Should you fix errors and contribute to Google Maps for free?

Google Maps isn’t a public service, but we’re all treating it as such. It’s a private for-profit enterprise, and it wants you to work for it for free. So, should you help improve Google Maps for your community? — or not?

Some months ago, I visited the eye clinic at the Oslo University Hospital. The clinic is located at a big hospital campus with buildings laid out like a maze.

Before going, I visited the hospital’s website to find out where I should go. It had embedded a Google Maps view with a red marker to indicate the building. Except, Google placed the pin on the wrong building. It was pinned in an administrative building some 550 meters away from the eye clinic.

The eye clinic building is facing away from the rest of the campus, and it’s non-obvious where its main entrance is. I updated the eye clinic’s listing on Google Maps to point at the correct building and dropped the marker on its main entrance. I got an email from Google thanking me for updating the map and confirming that they’d accepted the change.

Google has since sent me monthly unsolicited emails about the change where they say how many people have viewed the updated listing. At the time of publication, Google says I’ve helped 90 000 people find the eye clinic in the last six months.

At first, I thought of it as having done a good deed and helped visually impaired patients find their way to the right building. However, only days later I began pondering who I’d really helped. I’d not only helped other patients, but I’d also helped Google improve the accuracy of its map and helped maintain its dominant market position.

My edit helps Google to know more accurately where (and thus why) its customers visit the hospital. My edit is actively harmful to other patients’ privacy. Then again, not fixing the location marker could cause delays at the clinic and actively harm people’s sight and long-term health prospects.

I don’t use Apple Maps, Bing Maps, Here WeGo, OpenStreetMap, or any of Google’s competitors. However, I checked them the week after I made the change to Google Maps. None of the other mapping services knew the building numbers at the hospital nor what was in them.

Coincidentally, OpenStreetMap was updated with more information about the buildings at the hospital only three weeks later. Another week later, the same changes showed up on Bing Maps. I didn’t contribute the updated information, it came from a mass import of data to the OpenStreetMap project.

Why was I okay doing the work for Google but not Apple or Microsoft? I didn’t want to work for free for the big tech companies! I just wanted the maps I use to be as accurate as possible.

It would be a lot more work to create a listing for the eye clinic and fill in its opening hours, address, plus setting the location marker at the right spot. The Oslo University Hospital had already done most of the work filling in the information in Google Maps. As such, Google already had nearly the correct information, and it was quick and easy for me to fix the problem I noticed on the map.

We’re treating Google Maps as a public service. Public services treat Google Maps as a public service. However, it’s a for-profit product from Google. Google profits from Maps with ads in the map data itself. Google also charges apps and websites to embed its maps.

The OpenStreetMap project positions itself as a public service and offers open data under an open license. The maps are good too! Except, it can’t match Google Maps’ wealth of data. It doesn’t have updated business listings with opening hours and photos of every business on every street.

I’ve since had a look at OpenStreetMap’s editing interface, and let me just say that “ease of use” wasn’t a design requirement. As an advocate of open source and open data, I should have contributed the missing information to the OpenStreetMap project. There’s only so much time in the day, though. Google only asked for a few seconds to update its map. It was quick and easy.

The world is big and collecting and organizing information about every place in it is a massive undertaking. Our expectations of a mapping service have grown since the inception of projects like OpenStreetMap. It doesn’t just need to tackle the colossal and ever-changing tasks of cartographing the world. We also expect transit routes, business listings, and all sorts of even more ever-changing information to go alongside it.

So, can anyone but a huge multinational company like Google, Microsoft, and Apple get the job done? Probably not. They’ve invest incredible amounts of money into every-better satellites and cartography. However, their real strength lies in having convinced businesses and customers early on to contribute detailed information about everywhere.