Last week, Google shocked cartographers when it announced plans to charge for the use of the Google Maps API. The cost of loading one thousand maps will be about $4 next year, according to the Wall Street Journal. So, is this the “final destination” for the dozens (maybe hundreds) of crowdsourced mapping projects that rely on Google’s services? The site will not be free; rather, it will be sponsored. Small sites with less than 25,000 page view each day will still be free. Fans of random mashup sites will be relieved to learn that this one will survive. But what about huge not-for-profit mapping activities like Ushahidi, which rely on Google’s unrivalled geocoding? Should they also be exempt?
Many of these critics have gone on record as saying that developers who can’t afford to hire a professional for this work might “simply use OpenStreetMap instead.” The OpenStreetMap alternative to Google Maps is fantastic, but it lacks some of Google Maps’ more advanced features (such as Street View). Google has a poor track record for providing the most accurate cartography of developing nations, as evidenced by OpenStreetMap’s focus on Europe (OpenStreetMap is more concerned with Europe). Ironically, this is due in large part to Google’s own crowdsourced mapping initiative, Map Maker, which has been extremely popular in Africa and India. In 2005, only 15% of the world’s population had online maps because to the Google Map Maker community, it is now over 30%.
It’s understandable if Google wants to charge individuals and firms that make money off of Google Maps. To impose such a requirement on not-for-profit crowdsourcing organizations, which were already using maps where much of the data had been crowdsourced (for free) from citizens in the developing world… Call me a crazy idealist, but it just doesn’t seem correct to me. Perhaps Google should consider its original motto: “Don’t be evil.