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 wrong turn.

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 United States!

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 I 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:

Screenshot of the Organic Maps app showing an 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:

Screenshot of the OpenStreetMap web app showing 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.

Returning Home

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 a 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.