opensource Thoughts

OpenStreetMap and the Rabbit Phone problem..

This week the innovative guys as Nestroia have launched an experimental version of their great real estate aggregation site using OpenStreetMap mapping as an alternative to the usual Google Map Tiles. This is great vote of confidence for OpenstreetMap, but it also highlights some of the problems creating geodata from the cloud.

Where OSM data is comprehenive the map tiles are often more detailed than those Google supply which are based on commerical available datasets. For example this section of tiles covering my childhood neighbourhood in London is truely beatiful, in many ways a better map than the commerical websites.


However the problem is that the coverage for OSM data is not yet complete, and where there is incomplete coverage, for this type of application, its use is a problem. Look at these examples from Wokingham, West of London and part of the UK’s silicon valley.

The Google maps tiles using Tele Atlas data are pretty much complete..


However the OSM version has a lot of missing detail..


Mapping data really does need to offer complete coverage for it to be really useful, some may remember in the UK in the early days of mobile phones there was an alterative system based on local hotspots called Rabbit. This failed becasue you had to be within 100m or so of a hot spot, unlike the wider coverage of the early analogue mobile systems.

Mapping data needs to be as comprehensive, with no coverage gaps, what is great about Nestoria’s early exposure of the data in a real application is to highlight where more volunteer work needs to be done to complete the work.. If this is achieved by the OSM community, the critic’s of open source geodata will be silenced.

Written and submitted from home, using my home 802.11 network.

21 replies on “OpenStreetMap and the Rabbit Phone problem..”

Hey cool your jets.. Don’t get all “Fake” on me Steve, I think we are making the same point it will be finished and the Nestoria app is a good way to point out where more work is needed.

That said.. there is a finite time within which OSM needs to be complete or it may lose credibility.

It is not also worth pointing out that at this time last year OSM was a long way away from where it is today. At the current rate of growth the empty area’s aren’t going to stay empty for long.

I do agree that OSM is of limited use for UK wide services as yet such as the one you illustrate, however OSM can be valuable in Brighton even if it’s useless in Pudding Norton; after all Google Maps was useful to people in the USA before it existed elsewhere and OSM by its nature tends to grow areas of high quality comprehensive local coverage. For Cambridge City Council the lack of coverage in Wokingham was of no concern when they printed 60,000 city centre cycle maps based on OSM.

Also, the rabbit phone is also not really a fair comparison because it was a commercial product that was beaten by a better commercial product. OSM and the commercial map providers are in an asymmetric war (or symbiosis) where there won’t be a looser, indeed OSM is like to benefit from the commercial warfare as smaller data providers fall by the wayside or choose to join the crowd as a survival mechanism and donate content to the project(think Netscape/Firefox). Personally I hope that the commercial mapping folk are being shamed by OSM into capturing greater texture in our urban environments and who knows, possibly also sorting out their licenses and pricing.

The rabbit phone was also had a fatally technical flaw and was never going to be able to achieve full coverage due to the specification of its radio communications. OSM has no fatal flaw and can and probably will achieve full coverage in time.

What I am sure about is that come the spring and longer evenings the cycles will be coming out and people will be planning weekend trips and summer holidays in lands where there be dragons.


You are right this is not about different commercial vs. “free” offerings, my point about rabbit was the reason for its failure was lack of coverage.

I think I agree with your argument that there are advantages in a crowd sourced mechanism for collecting geo-data, however I think this approach will be most beneficial in the maintenance of the data once it is collected, a difficult and costly process for commercial data providers because of the need for local change intelligence.

The comparison with the Rabbit Phone is potentially misleading both for the reasons that Peter outlines above and because the value of technologies like the Rabbit Phone are heavily tied to the Network effect – the idea that the value of a communications networks is proportional to the square of the number of users, the reason why mobile phone operators can’t afford to ignore “south bumfuck ohio”. I don’t see geodata being as intensely subject to the network effect. Isn’t this more or less what Ed argued at the Open Knowledge Foundation Jamboree last year? We need to fund the OS to map south bumfuck ohio because there isn’t enough value in SBO’s geodata to sustain commercial interest. If the network effect relating to geodata were as strong as it is for telecoms, the operators wouldn’t be able to afford not to map SBO.


Ah but the network effect was not the issue for Rabbit users, you could use your rabbit phone to call anybody not just rabbit users, the problem was you needed to be within range of one of their base stations – coverage of base stations was the issue, and that finding one even in urban areas was inconvenient compared to the cellular systems.

OSM is fundamentally different to other traditional map sources and so may be successful even if it does not currently have the same level of coverage or perceived authority as traditional maps.

The lack of data has not stopped Wikipedia growing. The lack of commercial applications has not stopped Linux developing. Linux will never be the same as Windows but many users do not care as long as they can browse the web and write emails.

OSM data may never replace OS MasterMap for all applications but it will have its place.

The rabbit system only supported outgoing calls which was another pretty big flaw.

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