Can Work on an Open Source Map Project Make Money for its Founders?

Can Work on an Open Source Map Project Make Money for its Founders?

My old friend Serge Wroclawski has been working on (OSM) for a number of years now. He’s done this because he sees this as a worthwhile project — an open source, user-editable worldwide map — rather than as a way to make money. And that’s good, because Serge has made exactly $0.00 so far from his work. But this may change before long.

Just because Serge has been working on this project for free doesn’t mean the project itself has no value. Serge rounded me up on Facebook not long ago, and typed, “You know I’m involved in this OpenStreetMap thing right? And maybe you’ve heard, Mapquest and Bing are using our data now.”

[login]No, I hadn’t heard that, I said. I wasn’t aware that you were helping Microsoft and Mapquest make money.

“We don’t explicitly help them,” Serge said. “They take our stuff and as long as they comply with the license, they can do what they want with it.”

Bing does nothing for the project or its creators, Serge went on to say. They just leech off of it. Mapquest, on the other hand, has been very helpful.

“They’re giving us equipment,” said Serge. “They’re giving the community access to their post-rendered data, and what you might think of as the ‘source code’ to get their renders.”

Actually, Serge added, Mapquest is sending money that he and his co-developers use to buy equipment and other needs. And before long, he says there will be an accouncement from Mapquest about a lot more help, but he can’t talk about that quite yet. But even today, he says, “They’re good citizens, as far as I’m concerned.”

More important, says Serge, “OSM is being used as science curriculum in low income schools.” There’s even a video about it: OSM in a High School Environment

Can Serge start to cash in now?

Serge is working on a business plan to make money from OSM. He’s about as hard-core a free software developer as you can be without being named Richard Stallman, but he still has bill to pay. So why shouldn’t he try to sell a service based on OSM for a few bucks per use. He says, “There’s a job that takes a lot of time/efffort and I think we can automate it.”

Suddenly, freeloader or not, Bing becomes a major reference for the OSM project and Serge’s work on it. With any luck, this will help him get financing for his business plan.

I hope Serge’s plans all work out, and that he does well financially with his OSM-based business. He’s a good guy who’s done a lot of good for the world over the years, and if he can now do well as a result of having done good, it will not only be simple justice, but it may also spur others to work on free software projects — not that working on one because you hope to get paid someday is the best motive, but some people need more than altruism or technical challenge to drive them.

As far as Bing: It’s sad that Microsoft, with all its billions, can use software produced by altruists, for free, without contributing so much as a dime back to the project whose work they’re using. Maybe we’re silly to expect anything else from Microsoft, despite all the words the company has spewed recently about how it supports open source software. But I will tell you that I, for one, will remember this whenever I have a choice between a Microsoft product and one that’s available from another company.

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