Mapzen to the Linux Foundation

Randy Meech - January 30, 2019

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and feces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

-T.S. Eliot from “The Four Quartets” - East Coker I

Earlier this week, Mapzen became part of the Linux Foundation. I was CEO of Mapzen before becoming CEO of StreetCred, and I thought I’d talk a bit about what this means and how it’s connected, particularly as we think about StreetCred’s open protocol strategy. To quote the Linux Foundation, Mapzen is an “open-source mapping platform focused on the core components of map display including search and navigation.” We built a lot of core components for a fully open map stack, many of which we use today at StreetCred.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="2500.0"] “Houses live and die: there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation” -Eliot “Houses live and die: there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation” -Eliot [/caption]

Intellectual Property 101

If you’re new to open source, there are a couple concepts that are good to understand. The first is copyright, the second is licensing. If you create software, you (or maybe your company or foundation) hold the copyright to that software. It’s your intellectual property to do with what you want. You can keep it secret and never show it to anyone. Or you can apply a license to it that specifies the terms under which others can use it, or not use it, as you wish. If you see software on Github with no license, it’s not actually “open” but just publicly visible. I won’t get into the specifics of licensing here, except to note that a copyright holder can specify all kinds of open licenses on their software.

Let’s take a popular example that also happens to be part of the Linux Foundation: Node.js. The LICENSING file says “Copyright Node.js contributors. All rights reserved.“ and then applies the MIT license. If you scroll down, you’ll see different copyright statements applied to different copyright-holders such as Joyent, who developed Node before it went into a foundation. Check out the LICENSING files of your favorite projects to see how this works.

Shutdown Sadness

As many already know, Mapzen was never an independent company, it was an R&D project out of Samsung. If you ever signed a contract with us, you would have seen this in our legal agreements, including our old Privacy Policy and Terms of Service. Mapzen developed open mapping software and data from mid-2013 through early 2018. It was a great run that made progress on a lot of long-term problems (do you need a global, multi-modal routing engine like Google and Apple have? Mapzen built that for you.)

When we closed Mapzen, a number of things happened. First of all, a lot of people were really sad:

pic.twitter.com/UTAirFhxg0

— Tod Robbins (@todrobbins) January 2, 2018

oh my god! pic.twitter.com/nQI5yACUdv

— Matteo Tempestini (@il_tempe) January 2, 2018

pic.twitter.com/zG8gTBA8OT

— Holly Allen (@hollyjallen) January 2, 2018

Is there going to be some kind of Twitter @Mapzen switchoff party where we watch *.mapzen.com start 404ing and get a bit drunk and have a good cry, because I would go to that party

— Jo Walsh (@ultrazool) January 30, 2018

Second, it became clear that most Mapzen staff would continue working on the same software, sometimes in the same teams, just at different companies (Snapchat, Mapbox, HERE Maps, etc). A couple new companies popped up by former staff to help Mapzen customers (Geocode.earth, Interline). Diana and I created StreetCred, which would do totally new work while relying heavily on the open foundation Mapzen built.

Third, Samsung was gracious enough to donate all Mapzen intellectual property to the Linux Foundation. Many have been working hard on this transition for the past few months: thank you! And thank you to Samsung!

The main benefit of all this is clarity around copyright and licensing. If Mapzen hadn’t moved to the Linux Foundation, Samsung would have held copyright to open software that is actively developed and heavily used by many companies other than itself. The open licenses would have still applied (unless they were changed by the copyright holder), but everyone agreed that a clear, permanent home for all Mapzen IP after the shutdown would be much better, and very much in the spirit of the Mapzen project from the beginning. Now, any company or individual can continue working on the software with confidence.

At this point, no Mapzen employees will work for the Linux Foundation. This move is just to establish copyright and license clarity on software and data in heavy commercial use across many companies and organizations.

How it’s connected to StreetCred

At a high level, shutting down Mapzen was so difficult that it got us obsessed with the idea of decentralized, permanent infrastructure around mapping. So there’s that.

More concretely, during StreetCred’s MapNYC event we needed a way to turn latitude/longitude points into addresses, a process known as “reverse geocoding.” We wanted to use a specific address dataset from the New York City government to do so, available though OpenAddresses (a project supported by Mapzen). One of our interns spun up an instance of Pelias, the geocoder Diana and her team created at Mapzen, and we reverse geocoded all the points our users sent us and put them into a database.

It’s hard to overstate what a massive leap forward this is. Before Mapzen, there was no “spin up a geocoder with a handy, reasonably-licensed dataset“ and get your work done. Instead, you would have had to use an expensive proprietary geocoder with restrictive licensing, or tried with difficulty to get earlier open geocoders working with non-ideal address data. In either case, confidently storing the results in your own database would have been problematic.

Much of what StreetCred is doing wouldn’t be possible without the work of the open mapping community generally, and Mapzen specifically.

Better Foundations

StreetCred is young, but as we plan our open protocol we think a lot about what should be a company asset and what might be better off in a foundation. We know that the concepts of copyright and licensing will factor in heavily, especially in an area like points of interest, where lack of clarity around copyright or licensing can damage commercial value.

Our involvement with the Linux Foundation over the past few months has been useful and educational, and we look forward to continue the work of Mapzen and maybe even contribute some relevant new work from StreetCred (software and data) in the future.