A couple weeks ago while perusing Hacker News, I came across an open-source maps app
called Organic Maps. Proudly billing itself as privacy-focused and
open-source, Organic Maps’ website claims that it is “one of a few applications
nowadays that supports 100% of features without an active internet connection.”
A World’s Worth Of Doubts
Map apps are complicated. They must handle tons and tons of road
data. That data has to be accurate – even the most complex interchanges must be
charted correctly. That data needs to be kept up-to-date with information about
closures and other conditions. The routing algorithm has to be effective enough
to get the user to their destination in a safe and timely manner. It also can’t
just sit there saying “recalculating” for minutes on end every time you make a
Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze have elevated the average person’s expectations for a maps app.
15 years ago, a little Garmin GPS mounted to your windshield would give
simple “turn left, turn right” commands using data loaded to an SD card. Today,
a maps app must know if there is traffic ahead, and re-route you accordingly.
It must know which lane(s) you need to use to make a turn. It must know if
there is a state trooper hiding around the corner with a radar gun. It must
know about speed cameras, stalled vehicles, and construction, and all of this
data must be received in real time… right?
Organic Maps Under Pressure
I had an emergency last week that requried me to drive more than 300 miles into
the rural Midwest with my fiancee. Having learned of this emergency mere minutes
after reading about Organic Maps, I decided to install the app and put it to
the test on this sudden road trip.
My first stop was downtown Chicago, where I would pick up my fiancee before
leaving the city. I didn’t need the app for this part of the drive, but I
figured it would make a good sanity check. Thankfully, Organic Maps gave me a
sane route that used the interstate and major streets competently.
I was pleased initially, but then I looked at its ETA: 4 minutes! To drive 5
miles! In Chicago! As it turns out, Organic Maps has no traffic data. I already
felt like I had made a mistake by even giving this thing a try. If it doesn’t
know about traffic, then surely
it will be worthless in one of the largest and most congested cities in the
I opened Google Maps to compare. Google happily presented me with
long stretches of red, indicating the heavy traffic that I knew was there. It
estimated that I would take 14 minutes to arrive downtown (it was right). Yet,
Google chose the same route as Organic Maps. Google’s traffic data offered me
a much more accurate arrival time, but Google Maps couldn’t actually get me to my
destination faster than Organic Maps.
As it turns out, this wasn’t a fluke. Google Maps and Waze altered our
expectations for a map app’s capabilities, without actually getting
us to our destinations faster. This study indicates that modern maps apps
haven’t magically gotten rid of traffic jams, though they have managed to clog up
local streets that didn’t see heavy traffic before. Other sources agree with
this conclusion, including this article from City Monitor that cites some
fascinating UK Department of Transport data. The Atlantic also has
a great writeup on the topic.
Even the most clever of traffic-aware apps can’t get you to your destination a
whole lot faster than a “dumb” app. Traffic is sort of like
energy: you can move it around, but you can’t get rid of it.
The First Drive
My impression of Organic Maps immediately improved when I started driving. It
talks! It knows exit numbers! It can tell you which lanes to use! Sure, it isn’t
as polished as Google Maps, but all of the functionality is present. The UI is
high-contrast and easy to read, although I wish the text showing exit
numbers/street names was a little bigger. When you’re simply on the road and
following directions, Organic Maps feels every bit as intuitive as Google Maps.
As my fiancee and I prepared to set off into the boonies, I plugged in the address of our
hotel. About 45 seconds later, Organic Maps returned the 300-mile route to
our destination. It can take a lot longer to calculate longer routes using your
phone’s processor instead of a huge cloud server. It didn’t really bother me
though; 45 seconds is nothing compared to the 6-hour trip ahead. If that’s the
cost of using a maps app that doesn’t spray your personal data all over the
internet, I’ll pay it.
Heading Into The Boonies
This drive is familiar to me. As a child, I saw these same roads drift by from
the backseat of a minivan. This was before smartphones and tablets
were in the hands of every child in the country, so I actually paid
attention to the road signs, the condition of each highway, and the
subtle changes in the natural environment. I know those long stretches of the
rural Midwest like a child knows their hometown, through a mental map as vivid
as it is inaccurate.
