Getting out & back again

OpenStreetMapOpenStreetMap (OSM) has become a proven alternative to GoogleMaps, BingMaps, iOS Maps , HERE Maps (just rebranded as HERE WeGo) and other proprietary navigation software. Still, GoogleMaps seems to be the most obvious for most people. You can easily look up any location around the globe, or plan your trip. But, of course, all of these ‘free services’ will silently add your search history and location, or any other data they can grab from your device, to the pile of data they already had collected on you, share it with notorious 3rd parties or sell it to anyone – but maybe you don’t care. Yet, if you do, could OSM really provide a good alternative? I would say ‘Yes’ – if you are happy to live with fewer features, and without StreetView.

OpenStreetMap is purely an open-source project. Their only ‘partners’ are those who technically enable their online service, database and search engine. It is completely community driven, the data are free to use for anyone, and users can add, remove or correct map data anytime. No strings attached, no clever tricks. But just having online maps around the globe plus a search engine do not suffice to plan your trip. You will need apps or services.

On PC or laptop

For PC or laptop the most useful services are probably OpenRouteService (ORS) and YOURS. They both work through a webinterface, in any browser. Both use the OSM maps as their basis, and both have further tools or software to enable others to install the routeplanner on their own websites or servers. ORS is basically a project of Heidelberg University. Neither service is collecting your data for any other purpose than helping you to find your route. Data will not be shared with others or sold and there are no ads to annoy you. ORS and YOURS are fully free to use, provided you follow their fair use policies.

YOURSYOURS has a simple, but fast interface. The maps are of OSM quality, which is much better than Google. Funny detail: it wil count your traveltime is seconds. You can export your route as GPX file and then import it on your mobile navigation app. The Help page should get you started. Those who want to install YOURS on their own webserver, should have a look at the Wiki.

OpenRouteServiceOpenRouteService’s interface looks a bit more sophisticated. Maps even show nicer than on YOURS. Finding a location works smoothly and more intuitive too. The route description is presented neatly and orderly. ORS also allows you to download the route as GPX file. And, of course, ORS has a decent Help page. Sometimes the server seems to be too busy, so your search may occasionally be hampered.

UPDATE: Of course OpenStreetMap has its own simple route planning tool. In the search box click on the right button (‘Find directions between two points’), then drag the green and red pointers to start and destination – et voilà! You can choose between GraphHopper, MapZen or OSRM as search engines. Do not forget to enable Javascript if you use an add-on like NoScript.

On mobiles

So far for studying OSM maps online and planning your route at home. But although you could take your laptop with you while travelling, you most likely will have a mobile device, such as a tablet or a smartphone. On mobiles you could still use ORS or YOURS through your webbrowser, but that requires a good internet connection (and a sufficient data bundle) and the interface would be cumbersome.

OsmAndThere are many mobile navigation apps for Android or iOS. Not surprisingly the latter will automatically try to tie you to iOS Maps… My favourite app is OsmAnd, available for Android and iOS. It uses OSM maps, and it can do so both online (if you don’t mind eating many data) or offline. In the second case you download OSM maps to your device while you are on your own Wifi at home, having a nice cup of tea, and while underway you only need your GPS, not your internet. OsmAnd has its own route planning engine, although I prefer to do that on my computer. OsmAnd’s free version will usually be good enough for regular use, but you’d better support the project by buying the full version for just a few Euros.

Once you have OsmAnd installed and maps downloaded, you can add the GPX file you saved on your PC or laptop. The app behaves decently on the part of permissions and once you have bought it in Google Play, you can (re-)install it on all devices linked to your Google account. Downloadable maps for Android can be found in many places. I like the Freizeitkarte website, which also has maps for Garmin GPS devices (about which I wrote earlier).

Concluding words

OpenTripPlannerOf course there is a lot more. For example the Dutch OpenTripPlanner project. Unfortunately, although its search and planning engines are still working, the necessary MapQuest tiles are no longer available since a couple of weeks ago. That makes the service rather useless for now.

Which brings us to MapQuest, one of the first online mapping services. It started all proprietary and closed, but after AOL, a company that does not have a totally clean slate regarding customer care or privacy, bought MapQuest in 2000, in 2010 they decided to shift to OSM maps. A sympathetic move, and users can now add data, but it just remains a commercial company that will collect, share and sell your data. Perhaps not as aggressive as others, but still. And it will serve you ads too. Thou hast been warned.

Well, using OSM and ORS at home, OsmAnd on my Android devices, and OSM maps on my Garmin, I am fully open-sourced for navigation. I do not miss features and I can perfectly well do without StreetView. Feels Nice, if not Good.