I’ve built a site to create an open geocoding dataset over at

The premise I worked with is to change the way geocoders work. Today, a geocoder uses some chunk of import code to import a large dataset from one format in to another. Then the geocoder itself (which is a large piece of software) takes a string from the user like “london” and uses it’s imported dataset to eventually give you a bounding box. The client uses this bounding box to zoom and pan a map to the correct place.

What if you threw all that away and just linked the string “london” to a bounding box? Thus opengeocoder.

In previews the number one thing asked for was synonym support. That is, “AK” should spit out the same box as “Alaska” without having to add both strings and two bounding boxes. So, you can do that. There is an API which spits out JSON so you can hook your map project up to it.

OpenGeocoder starts with a blank database. Any geocodes that fail are saved so that anybody can fix them. Dumps of the data are available.

There is much to add. Behind the scenes any data changes are wikified but not all of that functionality is exposed. It lacks the ability to point out which strings are not geocodable (things like “a”) and much more. But it’s a decent start at what a modern, crowd-sourced, geocoder might look like.

OpenStreetMapper Murdered

Ulf's killer?

Tragically one of OpenStreetMappers finest contributors is no longer with us:

“We are trying to find the people who killed our relative, Ulf Möller. On the evening of the 9th of January 2012, Ulf fell victim to a brutal robbery-murder in Eastern Germany. The people who attacked him apparently were from Eastern Europe, possibly from Poland or Lithuania. When they used Ulf’s bank cards to withdraw money, surveillance cameras captured clear pictures of one of them.” link to site about our loss.

What can you do?

WhereCampSF 2012

Meet awesome people

I’ve put up a registration page for wherecamp 2012. It’s right before Where 2.0 on the 31 March & the 1st April (which also happens to be the OSM license change deadline). Details like venue are still being worked out. It’s free to attend (but donations welcome) and people like you publicize the event so we can get awesome sponsors to pay for things like food. Also, feel free to get in touch if you’re so inclined.


I’m a New Radical

Holding some old maps

The Observer, a British Sunday newspaper and sister to The Guardian, has a very kind article about me and the ubiquitous OpenStreetMap today.

The photo shoot was the most fun. I’ve worked with Kaela at the excellent Serendipity before. On fairly short notice we found a second hand book store in Duval and bought up a dozen or so old paper maps for something like a dime each. Then we had some fun taking pictures outside in the rain and ruining each map before going inside and taking the picture you see.

My doctor’s wife goaded me to agree with her recently that paper maps from the ’60s are not worth a whole lot to kids doing school projects. Her better half had apparently donated several in such a cause.

It made me think about how people of my generation began to use scientific calculators extensively at school and could skip the fundamental knowledge of solving quadratic equations. Just as a generation earlier multiplying large numbers was expedited by simpler hand-held calculators. Later on, I was lucky enough to work at Wolfram Research as an intern before university and had ready access to Mathematica. That’s like giving toddlers access to thermonuclear weapons. Perhaps a relevant analogy would be giving 10 year-old primary school students in England access to various computational equipment from Bletchley Park in 1943.

Presumably computational algebra systems will trickle down to high school and then elementary school students with time just as the other technologies did.

Thus too with maps?

It’s already happened, admittedly to the ready dismay of cartographers everywhere. This makes me think of, randomly, the market share over time of mobile phone operating systems:

The graph works well as an analogy for any technical displacement over time. I’d be curious to see one for the use of various types of maps over time. Broadly paper was dominant for about 2,000 years and then the PND took, at a guess, half the market share within a decade or two. Shortly after that the internet arrived and with it MapQuest and MultiMap. In the blink of an eye Google took the eyeballs – but not the profit – from them.

With a bit of luck perhaps the next phase will be dominated by a more enlightened and open approach.

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