As we sliced through miles of picturesque nothingness, Organic Maps blended
seamlessly into the background. As interstates gave way to state numbered highways, Organic Maps’
charmingly robotic voice prompted me a couple thousand feet in advance of each
turn. As state numbered highways gave way to county roads, Organic Maps
avoided dirt roads that would look like shortcuts to the uninformed. When the
sun fell below the horizon, Organic Maps switched to a dark mode that prevented
my phone’s screen from blinding me as a drove.
Organic Maps was at its best on this long drive. After I stopped for gas in
a town with no cell service, I had no trouble getting my maps back. Organic
Maps doesn’t need an internet connection to route you to your destination. This
no-network-necessary approach means that you don’t have to fear losing your
route when cell service isn’t available. This feature alone is enough reason to
keep it installed on your phone, just in case you need it.
Putting a Town On The Map
Organic Maps performed exceptionally well while driving through rural America,
but once I arrived at my destination, it struggled. This
town isn’t small (technically it qualifies as a city!), and it’s well-known within
its state, yet there were dozens of businesses missing from the map. Many of the
missing businesses weren’t new either – at least a few
have been around for over a decade, yet somehow never made it into
Organic Maps’ database. I could only find my hotel by address; Organic Maps
knew the address, but didn’t know that there was a hotel there.
Organic Maps uses an open map database called OpenStreetMap. Although
OpenStreetMap has very accurate data about streets, addresses, and highways,
its knowledge of what’s actually located at any given address is spotty at best.
Thankfully, Organic Maps has a half-solution to this problem: contribute OpenStreetMap data
yourself! Organic Maps lets you contribute data to OpenStreetMap. Simply press
and hold where the business should be, tap “add a place to the map,” and fill
out the form. I ended up spending an hour of downtime adding information about
various restaurants, libraries, museums, and stores around town. It
would take far longer to add every business in the area, but it’s a good start.
I love being able to contribute to OpenStreetMap, and Organic Maps makes it easy
to do that.
Fumbling The ITR
If you need to come into downtown Chicago from the east, there are two ways you
can go. The expensive way is to take I-90 via the Indiana Toll Road (“ITR” for
short) and Chicago Skyway. The cheap way is to take I-94 south to the I-80/I-294
interchange. Both routes eventually put you on the Dan Ryan, a 14-lane
behemoth heading straight into the heart of the city. Just writing about the
ITR makes my skin crawl, and apparently it also makes Organic Maps upset.
Nearing the end of the drive home, as my impending merge onto the ITR loomed,
Organic Maps did something strange. It told me to take the wrong ramp, which
would have put me on the ITR heading west, then make a U-turn and head
east. I know this drive well enough to know it was asking me to do something
physically impossible. So, I did what I had been trying to avoid the entire
weekend: I disobeyed Organic Maps. I took the correct ramp, Organic Maps quickly
recalculated, and everything went back to normal.
I tried re-creating this problem a couple days later, and Organic Maps did it
again! Here is the incorrect route:
Notice the little kink in the route near the top-right corner of the image –
that’s a U-turn that doesn’t actually exist. Even more bizarre is that
the OpenStreetMap website gets the correct route:
This shook my confidence in Organic Maps, but after more than 1000 miles of
otherwise worry-free routing, this seemed to be a one-off bug. I created an
issue on GitHub and the developers responded swiftly. Unfortunately, it can
take a few weeks for an OpenStreetMap update to get pushed out, so now I
(and anyone else driving westbound into Chicago) must wait for the new, more
accurate map data.
Organic Maps has proven itself to be a competent alternative to Google Maps,
at least for my purposes. Its UI is simple and intuitive. Organic Maps gets me
to my destinations as quickly and safely as Google Maps, even though it doesn’t
have Google’s extensive traffic data. Organic Maps isn’t operated by megacorp
trying to make you buy things.
Organic Maps is certainly not for everyone. If you are constantly
running out of storage space on your phone, Organic Maps’ need to download
hundreds of megabytes of map data onto your phone will be a non-starter. On the
other hand, its offline map storage means that it doesn’t need an internet
connection to get you to your destination.
Incorrect or missing businesses are the biggest inconvenience of using Organic Maps.
I occasionally switch back to Google Maps when a business or address is missing.
In this regard, Organic Maps can only improve if people use it. If your destination
is missing, add it. If some information is out of date, update it. I would
strongly encourage anyone to try Organic Maps for a week or two. I gave it an
honest chance, and it made a lasting impression.