I am a generally a fan of both the World Bank and of Google, but we should all be worried about their recent deal.

The intention is good: it is to promote crowd-sourcing of maps, to improve planning in disasters and to improve the planning, management and monitoring of public services.  This is an important goal, which is now being made possible by new technologies and the spread of the internet.  The deal is sufficiently important for World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey to write about it in the opinion pages of the New York Times:

Under the agreement, the bank and its development partners — developing country governments and U.N. agencies — will be able to access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.

This is all consistent with an admirable push in the World Bank towards ‘democratising development‘, including becoming more open about its own activities and promoting open data. Indeed, this effort has come to be a defining achievement of Robert Zoellick period as World Bank President.  As Sebastian Mallaby said in the FT the other day,

Where [the World Bank] once imposed prescriptions on the Third World, it now shares knowledge with respected clients from the new world. Where it once hoarded data, it now displays it on the web. … One decade ago, the Bank was routinely accused of indifference to the views of local people. Today Mr Zoellick talks of empowering the most humble netizen to provide feedback on projects.

So what is the problem with the deal?  The problem is the way the data is licensed: once any data goes in to Google Map Maker, it all becomes the property of Google. If governments and citizens choose to use the Google Map Maker platform to contribute their information, then the data will only be available through Google’s own mapping system, and the data will be available under conditions specified by Google. At least, that is what we believe: ironically, given that both the Bank and Google are trying to market themselves as leaders in transparency and openness, they have refused to publish their agreement. The Bank has said that they ‘want a blanket permission from Google to provide NGOs, humanitarian groups, and other non-commercial entities with the data whenever they need it’ – though we do not know if this has been written into the agreement (and if so in what terms) or is just wishful thinking. Even if this concession were secured, it would not be enough.  Open data offers opportunities for everyone – not just NGOs and governments but social enterprises and businesses too, and they should all be allowed to use the data which governments and citizens have contributed.

There is an alternative platform – Open Street Map – which proved its value in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. Data in Open Street Map is all available to everyone to use for any commercial or non-commercial purpose.  So if the data were contributed to Open Street Map, it could be used by Google Map Maker, but not the other way round.

The World Bank defends itself by pointing out that the deal is non-exclusive – that is, everyone is free to give data to anyone else as well as to Google Map Maker.  But that misses the point. Citizens will in practice contribute to one platform. If an organisation as prominent and powerful as the World Bank encourages governments and citizens, and UN organisations, to use Google Map Maker, then that becomes a de facto global standard.

I have no problem with Google, or any other company, making commercial use of this data. I have no ideological objection to the profit motive. On the contrary: having businesses looking for ways to make the best use of the data is a great way to generate innovation and improvements. We want businesses to try to make money by competing to serve the customer better – by providing better tools and services to access and use data. But we don’t want businesses to try to make money by restricting access to the information, which is a public good in every sense of the word, because this reduces, rather than improves, services for the public. By entering into this partnership on these terms, the World Bank is backing closed instead of open; monopoly instead of competition; corporate fat cats instead of upstarts.

I do not think that Google is evil (not yet, anyway). I admire what Google has done to make mapping available more widely, and to promote crowdsourcing of maps. While I was living in Ethiopia, they put online some of the best available maps of many of Ethiopia’s towns and cities, drawing in large part on citizen cartographers.  But the fact that I am broadly sympathetic to Google does not mean that they should have sole control of this data.

The World Bank is trying to do the right thing.  Their approach to opening up their own data has been exemplary.  Caroline Anstey’s article in the New York Times makes a powerful and persuasive case for open data. But the article makes a stronger case for working with Open Street Map, whose work in Haiti she specifically praises, than it does for a partnership with Google.

