Free GPS Maps From Open Street Map

Free.  It is a word that we all love to hear.  This is especially true when it comes together with the words GPS maps.  It is also something that many of the current GPS manufacturers do not offer to their customers.  While many do allow recent purchasers to update the map on their GPS device to the latest version within 30 days of purchase, they then go and charge you anywhere between $50 and $100 for each subsequent map update.  If you are the type of person that likes to have the most current maps every year that can end up costing a lot of money.  Free GPS maps is certainly better than paid GPS maps.

Alternatively, some companies (like TomTom) have turned to crowdsourcing map updates so that users can help each other make the maps on their navigation devices better. TomTom’s service is called MapShare and allows users a high level of control over how they are able to update their maps using user generated content for free.  They boast to have the largest navigation community in the world, and they probably do since TomTom is a truly international community.

But the maps provided by TomTom and their MapShare service are not going to help every type of GPS enthusiast.  For starters, the update data can only be used by TomTom devices.  This leaves out those that use Garmin, Navigon, Lowrance, Magellan, and other GPS units from the wide range of GPS manufacturers.

The second problem is with manufacturer specific crowdsourcing efforts is that they only improve the maps for that specific manufacturer.  In my view, this has two major problems.  The first is that is it creates an inefficiency in the system.  The second is that the effort only benefits a select group of individuals.

So how can we create free GPS maps that all people can use irregardless of the particular GPS tracking device that they use?  Use Open Street Maps, that is how.

What is Open Street Maps?

OpenStreetMap-RomeOpen Street Maps (OSM) is a really cool user driven world map.  It takes data taken from GPS tracking devices and turns it into information that is publicly available for any one to use for any reason.  It is much different from Google Maps in that the data is truly free – as in free speech – and is not bound by any limits or conditions – as in free beer.  This makes it somewhat superior to applications like Google Maps since it can be used in new and inventive ways without having to worry about lawsuits or other unpleasant occurrences.

Who benefits from Open Street Maps?

The short answer is everyone.

While it may not be the best GPS map in the world, OSM is at least among one of the best free GPS maps available.  It has data from all over the world and gives users access to everything about the map.  It also has a lot of things that many traditional navigation GPS maps simply don’t have.  Bike trails, hiking trails, shortcuts – these are all user entered, which can make them extremely useful for travelers who are trying to go to a new area where they may never have been.

Here is a list of people who might benefit extensively from OSM:

  • Cyclists – Knowing the streets where biking is acceptable is important for those moving to a new area, especially if you use your bike as your primary mode of transportation.
  • Hikers – Getting quality map data for a hike out in the wilderness can sometimes be pretty difficult.  If your destination is popular or you have friends that you like to exchange data with, doing so on a traditional GPS device can be problematic.  But with OSM you can do tap into the popularity of a locale or share mapping data with a friend very cost effectively – for free!
  • European travelers – OSM is much bigger in Europe than it currently is in the USA.  This means that instead of having to drop a nice chunk of change on some new European maps on your Garmin you can use OSM to get free Garmin GPS maps instead.

What can you do with Open Street Maps?

My one complaint with OSM is that it is not readily apparent how one can use the mapping information on your own GPS unit.  Most people are going to be looking for free downloadable GPS maps, and if OSM can’t provide that then they are going to look somewhere else.  Can someone use Open Street Maps to download free GPS maps?

Again, the short answer is yes – but it does get a little complicated.

Each specific GPS manufacturer has its own hoops and hurdles to jump through and over if you are going to want to use OSM data on these GPS devices.  If you are looking for a few guides on how to do so for the major GPS brands here they are:

In almost every case you are going to have to go to a third party that is going to allow you to use the OSM data on your GPS tracking unit.  To me, this is the biggest flaw of the whole OSM system – no clear method of using the data on your GPS.

To be honest, this is expected.  There are just too many different type of devices out there and too many companies trying to keep their piece of the pie their piece of the pie.  TomTom, for example, guards their mapping information so tightly that you have to do a serious work around just to use the OSM data on it.  Of all the companies listed above, Garmin is probably the easiest to use – but even with then you have to do some work to get the maps working right.

So while it is super cool that OSM is provided free GPS maps, they have a long way in actually making them useful for a large part of the GPS using public.

With this problem, should I still use Open Street Maps?

OpenStreetMap-mapping-teamYes!  Where are you going to get free, open source maps from if you don’t use OSM?  Well, there are lots of other places to get them, but nobody does it quiet like OSM.  You also have to realize that the more people who use something like this the better it gets for everyone involved.  Many hands make the work light, so it becomes very cool when you have thousands of people in your area working toward mapping out things for everyone for the common good.  Just imagine what it would be like if people who went to Yosemite got together and created awesome, free Yosemite GPS maps.  Any hiker who went there would benefit from everyone’s efforts for years and years after you death.  You could end up helping hundreds of thousands of people enjoy the outdoors because of your contribution to OSM.

When it comes down to it, when you want free GPS maps the best place to go is to the people.  Open source, crowdsourced solutions are going to provide accurate information that does the most good for society and for the individual.  When information is free, especially GPS tracking information, all people benefit.  While there are some things that Open Street Maps can do to improve the accessibility of the information, it is already an exceptional product.  I hope that it catches on quickly so that future generations of GPS users can benefit from it.

