Google Inches Toward Wikified Maps
from the community-needed dept
I've been saying for a few months that Google should begin wikifying Google Maps, so that users can make corrections and add missing information to Google's map database. Google took a tentative step in that direction this spring when it allowed people to edit business locations. But now John Battelle reports that Google has unveiled technology that would allow Google to turn Google Maps into a full-blown geographical wiki, with "roads, lakes, parks, points of interest, businesses, cities and localities" all fully editable. Not surprisingly, Google is rolling this out cautiously, making the functionality available first in obscure places like the Bermuda, Grenada, and Jamaica where Google hasn't been able to acquire good map data of its own.
Playing around with the site, the technology is a little clumsy to use, but it works and I'm sure it will get better as Google's UI wizards get some user feedback. The really hard part, I think, will be cultivating the community that's required for a successful peer production effort. People tend to think of Wikipedia as a website, but as Clay Shirky points out, it's better to think of Wikipedia as a bureaucracy for arguing about edits that happens to produce a website as its byproduct. Wikipedia depends on a dedicated core of Wikipedians who referee the editing process, combat vandalism, and resolve disputes. Without them, Wikipedia would dissolve into chaos in a matter of days. So Google needs to figure out how to cultivate an analogous community of Google Map editors. There's a chicken-and-egg problem because they need to let people edit their own neighborhoods to really draw on local knowledge, but the site could be destroyed quickly if they don't have enough public-spirited editors in place beforehand. The incremental strategy they're pursuing so far seems like the right one: get people familiar with the technology, recruit people interested in map editing, and most importantly develop the processes and principles that allow the editing process to proceed smoothly.
Google will also want to think hard about licensing. Wikipedia uses the GNU Free Documentation License, which gives anyone the freedom to reuse Wikipedia content. This serves as a kind of social contract with users, ensuring that the data generated by the community continues to be available to the community. Google may find that it needs to make similar commitments before a significant number of people would be willing to participate in the editing process. On the other hand, freeing the map data might prove different if the vendor currently selling Google mapping data sees it as a threat. In that rather sticky situation, Google might be forced to start from scratch, creating a parallel site created entirely by users.