Thomas and Friends for excitement, but for a first trip into London, there were certainly lots of excited descriptions for Mummy when we got home!

Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.