A long discussion with plv the other day about open source and what it really meant got me thinking about that model when applied to other domains, such as mapping.
Google have clearly made a success of Google Maps (I’ve discussed Google Maps before as compared to Multimap - not entirely favourably - but whatever I think, the market loves the former). Plenty of competitors have also sprung up, notably from Microsoft. Incidentally, Flash Earth brings together all of these services into one ultra-slick interface; although I’d still love to see them available on Jeff Han’s touch screen (iPhone, eat your heart out - your interface is nothing on this).
However, one thing all these services have in common is that the mapping data is (as far as I can tell) commercially licensed, ultimately from a governmental institution. In the UK, we have the Ordnance Survey (who actually produce excellent paper maps, even if their customer-facing technology is a little backward). The Ordnance Survey gets its revenue from licensing data, selling maps, and so on, rather than from general taxation (which is something that as a libertarian I can almost approve of; although it does raise the question of why the government needs to be involved at all, since there’s therefore clearly a market for the data). The closest equivalent in the US appears to be the USGS (which also has other functions).
It always used to be conventional economic wisdom that mapping (or, to be more precise, surveying) was a function that had to be performed by government, because it was so astronomically expensive - in other words, it cost more than the direct revenues one could possibly obtain (presumably the indirect benefit to society is supposedly significant, which is why we engaged in it). Whether you agree with the morality of this depends on your political views, but it is at least plausible. It’s interesting to see that the Ordnance Survey no longer seem to operate on this model, but clearly many folk still believe surveying should be done centrally.
Now technology might be able to change all of this. OpenStreetMap is showing how it might be done - using cheap GPS receivers, driving along streets, and plotting the resultant data (yes, I know the receivers rely on expensive satellites; but there are only a few of them; and they’d be there anyway). Obviously there’s a long way to go, as shown by the short list of places that have been mapped. There are obviously also concerns over completeness, accuracy, and so on (although most of these have an analogy in Wikipedia, too). However, the potential for these maps is huge if the concept does take off - Google Maps mashups would have nothing on the potential richness of data available. The real concern so far has to be over how many people are really interested in creating this data and keeping it up to date.
As with all futurology (aka: guesswork), time will tell.
Update 2006-01-16: A recent edition of the BBC radio programme In Business (available as a podcast) took a rather quaint look at open-source. Worth a listen as a discussion of how hard open-source is to sell, although not as a rigorous discussion of the technological and legal issues.