Why you should stop pirating Google’s geo APIs


Picture by Scott Vandehey

This morning I ran across a wonderful open source project called “Crime doesn’t climb“, analyzing how crime rates vary with altitude in San Francisco. Then I reached this line, and honestly couldn’t decide whether to cry or scream: “Here’s the code snippet that queries the Google Elevation API (careful–Google rate limits aggressively)

Google is very clear about the accepted usage of all their geo APIs, here’s the quote that’s repeated in almost every page: “The Elevation API may only be used in conjunction with displaying results on a Google map; using elevation data without displaying a map for which elevation data was requested is prohibited.

The crime project isn’t an exception, it’s common to see geocoding and other closed APIs being used in all sorts of unauthorized ways . Even tutorials openly recommend going this route.

So what? Everyone ignores the terms, and Google doesn’t seem to enforce them energetically. People have projects to build, and the APIs are conveniently to hand, even if they’re technically breaking the terms of service. Here’s why I care, and why I think you should too:

Google’s sucking up all the oxygen

Because everyone’s using closed-source APIs from Google, there’s very little incentive to improve the open-source alternatives. Microsoft loved it when people in China pirated Windows, because that removed a lot of potential users for free alternatives, and so hobbled their development, and something very similar is happening in the geo world. Open geocoding alternatives would be a lot further along if crowds of frustrated geeks were diving in to improve them, rather than ignoring them.

You’re giving them a throat to choke

Do you remember when the Twitter API was a wonderful open platform to build your business on? Do you remember how well that worked out? If you’re relying on Google’s geo APIs as a core part of your projects you already have a tricky dependency to manage even if it’s all kosher. If you’re not using them according to the terms of service, you’re completely at their mercy if it becomes successful. Sometimes the trade-off is going to be worth it, but you should at least be aware of the alternatives when you make that choice.

A lot of doors are closed

Google is good about rate-limiting its API usage, so you won’t be able to run bulk data analysis. You also can only access the data in a handful of ways. For example, for the crime project they were forced to run point sampling across the city to estimate the proportion of the city that was at each elevation, when having full access to the data would have allowed them to calculate that much more directly and precisely. By starting with a closed API, you’re drastically limiting the answers you’ll be able to pull from the data.

You’re missing out on all the fun

I’m not RMS, I love open-source for very pragmatic reasons. One of the biggest is that I hate hitting black boxes when I’m debugging! When I was first using Yahoo’s old Placemaker API, I was driven crazy by its habit of marking an references to “The New York Times” as being in New York. I ended up having to patch around this habit for all sorts of nouns, doing a massive amount of work when I knew that it would be far simpler to tweak the original algorithm for my use case. When I run across bugs or features I’d like to add to open-source software, I can dive in, make the changes, and anyone else who has the same problem also benefits. It’s not only more efficient, it’s a lot more satisfying too.

So, what can you do?

There’s a reason Google’s geo APIs are dominant – they’re well-documented, have broad coverage, and are easy to access. There’s nothing in the open world that matches them overall. There are good solutions out there though, so all I’d ask is that you look into what’s available before you default to closed data.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is, by pulling together the Data Science Toolkit as an open VM that wraps a lot of the geo community’s greatest open-source projects in a friendly and familiar interface, even emulating Google’s geocoder URL structure. Instead of using Google’s elevation API, the crime project could have used NASA’s SRTM elevation data through the coordinates2statistics JSON endpoint, or even logged in to the PostGIS database that drives it to run bulk calculations.

There are a lot of other alternatives too. I have high hopes for Nominatim, OpenStreetMap’s geocoding service, though a lot of my applications require a more ‘permissive’ interface that accepts messier input. PostGIS now comes with a geocoder for US Census ‘Tiger’ data pre-installed too. Geonames has a great set of data on places all around the world you can explore.

If you don’t see what you want, figure out if there are any similar projects you might be able to extend with a little effort, or that you can persuade the maintainers to work on for you. If you need neighborhood boundaries, why not take a look at building them in Zetashapes and contributing them back? If Nominatim doesn’t work well for your country’s postal addresses, dig into improving their parser. I know only a tiny percentage of people will have the time, skills, or inclination to get involved, but just by hearing about the projects, you’ve increased the odds you’ll end up helping.

I want to live in a world where basic facts about the places we live and work are freely available, so it’s a lot easier to build amazing projects like the crime analysis that triggered this rant. Please, at least find out a little bit about the open alternatives before you use Google’s geo APIs, you might be pleasantly surprised at what’s out there!

Five short links


Photo by Igor Schwarzmann

A guide for the lonely bioinformatician – I run across a lot of data scientists who are isolated in their teams, which is a recipe for failure. This guide has some great practical steps you can take to connect to other people both inside and outside your organization.

A guide for the young academic politician – From 1908, but still painfully funny, and even more painfully true. “You will begin, I suppose, by thinking that people who disagree with you and oppress you must be dishonest. Cynicism is the besetting and venial fault of declining youth, and disillusionment its last illusion. It is quite a mistake to suppose that real dishonesty is at all common. The number of rogues is about equal to the number of men who act honestly; and it is very small. The great majority would sooner behave honestly than not. The reason why they do not give way to this natural preference of humanity is that they are afraid that others will not; and the others do not because they are afraid that they will not. Thus it comes about that, while behavior which looks dishonest is fairly common, sincere dishonesty is about as rare as the courage to evoke good faith in your neighbors by showing that you trust them.”

The most mysterious radio transmission in the world – A Russian radio station that’s been transmitting a constant tone, interrupting every few months by mysterious letters, since the 1970’s.

The surprising subtleties of zeroing a register – x86 CPUs recognize common instructions that programmers use to zero registers,  such as XOR or SUB-ing from yourself, and replace them on the fly with no-cost references to hidden constant zero register. A good reminder that even when you think you’re programming the bare metal, you’re still on top of ever-increasing layers of indirection.

Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? – Evidence-based analysis of why “we tend to equate leadership with the very psychological features that make the average man a more inept leader than the average woman”.