Why should you use OpenStreetMap instead of Google Maps?

I’m Jonathan Beliën, web developer specialized in Geographical Information System (fancy words to say I use maps and geographical data), board member of OpenStreetMap Belgium, and coach for the “STIB-MIVB” and “Brussels Mobility” projects during open Summer of code 2018.


 

First of all, there is absolutely no doubt about the fact Google Maps is a good product and the Google Maps tools (API, JavaScript library, …) work quite well and are easy to setup but

Google is in charge

When Google Maps started more than 10 years ago, everything was completely free to use. These last few months that has changed drastically.
The first decision made by Google was to limit the free number of requests per day. It didn’t really impact the small users that were still under the limit but some big players decided to switch to other solution like OpenStreetMap (for instance Foursquare and Pinterest).
The latest change (June 2018) has much more impact : Google decided to reduce the limit of free requests (25000 map display per day to 28000 per month – that’s around 1000 map display per day, so 25 times less) but also made it mandatory to give your credit card number even if you do not go over the free limit!

Impact on Belgian Prime Minister website

Impact on Belgian Prime Minister website

Money is definitely an issue but what’s worse is that Google can decide what’s displayed or hidden or highlighted and how it is displayed. What if Google decides to “hide” or “highlight” certain kind of shops for instance; even worse, what if they decide to draw the border between countries wherever they want. All of this could quickly lead to ethical issues!

Long story short, you have absolutely no control about this, Google can change the term of use of their service when they want, how they want and it will most probably not be in your advantage!

Why OpenStreetMap ?

OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the whole world that is being built by volunteers largely from scratch and released with an open-content license.
The OpenStreetMap License allows free (or almost free) access to our map images and all of our underlying map data. The project aims to promote new and interesting uses of this data.
— Source: https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/About_OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap use is free as in free beer but also as in free speech!
Everyone can contribute and everyone can use it: OpenStreetMap is open data!
Whether you’re a developer, a scientist, an activist, a cartographer, …, you can use OpenStreetMap database to fulfil your need.

You have access to the data

Google Maps doesn’t give you access to the data behind the map (and that’s the case for most proprietary solutions) but you have full access to the OpenStreetMap database.

Access to the data means you can build a map that suits you and you don’t have to depend on decisions made by the map provider.

OpenWhateverMap

If you need more information, just download it. Let’s say you need all the buildings from Brussels for a research project, or you want to find the nearest ATM, or you want all the information from the country you’re visiting and you need it offline…Those are all simple queries! OpenStreetMap database is open!

OpenStreetMap covers the whole world with the same mapping rules so it’s really easy to switch from local to global!

If you see that something is wrong on the map, just fix it, or notify the OSM community and we’ll fix it! Fixing the map will not only benefit one big player but everyone in the world. OpenStreetMap is made by citizens just like you.

Power of the community

Thanks to hundreds of thousand contributors all over the world OpenStreetMap is probably the most up-to-date and complete map of the world.

When the city centre of Brussels officially became accessible for pedestrian only, the update was immediately made in OpenStreetMap the day it became official; the same thing for the recent mobility changes in Ghent. Google Maps of course also made the change but it took a few weeks, sometimes months … and this led to some navigation issues for users of Google Maps.

Third world countries are also a great example of the power of the community: humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross often need maps to be able to prepare and coordinate their actions on the field. It usually costs a lot to buy maps from those regions (if there is a map available) so they made the switch to OpenStreetMap. They call us on a regular basis to ask the community to map part of the world where they have to take actions.

Comparison between OSM and Google Map in Kathmandu

Comparison between OSM and Google Map in Kathmandu

That’s nice but let’s get technical …

Many libraries and tools are already using OpenStreetMap data.

You’re looking for a baselayer, there are so many options available depending on your needs (standard basemap, basemap focused on cycling, on accessibility, …). Have a look at the list available on the wiki: https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Tiles#Servers and if you want to play with Vector Tiles, have a look at https://openmaptiles.org/.
OpenStreetMap Belgium also provides its own baselayers covering Belgium and surroundings: https://tile.openstreetmap.be/.

You’re looking for a geocoding API, have a look at Nominatim: https://nominatim.openstreetmap.org/.

You’re looking for a routing algorithm, check OSRM (http://project-osrm.org/), GraphHopper (https://www.graphhopper.com/), Itinero (http://www.itinero.tech/), …

Everything that’s possible with Google Maps is possible with OpenStreetMap and (almost) as easy to use and to set up!

You can find more information on https://switch2osm.org/!

You can also have a look at all the great libraries made by Mapbox: https://www.mapbox.com/help/how-web-apps-work/
That’s probably the easiest way to switch from Google Maps to OpenStreetMap: Mapbox libraries and API allow you to have all the function provided by Google Maps (basemap – you can even style your own -, directions, geocoding, …) and are all based on OpenStreetMap data. Most of Mapbox products are open-source but some services and functions come with a downside, you’ll have to pay if you go over the request limits.

Conclusion

The goal of this article is of course not to throw rocks at Google Maps but to make you think about the issues that using a proprietary solution can bring and make you think about available alternative when you build an app, a website, or when you need geographical data!


Sources and additional reading material

In English :

In French :

Skip to toolbar