Joe Morrison: The first time I spoke with Jennings Anderson, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I mean that genuinely — I did not believe him. He was a little incredulous about it himself. I felt like he was sharing an important secret with me that the world didn’t yet know. The open secret Jennings filled me in on is that OpenStreetMap (OSM) is now at the center of an unholy alliance of the world’s largest and wealthiest technology companies. The most valuable companies in the world are treating OSM as critical infrastructure for some of the most-used software ever written. The four companies in the inner circle — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft — have a combined market capitalization of over six trillion dollars. In almost every other setting, they are mortal enemies fighting expensive digital wars of attrition. Yet they now find themselves eagerly investing in and collaborating on OSM at an unprecedented scale (more on the scale later). What likely started as a conversation in a British pub between grad students in 2004 has spiraled out of control into an invaluable, strategic, voluntarily-maintained data asset the wealthiest companies in the world can’t afford to replicate. I will admit that I used to think of OSM as little more than a virtuous hobby for over-educated Europeans living abroad — a cutesy internet collectivist experiment somewhere on the spectrum between eBird and Linux. It’s most commonly summarized with a variant of this analogy: OSM is to an atlas as Wikipedia is to an encyclopedia. OSM acolytes hate this comparison in the much same way baseball players resent when people describe the sport as “cricket for fat people.” While vaguely truthful, it doesn’t quite get to the spirit of the thing. OSM is incomparable. Over 1.5M individuals have contributed data to it. It averages 4.5M changes per day. The stats page on the OSM Wiki is a collection of hockey sticks. […]

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