Linux Foundation Revives Mapzen, an Alternative to Giants

The company shut down last year, but its user base remained. Now, the Linux Foundation is taking on the project so it can continue to provide an open source alternative to platforms that lock users in.

by / February 12, 2019

Mapzen, an open source mapping platform praised in civic tech circles and used in certain local government projects, is back.

More accurately, it never really left. The project officially shut down a year ago, but since it was open-source, people kept using it.

Now, the Linux Foundation — a vanguard of open-sourcing — is taking on Mapzen as a project, giving current and prospective Mapzen users more clarity about who owns the intellectual property and how they can use it.

“We’re excited about it because it’s a permanent sustainable home for the [intellectual property] and copyrighted software,” said Randy Meech, Mapzen’s former CEO.

Mapzen has always been, at its core, an effort to break up the work of mapping into chunks to make projects more flexible, more nimble — and perhaps, cheaper. If one needed to turn addresses into coordinates, a process called geocoding, they could use the Mapzen tool Pelias without needing to sign up for everything else. For routing, they could turn to Valhalla. For local transit data, Transitland.

“What you get a lot of times when you go to a proprietary mapping company is [you] get locked in, like you have to use their geocoder if you want to use [another service],” Meech said.

A lot of the people who used to work for Mapzen have since gone on to different companies, often landing in new jobs alongside people they worked with at Mapzen, and some of them using it in their new work. One such case is Drew Dara-Abrams, who started a company called Interline with other Mapzen alumni.

Interline works as a transportation consultant and leans on the very Mapzen tools its founders helped build. Recently the company was chosen to work with the San Francisco Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission through the Startup in Residence program to help smooth out the process of 30-plus transit agencies in the region share data about things like bus and train scheduling.

“The status quo is a developer could download 30-something different files and run their own software to find these to connect stops … and make sure there isn’t any awkward overlap or mismatch,” Dara-Abrams said. “We’ll be handling that in this new system automatically, and so developers will only have to access one feed — a simpler experience, higher-quality data and some of these new features like improved transfers and fare data.”

That should help decision-makers, new mobility providers such as electric scooter-sharing companies and other stakeholders get a better picture of the transit system, including where it’s failing to serve people effectively.

Mike Dolan, vice president of strategic programs with the Linux Foundation, said a key part to the organization’s decision to pick up Mapzen was the number of people it served — upward of 70,000.

The number didn’t fluctuate much when the company shut down.

“A lot of organizations were interested in keeping this alive, otherwise it would have been easy for it to just die on the vine,” Dolan said.

Meech, who has started his own company called StreetCred since Mapzen shut down, thinks the foundation’s adoption of the project furthers a competitive atmosphere in the mapping arena — one that ultimately gives users more freedom.

“It doesn’t do anyone good to make it super restricted or expensive … you can compete on product and be more collaborative on the [source code],” he said.

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.