Opinion: No one owns public space, and no one should own how to navigate it
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Rob Lowe, who played Sam Seaborn in the "West Wing," testifying in the House of Representatives. Photo credit: YouTube / Creative Commons / Plugging into Energy Independence with 150 MPG Vehicles (Part 1 of 2)

Rob Lowe, who played Sam Seaborn in the "West Wing," testifying in the House of Representatives. Photo credit: YouTube / Creative Commons / Plugging into Energy Independence with 150 MPG Vehicles (Part 1 of 2)

What The West Wing can teach us about data privacy, among other things

“'[In the] ‘50s and ’60s, it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I’m talking about the Internet. I’m talking about cell phones.”

This almost Nostradamus-like prediction was said by the fictional character Sam Seaborn on an episode of The West Wing all the way back in 1999. Seaborn, or rather, series writer Aaron Sorkin speaking through him, didn’t know just how right he’d be. The past two decades have been about privacy; the next privacy battle, the battle of the 2020s, will be over data ownership.

You all saw it in the news: The Senate just allowed ISPs to sell all your browsing data without asking for your consent. How can we have truly private lives if all our data and everything around us becomes proprietary and owned by only a select few entities?

Our lives are rapidly becoming devoid of privacy, and thus, lacking freedom. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one specific use case: maps.

To most people, maps may not seem like an overtly interesting subject. We simply use them when we have to and then rarely think about them when we don’t need them. Programs like Google Earth and Street View, while letting you visit faraway places from your desk, can get pretty old quickly, and in general, we tend to stick to our basic navigations apps to figure out how to avoid traffic jams or determine which train we should catch.

Do you ever think about how these incredibly accurate maps come into existence? Cartography is a serious science, and it takes serious manpower to map at the level we, as users, require.

Well, let me tell you something. Almost every map you see on your phone comes from one of three sources: Google, TomTom, or HERE. Competition in this arena is not abundant, and this small group of companies and mega corporations holds all the cards.

Our map data is too important to sit in the hands of only a select few entities. Think about it: Just three companies know more or less where every navigating user is on the planet.

Why is this the battle of the future, you may ask? We’ve been using maps to navigate for so long, and nothing “bad” has happened so far. While you are correct, the 2020s will be the decade where maps become an even more central part of our very automated life.

Why should we care? In two words, self-driving vehicles

Self-driving cars and delivery drones will dominate the streets and the skies, and will all rely on advanced mapping services. This may affect you directly. What if Google only supplies its self-driving cars with the fastest route, while opponents using the same service will take longer to reach the same destination? The map cartel can also control online shopping prices and competition by charging delivery companies higher and higher rates for the use of their map services.

All of these are alarming outcomes. But when it comes to autonomous cars and drones flying over your head, this map data could directly affect your life and potentially cause you physical harm if their map data is misused or misreported by one of the big three navigation companies. That’s not even the worst of it; these companies can sell your location data to the highest bidder, making private information available to commercial companies wanting to track you at specific times.

So what can be done?

Just like the monarchies of old, the only way to topple them is through democracy. In tech, there is no better representation of democratization than open-sourcing. OSM (Openstreetmap) is an open-source, crowdsourced map service, which makes it both accurate, without commercial bias, and safe to use, as no one person or organization owns the data generated through it. There are apps already using OSM for your navigation needs, but they are few and far between.

The only way we as end users can make a difference is by using these apps instead of those powered by one of the map triad members. You should look for a “powered by OSM” seal on your navigation apps like you look for a “not tested on animals” bunny on the back of shampoo bottles. It is the gold standard all your apps must have.

The continuation of the opening Sam Seaborn quote is, “I’m talking about cell phones. I’m talking about health records and who’s gay and who’s not.” While quite prophetic, even Sorkin (or Seaborn if you will) could never imagine the amount of data our current technological world creates. If they had, they would’ve also talked about where people are, and where they’re going, and who’s navigating their cars. Data ownership is our next battle and the opening salvo of that battle has already been shot. We must fire back by taking power away from the centralized corporations that own most of the data. And maps are the first place to start.

The views expressed are of the author.

Geektime invites global tech and startup professionals to share their opinions and expertise with our readers. If you would like to share your point of view, please contact us at [email protected]

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Joao Pedro Leite

About Joao Pedro Leite


João Pedro Leite is the Chief Operating Officer of Karta GPS, a free navigation app pairing open-source map data alongside interesting curated content from Yelp and Foursquare

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