OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an open-source, citizen-driven digital mapmaking tool that is democratising the exclusive world of cartography. Using GPS devices, satellite photographs and their own local knowledge, citizen cartographers from around the world are using the open-source platform to build detailed maps from the ground up (Curran, Crumlish & Fisher 2013, p.540).
All of the geospatial data contributed to OSM is openly available for anyone to edit (Sehra, Singh & Rai 2014, p.266), creating a free alternative to Google’s multi-billion dollar mapping empire. While Google Maps monetises on its geographic data, selling its mapping services to third parties, OSM is a non-profit project that gives the data back to the community to reuse in other products and services (Sehra, Singh & Rai 2014, p.268).
OSM have not only influenced the practices of commercial companies, but have also had a major influence on the attitudes of governments towards the issue of cartographic data availability and accessibility (Curran, Crumlish & Fisher 2013, p.547). For example, the OSM project has effectively forced Ordnance Survey, the UK national mapping agency, to relinquish its tight licensing and copyright controls on its maps, making geodata freely available for the greater social good (Gerlach 2010, cited in Hall 2014, p.141).
Through the advantage of instant updates, OSM promises more accurate and up-to-date information than most commercially available maps. This is valuable during humanitarian crises and natural disasters, whereby volunteers use OSM to provide rescue workers with high quality maps of affected areas. For example, before Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, remote digital volunteers created a base map of previously unmapped places like the city of Tacloban. Local residents then added more specific details such as neighbourhoods, street names and evacuation centres. This coordinated mapping effort helped international and local NGOs plan risk reduction and disaster response activities that helped save lives.
OSM’s social impact also extends beyond crisis mapping to the democratisation of cartographic data to regular citizens. In the maps market, competition to become the “definitive source” of location is fierce. However, no one company should have a monopoly on place. Not only is place a shared human resource, but giving power to a single entity also gives them control to manipulate reality and, thereby, shape our understanding of the world (Pickles 2004, cited in Kitchin & Dodge 2007, p.3). This is evident in the way Google renders the territories of the China-India border dispute differently depending on who’s looking at them. Bill Rankin, a Yale University professor, refers to this as “radical cartography” – radical in the sense that “the way we draw the map actually changes the thing that we’re mapping.” This is problematic in cases where a map provider becomes large enough to be perceived as the source of ‘truth’ (Black 2002, p.449).
OSM addresses this crisis of representation by placing control into the hands of diverse users from different backgrounds (Lin 2011, cited in Barron, Neis & Zipf 2014, p.878). With a dedicated community of 2 million editors globally, OSM provides alternative viewpoints to state-sanctioned and commercial cartography. In this way, OSM subverts the politics of mapping, offering neutral, objective and transparent representations rather than ones laden with power.
OSM’s vision of making geospatial data augmentable, editable and freely available online has revolutionised mapping, benefiting commercial mapping companies, assisting with humanitarian and disaster relief efforts and empowering citizens to challenge the traditional centralised procedure of mapmaking. While OSM’s existence is based on the premise that users submit data about their own environments, there is extraordinary potential for OSM to be used to explore and connect with other cultures. This may provide the diversity in mapmaking that is required to solve political, social and geographic issues, such as poverty or international inequality.
10 years of OSM edits have been brought to life visually in this video.
Barron, C, Neis, P & Zipf A 2014, ‘A Comprehensive Framework for Intrinsic OpenStreetMap Quality Analysis’, Transactions in GIS, vol.18, no.6, p.877-895.
Black, J 2002, ‘Maps, power, and truth’, The Lancet, vol.359, no.9304, p.449.
Curran, K, Crumlish, J & Fisher, G 2013, ‘OpenStreetMap’, in J Gamon (ed.), Geographic Information Systems: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications, Information Science Reference, United States, p.540-549.
Hall, PA 2014, ‘Counter-mapping and globalism’, in E Kalantidou & T Fry (eds), Design in the Borderlands, Routledge, New York, p.132-150.
Kitchin R & Dodge M 2007, ‘Rethinking maps’, Progress in Human Geography, vol.31, no,3, p.1-14.
Sehra, SS, Singh, J & Rai HS 2014, ‘Assessing the Topological Consistency of Crowdsourced OpenStreetMap Data’, Human Computation, vol.1, no.2, p.265-280.