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Google Maps versus Open Street Map in New Zealand

December 27, 2010 1 comment

I’ve always been a big fan of Google Maps. It and its cousin Google Earth have basically made the street directory and atlas obsolete, and they’re great tools for armchair tourism. Every now and again they update their imagery, adding clearer and more detailed aerial photography, and occasionally they change the maps themselves, adding new roads and deleting old ones.

A few weeks ago, Google Maps updated their map data for my city – Christchurch, New Zealand. Rather than being an improvement, however, things have gone a bit… mental.

In Google’s world, Riccarton Ave now circles Christchurch Hospital. The open-source Open Street Map is much closer to reality, clearly showing a set of no-thoroughfare service roads and parking aisles, with no way of getting from Riccarton Ave to the other side of the river.

Google also has made the Heathcote River evaporate, and has added roads winding through Christchurch City Council’s disused Pipe Yards:

And, perhaps most bizarrely, they’ve put some traffic lights in the Botanic Gardens:

Yep, those are gravel paths for pedestrians… These changes are so random it makes you wonder about the reliability of the rest of their map data.

You’ll notice that in the images above I’ve used Open Street Map as the standard against which I’m judging the Google maps. OSM is sort of like the Wikipedia of maps, and though its quality varies from country to country, its New Zealand maps are fantastic. Most of the work has thus far been done by hand, but a few years back the New Zealand Government licensed LINZ’s data for use in Open Street Map, meaning further improvements to things like coastlines, and remote islands. The maps are constantly enhanced and updated by a band of volunteer mappers, meaning it responds to changes incredibly quickly and is obviously much more useful for navigation (with apps like MotionX GPS). By comparison, there are whole subdivisions missing from Google’s Christchurch map, even though it’s a recent update.

Globally, OSM is quickly surpassing Google Maps in terms of both the quality and quantity of information. The Germans are well onto it – check out Berlin!

And it’s not just aesthetics – the rapid mapping by OSM volunteers saved lives following the Haiti earthquake (watch Tim Berners-Lee’s TED talk if you haven’t already).

Go on – try Open Street Map. It’s probably more accurate than Google Maps, and if your local area isn’t, make some edits to improve it!