Replacing Google Maps with Marble

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 24, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Several years ago, Google Maps was ranked as the most popular app on smart devices, installed on over half of all devices. The convenience is obvious, but few stop to investigate privacy concerns. For that reason, for the last ten months, I have used Marble, KDE's geographical application, instead. So far, it is a completely satisfactory substitute.

My switch was not paranoia about online applications. However, when I have a choice between sharing your activities with a corporation and keeping them private, I opt for privacy. That is simply a basic privacy precaution.

Admittedly, Google's privacy policy states several times that the company will use your information only with your consent, but, since the information is unencrypted, you basically have to trust without any means of verification, that Google will act as promised, or accidentally give unauthorized people access to it.

Moreover, if you read Google's privacy policy -- something few people actually do, I suspect -- you will notice that among the information collected is your web address, which means that you have no anonymity whatsoever. Despite the claims that your information will not be used without your consent, the policy states that your information might be used by Google's domain administrators, processed by third parties, given to legal authorities, and shared with advertisers. In other words, your information can be shared by so many people that your privacy is, by any reasonably standard, essentially non-existent.

To make matters worse, the policy also states that your information may be combined with information from other Google services to tailor the ads you see and the information you are given. To me, the ads are irrelevant since I am mentally blind to them, but based on my experiences with Google's search engine, tailoring information for me means only that it is less impartial and therefore less useful.

If no alternative existed, I would probably grit my teeth and succumb to the convenience of Google Maps, muttering all the while. However, an alternative does exist in Marble, so I prefer to use it instead.

Marble features
If you use GNOME technology, the chances are you have never even heard of Marble. Even if you use KDE, you may not know anything about Marble, because it is not included in many default installs.

Under these circumstances, Marble may surprise you. It lacks several Google features, including a Timeline, Google Earth, and the ability to contribute a notation to a map, but it also has features that are not found in Google. Mostly for show, it has a view of the world at night. It includes one historical map, and could easily include more. Another view shows political borders with a detailed legend indicating the size of cities. Still others show precipitation and temperature in December and July and topographical features. Most of these views are of a globe that you can angle and rotate with the mouse.

However, select OpenStreetMap, and you are into the part that most closely resembles Google Maps. OpenStreetMap is an independent project that produces a worled map through the efforts of volunteers. Features are included only after they are verified by direct observation (apparently, proprietary maps sometimes include false information so that plagiarists can be revealed).

Enough work has been done on OpenStreetMap that most parts of North America with which I have any familiarity compare favorably with Google Maps, zooming in on individual buildings, and, in many cases, naming the businesses there. The drawing is perhaps less polished than in Google Maps, but the information appears just as detailed and reliable. Locales, routes (including both the shortest and fastest routes by car, an important distinct that Google Maps lacks0, and latitudes and longitudes can all be found in the tests I have done. Marble appears just as detailed for the rest of the world, although I cannot vouch for its accuracy personally.

Switching to Marble
I started using Marble tentatively, comparing its results with Google Maps until I proved to myself it was reliable. For the past few months, I haven't bothered with the comparisons, because, in dozens of searches, I never found OpenStreetMap lacking.
Often, privacy and convenience are at war with each other, with most users choosing short term privacy. But in the case of Marble, the sole inconvenience is installing, and then spending a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the controls -- which are similar but not identical to those on Google Map.

OpenStreetMap is currently fundraising, and I sent the project £15 as soon as I heard. I figured that was little enough to pay for making my computing a bit more free.

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