The World Bank has been listening to the concerns that have been raised, and it sounds as if they have realised that they have made a blunder. They have recently met with key groups in Washington and, according to Nathaniel Heller from Global Integrity, they are going to take ‘concrete steps’ to address these concerns. We don’t know what these are going to be, but it seems to me that there are only two possible satisfactory resolutions. The first possible solution is for Google irrevocably to change the terms of the license for all the data in Google Map Maker to allow commercial and non-commercial use.  I think that is unlikely (which should tell us something about Google’s assessment of the possibility that they may want to do something in future with their control over the data).  If Google will not do that, then the second solution is for the World Bank to terminate the agreement and instead encourage citizens and governments to contribute to Open Street Map,  or some other genuinely open system. Google Map Maker can then use that data if they wish, like everyone else. Anything but these alternatives is likely to be an unsatisfactory fudge.  Furthermore, the full terms of the agreement must be published.

The UK Government is increasingly a world leader in promoting open, reusable data, transparency and accountability. As a major shareholder in the Bank, and one of the largest contributors of funds for the World Bank’s concessional lending, I hope the UK Government will put pressure on the World Bank to accept that this agreement does not satisfy their aspirations for open data, and instead to promote genuinely open sharing of mapping information which, as both Google and the World Bank rightly say, could make a significant contribution to humanitarian relief and to development.

Further reading:



Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


Bill Savedoff · February 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Excellent post, Owen. I hope they listen. .

Terry Stigers · February 27, 2012 at 3:29 pm

“once any data goes in to Google Map Maker, it all becomes the property of Google.”

The link you used to back up this statement is actually referring to Map Maker source data.  You Might want to take a look at what their TOS has to say about user submitted content:


Owen replies: Thank Terry. You are right that these are the terms of service for user-contributed content. And it is very clear that these terms envisage that all user-contributed information has to be accessed through the Google Map Maker system. For example, the TOS to which you link say this:

you may not use the Map Maker in a manner which gives you or any other person access to mass downloads or bulk feeds of numerical latitude and longitude coordinates.

User-contributed content is subject to the Google Terms of Service. They only way to avoid that is to put it somewhere else.

Susan Stout · February 27, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Fascinating and constructive post, great to see these initiatives getting underway, and very much appreciate the transparency you bring to the discussion  —

Bill Savedoff · February 27, 2012 at 8:21 pm

On Terry Stigers post: 
This shows all the more why the agreement between the WB and Google has to be public. Google can change its terms of service at any time. The benefit of a WB/Google agreement would be a contractually binding statement that Google cannot change the terms of service to exclude anyone from accessing the externally provided data at some later date. … but is it possible to make such a contractual statement really binding on the future? I suspect not.

Owen: Could you explain your response better? I don’t understand the significance of the quotation – does that prohibit an alternative site from doing massive data analysis of the uploaded information?

Owen replies: I’m sorry I was being cryptic Bill. The point is that an alternative service can not pull off the user-generated content (for example: location of water points) to put it into their offering (for example: a phone app) because the terms of service do not permit bulk downloading the data. If users put their data into Google Map Maker, other services cannot then get that data out of Google Map Maker to put it into something else.


Randi Ryterman, World Bank · February 28, 2012 at 1:50 am

Not Evil 🙂

Owen, thank you for your comments. As you know the World Bank is deeply committed to openness, and our intention is to increase accessibility by governments and their citizens to data that can transform lives.  Unfortunately, in this process there has been some confusion around the World Bank’s agreement with Google.  Let me clarify a few issues. 

The goal and scope of our agreement with Google is to facilitate faster access of Google Map Maker data to UN agencies and governments for humanitarian, development and disaster preparedness efforts.  These data can be a powerful resource for governments and their citizens.  For example, in the past several weeks, we have requested and quickly obtained access to Google data to prepare for two potential disasters – a cyclone in Madagascar and floods from melting snows in Tajikistan.  In times of emergency, rapid access to data such as these can actually help save lives.

Your blog is particularly concerned about a different aspect of mapping—mapping data supplied by citizens.  To clarify, the agreement does not encompass joint data creation through the Google Map Maker platform – crowdsourcing data is not part of the agreement.  However, we very much believe that having citizens map water points, health facilities and schools can be instrumental in improving access to and accountability in the delivery of public services, especially for poor communities.  In this endeavor, the World Bank has worked and will continue to work with multiple partners including Open Street Map (for example in Haiti, Indonesia, and Tanzania).

