crowd-sourcing a building directory logoWhen I discovered the crowd-sourced building directory I was immediately intrigued, not least because of its ambitious strapline: “Archiving the world’s built environment.” I have been a long-time editor of Wikipedia and am interested in how social media can be used in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) field to share and develop information and knowledge.

Founded in London in 2010, OpenBuildings says it is:

“an intelligent, filterable building directory for professionals, architecture-lovers, tourists and students and allows users to quickly and easily discover, learn about, discuss and share architecture that interests them.”

Last month, the company secured a $2 million Series A funding round led by BlueRun Ventures and Index Ventures, and will be expanding its team in London and in Sofia, Bulgaria, and improving its existing technology.

To date, the site has apparently attracted 50,000 registered users and holds data on over 40,000 buildings around the world. A related iPhone app has been downloaded over 250,000 times (an Android app is promised soon), and the site is using social media extensively to spread word about its services – its Facebook page has almost 14,000 ‘likes’, and each building profile can also be liked, tweeted or shared on other social platforms.

To submit a building, a user must first register (free), after which it is possible to do local searches, add images and videos, engage in conversations with other members of the OpenBuildings community, and create favourite collections. In due course, architectural practices will be able to create profiles of their firms (a paid-for functionality “coming soon”). And if you “want to learn about, monitor and influence your built environment”, OpenBuildings will be adding some ‘local’ functionality too.

Achieving critical mass

This project shares some characteristics with wikis. In 2008, I wrote about the Royal Institute of British Architects and its RIBApedia research and education project, and pointed out that it faced powerful competition from Wikipedia – which already has a wealth of information about architecture, buildings and architects. I also doubted that RIBApedia would accumulate sufficient numbers of users to create the necessary “wisdom of crowds”.

OpenBuildings, however, appears to have already gathered a large number of building profiles and attracted a substantial user base. Its user interface is also more modern and user-friendly than Wikipedia’s, which may make it more attractive to both information browsers and those uploading information.

Reusing Wikipedia content

OpenBuildings article on Charlton HouseHowever, the similarities with Wikipedia do occasionally run deeper. For example, I did a local search in my area of south-east London and found an entry for Charlton House – the text of which is copied from the Wikipedia article (this source is attributed under ‘publications’, alongside a similar Freebase article), while the photograph used is also copied from Wikimedia Commons. I found similar entries for other nearby historic buildings (eg: Morden College, and the Church Army Chapel, Blackheath). Freebase makes it clear when it uses Wikipedia content, eg:

The original description for Charlton House was automatically generated from licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

But, so far as I could see, there is no similarly prominent acknowledgement of the sources of information and images on OpenBuildings, nor is any Creative Commons License prominently mentioned (usually, one must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor – as Freebase attributed Wikipedia). I had to delve into the small-print of the Terms of Use to find a relevant reference:

Certain Content is displayed on the Website pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Under this license, reuse and sharing of such Content is allowed, subject to the requirements under such license, which you can find at You may only use Content under such license that is clearly indicated to be governed by such license. Please contact us if you have any questions.

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  1. I’d forgotten about Open Buildings. They were pretty responsive when I complained about some of the usability on their site last year.

    It isn’t very clear how “open” they are though, is it? As you point out, projects like Wikipedia and Freebase are much more explicit in what licence the content is available under, and I think they benefit from more contributions from the “crowd” as a result.

    Have you seen the Built Works Registry? That seems to be a similar project.

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