The geocaching.com walled garden

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Geocaching is a worldwide outdoor treasure hunt game in which you have to locate and find hidden tokens by using a GPS receiver. Not only is this game a good way of discovering new places, it may also contain real brain teasers if you have to solve puzzles to find the right coordinates. I have been enjoying this activity since nearly 8 months now, and have already discovered more than 100 geocaches in 11 different countries.

Unfortunately, the biggest geocaches database is located on the geocaching.com web site. This site does not offer any API letting you access your own data, let alone information on geocaches. If you happen to be a paying member (as I do), you can generate what they call pocket queries: those are database runs, triggered manually or at scheduled times, listing basic geocaches information for a limited area or around a given path. Those pocket queries must then be transferred to your GPS device or your smartphone. When you want to log the fact that you have discovered a cache and let a comment to the geocache owner, you have to once again log onto the web site and do it manually. The terms of use prohibit you from using any robot to automate those tasks.

A SOAP API exists, but its access is reserved to trusted partners (read: paying partners who themselves charge a recurring fee to their users). An official Android application has been developped by Groundspeak, the owner of geocaching.com, but it is priced much higher than typical Android applications and has much less features than c:geo, a wonderful rogue application which scrapes the geocaching.com web pages on your behalf. Also, since it parses HTML page in order to extract the needed information, c:geo needs to be updated each time the web page presentation gets changed.

This excellent post from Scot Hacker’s Foobar Blog hits the nail on the head, and what was written in 2008 is still valid in 2011:

This blew my mind. The culture of the site is so web 1.0 that a basic question about interoperability was met with distrust. Not only is geocaching.com lacking the technology it needs to enter the web 2.0 world, it’s lacking the culture needed to support it. In 2008, interoperability between sites needs to be encouraged, not discouraged. Sad that geocaching.com’s traditional closed-ness has created this kind of culture.

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The irony is that geocaching.com relies so heavily on the open APIs provided by Google and other mapping services, but provides no open-ness back to the web in return. Imagine using geocaching.com without the map mashups integration – it would be nearly impossible. One would think that the folks at geocaching.com would see their own mashups as an example of the great ideas that bloom when datasets and APIs are open and shared.

But the world of geocaching may be changing soon: Garmin, the well-known GPS receiver maker, recently announced the launch of opencaching.com. I hope that many geocachers will register their caches and their finds on this site, and that many applications will take advantage of their publicly usable API. On Android, Cache Me seems to be the first application using opencaching.com data. I hope that c:geo will soon be able to use those liberated bits as well.

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