What Is OpenStreetMap and Should You Be Using It?

OpenStreetMap, or OSM, is like Wikipedia for maps. It’s open source, user contributed, and free to use, and, like Wikipedia, it’s proven to be surprisingly reliable. Even if you haven’t heard of it before, chances are good that you’ve used its data. It’s been used by FourSquare, Pokemon Go, Craigslist, Tesla, and a long list of other apps and services. While it’s not as useful for day-to-day navigation, its vast geospatial dataset has repeatedly proven useful not only to apps, but for humanitarian work and emergency relief.

There’s a philosophical element to it as well, though: having a free and open source of geographic information is pretty important. Being able to control what shows up on your maps, how it appears, and who can access the data puts companies like Google, TomTom, and Here in pretty powerful positions, and, as Serge Wroclawski wrote in 2014, “no one company should have a monopoly on place.

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OpenStreetMap was originally created in the UK by Steve Coast, and since its 2004 inception, its database of map information has grown significantly. Their data comes both from bulk donations from entities that hold a lot of map data and from users who donate their time and energy to helping build and maintain the map.

Just like Wikipedia, if you do a good job, your edits will stay. If, on the other hand, you vandalize the map or make a mistake, someone will catch it and roll it back. This system has worked quite well. As of 2018, most of its geospatial data is as good as or better than Google Maps.

What OSM isn’t, though, is an “app.” Of course, you can use it to find places and get directions, but OpenStreetMap is really more of a database than a user-friendly, all-in-one map tool. To really make it work well, you typically need to use it to power some other app – Maps.me and Mapquest both have user-friendly versions of OSM. Tools like MapBox, for instance, exist for the purpose of taking the relatively unpolished OSM data and formatting it for different needs.

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If you want to become a mapper, the process is actually quite straightforward: sign up for an account, find the place you want to map, and use their in-browser map editor to add landmarks, roads, businesses, and more to the maps. With high-resolution satellite images now available for most places, it’s something you can easily do from the comfort of your own home. Just go through their short tutorial, and you’ll know enough to get started!

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Regular users can certainly use the main website for finding landmarks, navigating, and all the rest, but apps like FourSquare, Pokemon Go, a plethora of biking and hiking apps, and even Apple Maps are the biggest users of OSM data. This is mostly because Google charges companies to use its map data, while OSM is a free and reliable alternative.

One of the most noteworthy uses of OSM, however, is actually humanitarian. Because its maps can be edited and updated so quickly and can be adapted to local knowledge and needs, OSM has played a significant role in helping developing and disaster-struck regions.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, or HOT, got its start after volunteers worldwide used satellite imagery to quickly build comprehensive maps of post-earthquake Haiti, helping rescue and aid efforts. Since then they have responded not only to natural disasters, but to disease outbreaks, refugee aid, economic development initiatives, and more, with local mapping teams and global volunteers both contributing to better logistics and navigation.

If you want to get an OSM-powered map app, some of the better ones are:

As much as I love the OSM concept and its ideals, I’m still using Google Maps – it has the network effect (all the user-generated reviews and ratings are very nice), and it pretty much always gets me where I’m going. It’s fun to participate a bit in editing OSM, but it’s definitely not at the level of being a perfect substitute for getting places, and it’s not aging or innovating as well as it might.

For some uses, like navigating hiking trails that haven’t made it to Google Maps, it’s a great asset, but it’s likely that in the near future it will continue to be useful as a humanitarian tool and as an accessible source of map data for third-party apps, academic research, and other uses. Practical concerns aside, having multiple sources of truth for location data is important, and there is no other large-scale map database out there that is free as in speech vs. free as in beer.

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