The switch has created a bit of a stir in the Australian spatial information community. Our industry association (SIBA) sent out a stern word of warning about authoritative data and the risks of dealing with User Generated Content (UGC).
Firstly, let’s recognise that Google Australia is not alone in moving to a model where it’s reducing dependency on 3rd party content providers. Since 2009, Google worldwide has been sourcing its own streetmaps, and making them updateable by its users . And major online mappers such as Mapquest and Microsoft’s Bing Maps have already adopted the free, crowdsourced basemaps from OpenStreetMap.
The second thing to note here is the implicit assumption about what makes spatial datasets authoritative. In warning about the risks of using UGC, SIBA writes:
“In applications where data integrity/quality is of high importance, spatial data should be current, accurate, the best quality possible and from an authoritative source.”Actually, there are two assumptions hidden in this statement: (1) crowdsourced data is not authoritative, and (2) only authoritative sources can provide data that is current, accurate and of the highest possible quality. However, neither of these two assumptions really stand up to scrutiny.
Crowdsourcing has given us the concept of ‘decentralised authority’, where the confidence in an (online) information source is derived from the community that maintains it, instead from the reputation or mandate of a central organisation. The success of Wikipedia over its traditional counterpart the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the most well-known of many such examples.
What’s more, UGC often provides us with content that is more accurate, and certainly more current than traditionally sourced data. Where updates such as new roads or developments typically take over 6 months to make it to the PSMA datasets, they are visible in OpenStreetMap almost instantaneously. It’s been reported to me that in for instance in Brisbane OpenStreetMap is routinely more up to date than other sources.
For many users data currency is a critical component in determining quality and fitness for purpose. To suggest that only so-called ‘authoritative’ providers can give us ‘the best quality possible’ represents a rather limited perspective.