Worries about Google’s Deal with the World Bank

20 January 2012

By Nathaniel Heller

Heller is Managing Director of Global Integrity. His article appeared on a Global Integrity blog.

Yesterday we tweeted that we were hearing concerns about the recently signed deal between Google and the World Bank that will allow the Bank to provide Google’s Map Maker platform to governments and multilaterals around the world. We’ve dug around a little more and our concerns haven’t dissipated: this is a big deal and could negatively influence the future of open data in many countries.

Some context: the deal announced yesterday allows the Bank to, “act as a conduit to make Google Map Maker source data more widely and easily available to government organizations in the event of major disasters, and also for improved planning, management, and monitoring of public services provision.” The basic idea is that the crowd sourcing of maps (“Hey, there’s a clinic over here!”) is a good thing in disaster situations and that the Bank, which has unique access to governments, could encourage governments to make better use of citizen-sourced map information to respond to emergencies. We’re all for that.

Where it gets worrying is in the details. Information submitted by the public through Google Map Maker (“Hey, there’s a clinic over here!”) is not available for easy reuse by the public. It’s locked up by Google’s Terms of Service (TOS). To quote from the Google Map Maker Source Data License Agreement

10.1 You must not access the Map Maker Source Data through any technology or means other than those designated by Google.

Can the Bank use open source tools to work with the data? How about governments? The public? Do you have to ask Google? 

10.2 You must not copy, translate, modify, create a derivative work of, or publicly display any Map Maker Source Data or any part thereof for any commercial or for-profit purpose.

What about small businesses? Isn’t the World Bank supposed to encourage economic development in low-income economies? And here we thought SMEs were all the rage.

10.5 (a) You must not use the Map Maker Source Data to create a service that is similar to a service already provided by Google through its products or API.

None of us can take the clinic’s location and plug it into OpenStreetMap or alternative mapping platforms. Boo.

I’m not a lawyer, but Google’s deal is basically, “Give us your data, we’ll do with it what we want, and don’t you dare try to do anything else with that data.” I’m simplifying, but not too much.

As Jon Mitchell pointed out on ReadWriteWeb yesterday, “Access to Google Map Maker data is privileged, and Google has chosen the mother of all elite gatekeepers, the World Bank, to facilitate this program.”  Blogger Adena Schutzberg over at Directions Magazine had a nice analysis of the trade-offs (and amusingly takes issue with Mitchell’s reporting). Both pieces are worth reading.

But the simple and troubling question is: why would the World Bank choose to go with a closed data solution like Map Maker over something more open like OpenStreetMap? For all of the Bank’s rhetoric and activity in the past few years around open data efforts, yesterday’s announcement strikes us as a distinctly backwards step away from open data and towards proprietary services that lock up data rather than liberate it. We really don’t get it.

Perhaps no one inside of the Bank read the Map Maker TOS (unlikely), and maybe this is all being revisited given some of the early reactions (we’ve heard as much). But if the Bank fails to amend the deal with Google, and to publicly release the MOU it signed with Google, it could set a dangerous precedent and undermine the broader open data movement, particularly in emerging and developing economies. The Bank is investing major time and energy into projects like the Kenya Open Data portal, and if I were a betting man I’d expect a slew of new open data portals to come online in the next 24 months courtesy of the Bank’s financing and technical assistance. Will those new portals really encourage an open data approach to government? Or will the Bank instead signal to governments that it’s ok to compromise on open data principles in order to work with big, famous companies like Google? Judging from yesterday’s announcement, there’s reason to worry.

[Disclosures: Global Integrity has received financial support from the World Bank for many years, and we have worked with Google on the Open Government Partnership.]

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Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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