Aug. 28, 2012 at 5:57 PM ET
Craigslist has just started integrating maps into some of its listings, but instead of going with Google or Microsoft, the site went with the crowdsourced OpenStreetMap. The changes are live right now if you're in Portland, Oregon or the San Francisco Bay Area.
Craigslist is famous for never updating its look and feel, meaning things are quick and clean if a bit stark. But with apartment listings especially, mapping the location is such a standard action that people looking for a new place would be opening dozens of browser tabs for Google Maps.
In fact, the process of looking at Craigslist ads by location became both so popular and so difficult that a site called PadMapper started up as a way to let people do it more easily. Craigslist actually asked them to stop in June, but clearly they also took the point that maps are now critical information for apartment searches.
But using something like Google Maps institutionally (as opposed to individually) would come with significant cost — so Craigslist decided to use OpenStreetMap, a system that, like Wikipedia, is created from publicly available information and the contributions of users.
The good news is that it's free. The bad news is that unlike Google and Microsoft, OpenStreetMap doesn't have millions of dollars to spend on mapping small towns and rural areas, or for checking the accuracy of existing maps. Their community is constantly revising and adding to the database, but their information simply isn't as complete as the bigger, more well-funded services.
That doesn't mean it isn't a perfectly good map of much of the world — but it doesn't have bells and whistles like driving directions or Street View. It's certainly good enough for Craigslist's purposes, but for now the company is only rolling it out to Portland and the Bay Area, since those areas are well-mapped and have plenty of housing listings with which to test the service.
There's no indication of when the integrated maps will come to other areas (or perhaps be rolled out universally), but if they're well-received it seems likely they'll soon be activated for any areas Craigslist feels are represented accurately by the maps. If you're in a big, tech-savvy city like New York or Los Angeles, that will likely be soon, but for smaller towns, it could be a while. In the meantime, you can test it out by browsing housing in either of the areas currently covered.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.