FourSquare and OpenStreetMap

foursquare.pngEarlier this week FourSquare announced that they switched their website maps from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap data hosted by MapBox. In what has been a growing trend of broader adoption, FourSquare remarks the utility and success of OpenStreetMap. Additionally it's another movement in the recent switch2osm campaign since Google began requiring paid licensing for high-usage of the once completely free Google Maps.

Currently the switch is only for the website, which I admit I have used less than a dozen times and the mobile application will still be using the native Google Maps libraries. There are a number of valid reasons for this, not least of which is that Google is not yet charging for mobile maps usage, though I imagine it only a matter of time before they do and also for developers to build comparable mobile mapping libraries for OpenStreetMap.

Value of the Basemap

There are several intriguing aspects of this announcement as well as the reaction. First is that the change of the basemap, while intriguing to the geospatial and data communities, is likely highly irrelevant to most FourSquare users. Would there have been much news had the switch been to Microsoft Bing maps? Probably not. The interest is clearly impacted by the community, and general good will, of the OpenStreetMap project. Each adoption by a major company further verifies its value, as well as solidifies its continuity as organizations build their own business with OpenStreetMap as a core component.

Second is that there have been a number of companies whose primary, or recent, goal has been to be a trusted provider of OpenStreetMap basemaps. CloudMade, started by one of the founders of OpenStreetMap Steve Coast, was created for exactly this purpose. Additionally MapQuest has been using OpenStreetMap as a tactic to increase adoption of their long-standing mapping platform as well as insure themselves against likely increasing commercial data provider costs. However it was an extremely recent technology, albeit from a longer established company, to be the one to provide the OpenStreetMap basemap for FourSquare.

Development Seed's MapBox is truly a compelling creation of technology and innovation. They have done extremely well adopting the best of breed software, and the development team that built it, with Mapnik. And they combined it with new technology to make it fast, and a differentiating and compelling story for developers by using Node.js. Technical details aside, the design and thought into the representation of OpenStreetMap clearly was a key differentiator in FourSquare using Mapbox to serve their OpenStreetMap tiles. And I'll also add that Development Seed is a local DC and East Coast company - something I don't doubt was interesting to the New York based FourSquare in pushing against the typical Silicon Valley technology scene.

Of course, in the end it is just a basemap. This is the background canvas that contains the actually valuable information that FourSquare has gathered and users engage with. The switch from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap does not in any way change the value or usage of the FourSquare application and community. Technically there is no real difference - it's possible to restyle most any basemap today, and I imagine the switch from one provider to another was a relatively trivial code switch. FourSquare, or others, could just as easily switch to a new basemap if it was important to them as a business or their community.

More than a Basemap

OpenStreetMap Editing Belga CafeWhat I am most excited about, and believe FourSquare has an almost unique potential to enable, is the adoption of OpenStreetMap as more than just the canvas for visualizing check-in's and user activity. OpenStreetMap's true value is that it is an open, editable, relational database of geographic data - where the basemap is merely one way to access the information. What makes OpenStreetMap the future of location data is that the information can only get better, more up to date more quickly, and better representative of unique and varied views of a person's place.

Several years ago Dennis and I had a conversation just after the initial launch of FourSquare about the potential of using OpenStreetMap. At the beginning, FourSquare only worked in specific cities, and in his considering how to expand it everywhere the options were between having a blank database and having an OpenStreetMap populated dataset. Obviously the tremendous potential was having the then nascent community of FourSquare users using and updating OpenStreetMap data. Unfortunately for usability and I assume business reasons (e.g. build your own database that you can own) FourSquare didn't adopt OpenStreetMap at that time.

However, imagine if FourSquare adopted just this technique. Leverage their millions of users to improve the OpenStreetMap database. OpenStreetMap itself suffers from the common platform issue of being everything to everyone. This is confusing for new users that want to contribute to know where to begin. They may just want to include the road in front of their house - or the park down the street and the great coffee shop they frequent. Unfortunately the interface for performing these activities often requires understanding of British terminology of places and an overwhelming choice of categories, tags, and drawing options.

FourSquare by contrast is forced to be simple and focused. Users are quickly engaging and disengaging with the application that should capture the data and reflect it to the user for verification. Because my activity is being tracked, FourSquare can know that I'm on foot in the US and in an urban area, so don't start by showing me hiking trails, or highways but show me restaurant and relevant places of interest - allowing me to dive deeper if I want to but making it simple for the casual user to improve the data. I believe that only through simple and focused user applications will OpenStreetMap broadly enter into the common use and be able to reach the end tail of location data.

Of course, this assumes FourSquare, specifically the investors and board, don't see their user collected place data as a key and protected dataset. There have been enough POI selling companies in a dying market. There are now businesses such as Factual, and still CloudMade, who are focused on making this data openly available - though themselves as brokers to the data.

Despite continuing to cross numerous impressive adoption hurdles and over seven years of development, OpenStreetMap is still a young project. Its adoption by FourSquare is indeed another momentous occasion that heralds optimism that it will continue to grow. And as companies like Development Seed, CloudMade, MapQuest and others adopt OpenStreetMap as a core to their business - providing not just services but truly engaging with the community and providing focused context and value, OpenStreetMap will only get better.


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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.