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Microsoft Hires World's Leading Geo-Dissident to Join Bing Maps Team

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OpenStreetMap is a global map edited by volunteers, like the Wikipedia of the mapping world. Founded in 2004, the project is a fascinating collection of local knowledge and is a lot of fun to participate in. Last month OpenStreetMap founder Steve Coast announced that he was leaving for-profit Cloud Made, the primary company behind OSM. Today he announced where he’s going next: to be a Principal Architect at Bing Maps. Reaction in the mapping community has been mixed but this is a move that will be talked about for a long time. With the rise of location-aware mobile devices and platforms for processing massive amounts of data, including location data, geo technology is poised to grow far more important than it already is today.

Coast is a giant figure in the mapping world. In 2009, readers of leading geo publication Directions Magazine voted him the 2nd most influential person in the geospatial world, ahead of the Google Maps leadership and behind only Jack Dangermond, the dynamic founder of 41-year old $2 billion GIS company ESRI. Coast will turn 30 years old next month.

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As an open alternative to proprietary world maps, and to Google, big companies have lent technical and financial support to make sure that OpenStreetMap (OSM) thrives. You can participate in it yourself with a click of a button – the OSM map of the area around my house, for example, displays churches, bus stops, traffic speed bumps and more. I’ve added historical markers and other information myself.

As part of the deal, Bing is donating access to its distortion-free aerial photos of the world to the Open Street Maps community. This Summer, Bing Maps added an OpenStreetMap layer to its offerings.

Seeing OSM’s leader join the corporate megalith Microsoft hasn’t made everyone in the mapping community happy, however. Leading GIS blogger Glenn Letham tweeted this morning that he “dang near spit coffee out of my nose,” when he saw the news.

Letham wrote on his blog today:

Indeed this is big news for the OSM community and the open source movement, however, one does have to wonder how this can impact the development and the future of OSM… I mean think about it, we now have AOL (Mapquest) and Microsoft buying up the talent that spurred all this innovation but these are companies that ultimately are responsible to the shareholders. I guess we’ll be hearing more down the road about OSM mapping tools and apps running on the Win 7 mobile platform and then there’s Google… I wonder who Google will be looking to hire from the OSM camp??

Coast on his blog tried to preempt such concern by writing:

Of course, this doesn’t mean Microsoft ‘owns’ OpenStreetMap any more than CloudMade or MapQuest do with the significant resources those firms have put in to making a better map with OSM. OSM continues to be independent as it always will be, and I will continue in my roles to push the OSM cause forward.

Geo blogger James Fee puts Coast’s move in the context of battling giants and says it’s going to be a win for users.

Makes you wonder about Google’s choice to roll their own now doesn’t it? How quickly Google’s map looks like it will be a drag on their innovation. Between the OSM mappers, MapQuest, Microsoft and all the others who are part of the open project; I [see] no way OSM doesn’t become the dominate mapping data source for all users moving forward. And you know who wins, everyone who wants free and open data. That’s the take away — congratulations to Steve Coast because he sure deserves success, but the real winners here are you and I.

Coast has long symbolized the disruptive potential of free and community edited location data. He, his collaborators and the OpenStreetMap project are being counted on to keep some of the biggest and most powerful geo-focused corporations in the world honest. As we enter into a period of history in which location data becomes even more important than it is today, when it impacts the everyday lives of non-technical people more directly than ever before, when it becomes a key dimension in all sorts of other data and when an era of big data processing enables a new world of place-based inovation on scale – as the web enters that era it’s a very big move for Bing to have brought this young world-changer onto its team.

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