Mention street maps to anyone these days and they’ll think you’re talking about Google Maps or Whereis.com. The ubiquitous use of these online tools is masking their troublesome characteristic; while they are free as in beer, they are definitely not free as in speech.
While Google supplies map and aerial photography free of charge, they do this only for a limited range of uses. You are allowed to embed a map (with a Google logo on it) in your website (as I have done), but you are not allowed to make a GPS car navigation system using this map information. Nor are you allowed to use Google Map information to create your own special purpose map (as Tom Chance wanted to). Unless you live in the USA, chances are you have to pay again for mapping information that was created using your taxes.
Just as Wikipedia is a collaborative community project making encyclopedic information freely available to every human on the planet, the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project aims to create and provide free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them for any use they desire. Because there is no arbitrary legal limit on the use of the data, OpenStreetMap is pushing innovation in areas ranging from personal navigation systems to flight simulation.
I recently bought a Garmin Geko 201 handheld GPS device, primarily for use on hikes. I also found a free (as in speech) program that will let me use my laptop and connected GPS as a car navigation system. The catch is that there is no freely available street map data for Australian roads. Enter OSM.
Using OpenStreetMap data in a car navigation system requires, of course, that the map exist. I have taken to recording various routes as I cycle to Uni, and am thus adding ANU to the map. Riding slightly further abroad I have benefited from the exercise and contributed to the map of central Canberra. Taking my GPS in the car whenever I drive somewhere allows me to add to the map without making any special trips.
The OSM project started in the UK, and is still young in Australia. The huge holes in the map are extremely exciting – almost anywhere you go it is possible to contribute new information! OpenStreetMap might not yet be suitable for production-line use in Australia, but it is heralding in a new era of availability for geographic information. Its also addictive, and a wonderful excuse to get exercise!