Who to feed? The open vs. the commercial race for data

12.05.2011 | Christian Kreutz

Google Maps has been an incredible service in the past years. Not only it was Google's engineers, who invented the slippy map, which revolutionized digital maps, but its approach to offer such a service for free and shock competitors with a free routing service. Google has a tremendous overview on all activities on the Internet; billions of search queries everyday say a lot about people's personalities. With analytics in websites, Google tracks people's paths from one page to the next.

We are just at the beginning of this massive data collection endavour. TomTom now throws out their gadgets for free just to get real-data from their users. Ironically, it came out recently that they sold the real-time traffic data to the Dutch police. That kind of data collection is not appreciated, all other data collection is agreed on with a small click by accepting the terms of service.

The author Daniel Suarez is worried about the future with his new book: "Understanding the Daemon." It is still fiction, but that can change soon: "Computers have learnt from us with every Google search, with every „I like“-click. Now they are beginning to change us". Every time we click, we feed the system called Internet and the outcome is not yet known. Ironically, the features of web 2.0 have incredibly helped to feed the system. Each recommendation, rating, each link, makes the data analysis better. But I am really worried that this is not always for the better. The open available data sets are peanuts compared to data sets of Google or Facebook likes. The question is also what data shall or can be public?

Data becomes more important than hardware. Apple is so eager to collect data that they spy on iPhone users activities and obliged users to do so over their terms of services. I have read a nice comparison: It is like buying a car and you are obliged to not use the seat belt. But things are not for free, although many services draw that illusion. Companies will at one point need to earn money with these adventures.

That's why Google Maps has changed their terms recently. Websites, which use Google Maps are from now on obliged to "forward display any advertising delivered in the maps imagery". An obvious and, from a company perspective, understandable move. Perhaps Google will invade millions of pages with advertisement soon. I am sure it is only a matter of time when these companies start to make money with personal data.

That's why projects like Openstreetmaps are so important because there is an attempt to offer valuable geo data without restrictions. There is an uneven race for getting data open for more transparency and, for example, for better citizen services. Recently, companies, such as Nike, have started to provide open data. However, I get the sense it is just a public relation move; or will they soon provide data up and down the supply chain, so one can follow up how sneakers are being produced? The crowdsourcing potential for such open and free data will keep growing if more and more people join the process. However, these type of data collection is tiny compared to the huge commercial data sets. Ironically, commercial companies now "exploit" Openstreetmap data because it is so good.

That is one big reasons why I co-founded the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany two months ago – to work more on transparency projects.