Car Tracking, Google, Cell Phones, And Real Time Traffic Updates

The folks over at Google are turning car tracking into a public service, using the data in an impressive effort to provide traffic information for free to users of their popular Google Maps for Mobile cell phone application. This is a great leap forward in providing useful and reliable information to users all over the globe, but especially in the United States. Being able to get traffic information for free on your GPS enabled cell phone is just another reason to begin ditching those cumbersome and increasingly obsolete GPS navigation devices.

Many traditional GPS navigation devices end up charging you for a traffic service – $50 for a year of MSN direct on one device or $90 for a lifetime subscription on one device (Some devices give you traffic updates for free, like the Garmin Nuvi 265WT). If you turn this into a monthly charge, most people are going to end up spending an additional $4 a month to get traffic. This is no comparison when it comes to the free, real time traffic updates provided by Google.

Another advantage to the Google data is that it is crowdsourced. Crowdsourcing is when a task is given to a large crowd of individuals to perform. Generally speaking, crowdsourcing is a great way to gather information. Google is able to do this because they have thousands of customers who currently run their free cell phone tracking application Google Maps for Mobile. All a current user has to do to make their information available for Google to use is turn on the GPS location sharing feature on their phone. This will add your phone’s speed and location to the massive amounts of data already being sent to Google by users all over the roadways. The more information they have, the more reliable their traffic data is going to become.  GPS tracking for cars is now becoming useful for everyone.

Now why is Google doing this? Is it just out of the kindness of their own heart that they are making this car tracking information  available to anyone who wants to use it, free of charge?

Google Maps Real Time Traffic DataWell, there are a couple different things that this Internet giant could by trying to accomplish by using cell phones to track cars and get accurate traffic information. The first is the most obvious: they want to improve their current product and services. Google Maps is a wildly popular web application and is becoming just as popular on mobile phones. If they can increase this application’s usefulness they can solidify their user base and create lots of Google Maps evangelists. This could cut into the market share of other online map providers like MapQuest and MSN.

Since cell phone make great car tracking devices it is pretty obvious why they chose to leverage their existing cell phone user base instead of creating a brand new Google GPS navigation unit.  That just wouldn’t make any sense for the long term since car navigation units are on the decline (or at least so say I).

This strategy also has a long term objective as well, creating Google brand loyalty. That way, when they produce something new – like the Android cell phone – they already have a customer base that will become interested in their new product offering. In fact, the Android cell phone is probably going to receive a marked boost from Google having a strong presence in the world of mobile applications. While it is my understanding that this GPS enabled cell phone is not doing that great in terms of market share, I’m sure that Google is in this one for the long haul.

So it would appear that in addition to wanting to help out there users they are also are interested in making some money. This is obviously going to the be goals of a corporation so users should not be too concerned about this fact.

There are, however, a few things that you will want to look out for if you are going to be letting Google take a peak at your GPS coordinates and your speed information. The first is you will want to make sure that Google is going to watch out for your privacy. If you want to find our more information about how they plan on keeping your private data safe I recommend that you read their official announcement made here: The bright side of sitting in traffic: Crowdsourcing road congestion data

For those that don’t feel like jumping to another page I will sum up their privacy measure. They are as follows:

  • Google makes all phones anonymous, so no one using the data will know for certain that your phone is the one providing the traffic information
  • They also will delete your starting point and your destination point from their database, essentially crippling someone wishing to use the info to know exactly where you came from and where you are going – even Google
  • Another layer of privacy protection is expected in the sheer volume of traffic data they plan on collecting, if you are one of a hundred motorists handing over your personal information to Google then it stands to reason you will be harder to find

This is all important information given the fact that some companies (*cough*Palm*cough*) like hijack your personal information, including your phones unique identifier, and send it back to Palm HQ with their unwanted cell phone tracking software.  Companies need to take privacy concerns seriously if they want user to entrust their data to them.

The second key consideration is how sending all this data is going to affect your data plan.  This is probably the more important of the two considerations since this is mainly going to be about money for a lot of people.  I have not extensively tested this, so take it with a grain of salt, but I am assuming that if you are already using Google Maps for Mobile extensively and you are fine with your current data plan then you won’t have anything to worry about.  But if you push your data plan to its max with your current use then adding the load of sending your GPS coordinates to Google will probably push you over the edge.

For some people, this can mean hundreds of dollars depending on what your cell phone provider’s policy is with account overages.  This will turn your free real time traffic updates into fairly expensive traffic update.  But this is the problem with free GPS cell phone tracking.  If you can’t cover the expense of sending your data over the network then it isn’t going to be free.

In the final analysis I think that most people are going to benefit a lot from this type of data.  According to one recent report released by Navteq, a major supplier of GPS maps, people spend 18% less time when they have access to real time traffic updates.  If you extrapolate that data over the course of an entire year that will turn into 4 whole days of time saved.  Now that is car GPS tracking that I can live with.

But is Google going to succeed with this car tracking system they have created or will it fail?  Are cell phones really the tracking device for cars that everyone thinks they are or will the data provided by the modern marvels fail to live up to expectations?  Only time will tell for certain, but I for one am extremely optimistic.