For the love of mapping: Citizens creating counter cartology

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an open-source, citizen-driven OSM_fixed_512digital 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).


OSM map vs. Google Map of Sochi, Russia where the 2014 Olympic Games were held.


Mountain terrain in Sochi, Russia where skiers and athletes competed in 2014 Olympic Games.


Google’s mapping applications serve as a means of generating corporate revenue – not for the altruistic purposes of mapping the world.

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).


A number of applications such as Foursquare, Pinterest, Uber and Apple have abandoned Google Maps in favour of OSM.

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).

Under the direct influence of the OSM, Ordnance Survey has also started to provide more free services, such as allowing users to embed maps of Great Britain into web pages.

Under the direct influence of the OSM, Ordnance Survey has also started to provide more free services, such as allowing users to embed maps of Great Britain into web pages (Curran, Crumlish & Fisher 2013, p.547).

OSM in use during the Typhoon Haiyan response.

OSM in use during the Typhoon Haiyan response.

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.


In the weeks following Typhoon Haiyan, over 1,600 volunteers created nearly 1.5 million changes, continually updating the map to reflect damages from the storm.


Tacloban City, on OpenStreetMap, after the typhoon hit.

Far from being the neutral presentation of objective reality, map-making is an inherently political process.

Far from being the neutral presentation of objective reality, map-making is an inherently political process.

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).

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 8.06.33 pm

Shown above are three different views of Arunachal Pradesh, a territory claimed by both China and India. The region is shown as part of India when viewed in Google India, as part of China when viewed in Google China, and as distinct from both countries when viewed in the US. Go figure!


Geography is a big business. In 2013, Google spent $1.5bn buying the navigation company Waze, as well as spending $1bn annually to maintain their maps.


In 2007, Nokia purchased Navteq, the world’s biggest mobile-phone company, for $8.1bn to gain digital maps of 69 countries and also agreed to buy Tele Atlas NV, the world’s second-largest maker of maps.

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.


The two millionth account was registered in March 2015, marking another milestone in the continuous and phenomenal growth of OSM.


A volunteer helps create a map at a recent mapathon held at George Washington University. These volunteers have no financial or commercial interests in mapmaking other than to gather and record data that’s personally important to them.

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.


Reference List:

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.


One thought on “For the love of mapping: Citizens creating counter cartology

  1. This post is really impressive! It’s well-researched as you’ve included a number of examples and graphics to demonstrate how open-source platforms such as OpenStreetMap can facilitate social justice. I particularly did not know that OSM was used in response to natural disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan. Beyond mapping, I wonder if other online grassroots movements through open-source platforms will have an impact on the way commercial companies operate in the future? I think it’s quite remarkable that the Internet has provided everyday citizens with a voice to push for positive changes.

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