Paying the price for Google Maps?

October 31st, 2011 by

torino_google-mapOnline cartographers were stunned last week when Google announced plans to charge for the use of the Google Maps API. As of next year, web developers will have to navigate prices of $4 per 1000 map loads. So, is this the “end of the road” for the dozens (probably hundreds) of crowdsourced mapping projects that rely on Google’s services? Not exactly: small sites – those with under 25,000 views per day – will remain free. Good news for fans of random mashup sites. But what about large not-for-profit mapping projects, like Ushahidi, that rely on Google’s unrivalled geocoding? Should they also be exempt?

Online commentators have been quick to point out that hard-up developers can always “just use OpenStreetMap instead”. OpenStreetMap – a free crowdsourced alternative to Google Maps – is a great product, however it lacks some of Google Maps more sophisticated features (like the all-seeing, all-knowing Street View). Much more worrying, Google has a reputation for producing the best maps of developing countries (OpenStreetMap is more Europe focused). Ironically, this is largely due to Google’s own crowdsourced mapping project, Map Maker, which has been a huge success in Africa and India. In 2005 only 15% of the world’s population had online maps, thanks to the Google Map Maker crowd, it’s now over 30%.

If Google wants to charge people/ companies that profit from using Google Maps, fair enough. But charging not-for-profit crowdsourcing organizations to use maps where much of the data has itself been crowdsourced (for free) from people in the developing world… Call me a crazy idealist but that just doesn’t seem right. Perhaps Google should remember its original motto: don’t be evil.

  • Felix Gilcher

    There’s an important point that seems to be overlooked in this contextl: According to the FAQ, at Non-Profit Applications are exempt from the usage limits:

    “Non-profits and applications deemed in the public interest (as determined by Google at its discretion) are not subject to these usage limits. For example, a disaster relief map is not subject to the usage limits even if it has been developed and/or is hosted by a commercial entity. In addition we recommend that eligible Non-profits apply for a Maps API Premier license through the Google Earth Outreach program. This provides a number of benefits, including the right to opt-out of advertising, higher quotas for Maps API web services, and technical support.”

  • Ville Miettinen

    Okay I confess, I totally missed this small yet-embarrassingly-vital detail (note to self: always read the FAQs before you start a rant!).  Good spot – and it’s great news for crisis mapping.

    I think the wider issue – who controls crowdsourced data – is still relevant though. Google will still potentially profit from free crowdsourced Map Maker contributions, even if Ushahidi etc are exempt from charges.

    There’s a lot of goodwill and trust involved in non-profit crowdsourcing. If volunteers suspect that companies/ projects are using crowdsourced data to make money (rather than to make the world a better place), it could undermine that.