Use OpenStreetMap maps

Me too, in the field I use topographic maps(on a tablet, not real paper anymore), with some imagery, but on iNat its satellite imagery, 98% of the time for me, especially as many of my observations are in ‘nowhere land’ (large patches of green), on google street maps.
I don’t use google ‘terrain’.

I would use OSM, if it where an option, but not on a regular basis.

Different story if I was in China, though.


As someone who has spent a lot of time both personally and professionally looking at GIS and web-hosting options, I think in general the use of Google Maps is better for some reasons I’ll lay out below, but that it cannot hurt to show a simple leaflet OSM map for users with a Chinese IP address.
but in general

Pros of Google Maps

  • Satellite imagery. I think this is a must, especially for locating in detail the location of a sighting that may not have GPS data attached to it. If I’m marking the location of a sighting in any detail at all (and imo what sets iNat apart from other citizen science project is the spatial resolution of its data), satellite imagery is key.
  • More consistent mapping. There are some areas of the planet where OSM is notably better, some areas where it is notably worse, but Google has by and large managed to maintain a map that has acceptable detail globally. OSM is improving every day but it still has large gaps in its coverage in many countries.
  • Localisation. One of the big problem with using OSM’s standard map for iNaturalist is that its map labels are in the local language. This is great if you’re from areas that speak a language other than english, but for people browsing a map who can’t read Thai, the labels aren’t very helpful in Thailand - which is especially relevant considering the number of people who upload travel observations.
  • Inclusion of a geocoding API. This allows users to search for locations in picking an observation’s location, and to get text names for the coordinates they have included. Google’s geocoding and reverse geocoding is far more robust than any popular alternatives. OSM’s is very rigid requiring a direct match to its database, whereas Google will return results for a much larger variety of inputs. Any third-party geocoding API will also be expensive for the number of requests I expect it gets per day.

Cons of Google Maps:

  • It’s expensive. It’s damn expensive. Most users of Google Maps have moved away since they hiked their API rates a few years ago. If iNaturalist gets access for free though that negates this con (and in a way seems like a bad deal to not take up the offer of free access).
  • Blocked in China. Here there’s no wriggle room, and because of some pretty bonkers laws, even if a user in China has access to a VPN to use Google Maps, the road overlays are offset by a random but significant distance. It’s a bit weird to me that OSM doesn’t adhere to this law, but isn’t blocked, while Google does and is blocked. But that’s just how it is.

Pros of Open Street Map:

  • In many areas OSM is more detailed, especially in the mapping of footpaths and bush tracks and similar places often used by nature enthusiasts.
  • It allows users to add in data and improve the quality of their local maps.
  • Open source, completely free.
  • Easy Leaflet integration for adding other new features, compared to being restrained by the Google embedded maps structure (for example this feature request would be far easier to incorporate in a leaflet infrastructure than a google one
  • A larger variety of layer styles available.

Cons of OSM:

  • No localisation options, you’re either stuck with the local script always being used or never being used.

Third party platforms

  • Nope. Don’t. They will cost so much without much additional benefit. Mapbox gets very expensive very fast for tile mapping services. Unless you rebuild a vector-based mapping platform Mapbox will be prohibitively expensive. Same with MapTiler. Any platform that provides satellite imagery will also cost a lot for the scale that iNaturalist needs.

Overall, I think Google is the easiest, best, most consistent and cheapest (since it’s free) option available. There would be no harm in allowing users to switch to an OSM-style leaflet map, but that would require a rebuilding of the mapping code to make it leaflet based and not Google based, and this probably isn’t worth it for the slight increase in map data that OSM provides in some regions. However it may be worth it to allow users in China to map without it being blocked, and in that case it might be quite easy to allow that option for users globally.

Hope this is a helpful overview for some people!

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There’re more cons of Google, e.g. it shows so many places with wrong names, I was really surprised how wrong it is in that, the best map here is Yandex non-satellite which shows both correct names and all the roads/paths as they are and not how Google does it – randomly.

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Since GoogleMaps provides free service to iNaturalist, I wouldn’t mind keeping it.
Having OSM as an additional layer to choose from would be nice though.

Getting OSM tiles in the Google Maps API V3 seems to be possible.

The part that would need some work would be integrating it so it’s just an additional layer and doesn’t completely replace the Google Maps Layers