We believe citizen mapping can be a force for good. We recognize that for geospatial data, access, reach, and use are important and realize that achieving these goals may require flexible approaches and the use of multiple platforms, including for commercial and for non-commercial purposes.  You point out that the World Bank’s “approach to opening up their own data has been exemplary”. Indeed, we continue to strongly believe in open data, and as we said earlier, wherever the World Bank collects mapping data directly from citizens, it will be open. 

Nathaniel Heller · February 28, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Great post Owen, thanks for picking this up.

Tidbit: to test the issue of how easy (or not) it is for non-profits to access Map Maker data, I submitted a formal request to Google through the standard channels to access Map Maker content two weeks ago. After getting a reply back a few days later asking for details of how we’d use it, I’ve yet to hear from them again.

This points out another troubling aspect of the Bank (or anyone else) tacitly or otherwise encouraging folks to use a service like Map Maker that puts a commercial provider in the driver’s seat with respect to data release: what if they are busy/lazy/uninterested/unorganized? How many days we will really have in a crisis situation before it’s too late? What is the Google folks are on vacation during the next Haiti? Those are serious questions.

    Owen Barder · February 29, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    The comments from Terry and Randi both helpfully clarify a distinction which was perhaps not clear enough in my original post:

    a. the licensing of Google’s source data for Google Map Maker; which is separate from …

    b. the licensing of data which has been contributed by the community and which is now held by Google.

    Ideally, I would like all this data to be a public good. But I understand why Google would not want to make available to commercial competitors the data which it has collected at considerable expense (though perhaps we should consider how we might encourage them to do so for less valuable markets such as developing countries, if necessary by providing a subsidy for the provision of this global public good).

    What I think is clear is that user-contributed data ought not to be locked up in Google Map Maker, and it should be available for both commercial and non-commercial use.

    The World Bank has in supported mapping initiatives using Open Street Map in Tanzania and Haiti, from which all the data are openly available. But in June last year the World Bank and Google collaborated on a community mapping project in South Sudan which collected knowledge from the community and put it into the Google Map Maker system, as a result of which that information available only under the Google Map Maker terms of service for user contributed information. I understand from friends at the Bank they recognize that this is a problem; though they also do not want the best to be the enemy of the good, so they need to think about the reach and scale of different platforms. I suspect that the Bank now sees that it was probably not a good idea to support a ‘mapathon’ for South Sudan using Mapmaker, given the restricted terms of use for the data that it collected. The World Bank has a commendable approach to open data generally, and it seems that they are coming to terms with the idea that they should adopt the same attitude to geo-spatial data as to other kinds of information. If the World Bank wants to be a consistent advocate of open data, this would mean that they would not support future crowd-sourcing initiatives based on Google Map Maker, unless Google Map Maker changes its terms of service for access to user-contributed data.

    That’s what troubles many people in the open data community about the arrangement between Google and the World Bank. The partnership, and the surrounding publicity, appears to be an endorsement of Google Map Maker, although the World Bank insists they will continue to work with other platforms. The community fears that the World Bank will be supporting efforts by Google to collect geospatial information from the public which is then not available for everyone to use, strengthening Google’s market position and making it difficult for other platforms to compete in these markets. If the public’s information is going to be held by big companies for them to do with as they see fit, then this risks triggering a virtual Scramble for Africa. Let companies compete on the basis of the services they provide, not on the amount of information they manage to appropriate.

    I hope that Google and the World Bank will now publish their agreement in full; and that the agreement will make clear (or they will separately) that all data contributed by the community will be openly available for both commercial and non-commercial use. More generally, the World Bank should now firmly conclude, and make it clear, that their progressive approach to open data means that they will not finance, encourage or support any initiative to gather crowd-sourced information unless that data will be openly available to everyone for commercial and non-commercial use.

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