Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The OpenStreetMap Project

OpenStreetMap logo
A good friend of mine, Richard Weait, is quite heavily involved in a very interesting enterprise: OpenStreetMap. On Monday morning of this week he spoke to Matt Galloway on Metro Morning about the project and about the "Mappy Hour" meeting that took place later that night. (That link for "Mappy Hour" will actually take you to a page for the next meeting, Monday, February 4 at C'est What in Toronto.) If you've ever been frustrated by a lack of detail when using a GPS or a proprietary mapping tool (such as Google Maps), then you might be very interested in this project. OpenStreetMap encourages everyone from all walks of life to get out in the real world and "map out" the points of interest in your area (or anywhere, really) that have flown under the radar up to this point. I've been looking into this myself, but only recently; consequently, I am probably going to describe this idea in very simplistic terms—and may well not be 100% accurate at that—but I hope to convince Richard to create a "Guest Blog" piece on this subject in the future or, at the very least, to send me some more specific things he wishes to elaborate on.

OpenStreetMap view
At its absolute simplest level, OpenStreetMap is like Wikipedia for maps. I realize that Wikipedia has a reputation among a sector of the population of being unreliable and sketchy but that's simply not true; in point of fact, there was a famous study done as far back as 2005 by the scientific journal Nature which found that the errors contained in Wikipedia are no more prevalent nor serious than those found in Encyclopaedia Britannica (which recently ceased printing hard copies of its information). I firmly believe that crowdsourcing is the way to go for the foreseeable future and I place a great deal of faith in things like open source code projects and Wiki-like enterprises. This OpenStreetMap project intrigues me and I intend to be at the next "Mappy Hour" get-together in February to find out more. In the meantime, once I gather a little more understanding of what, exactly, is expected of me, I hope to get "out there" myself in the next couple of weeks and start making my own contributions.

OSM Mapping Party
There are many ways to get involved in this project, each with its own appeal depending on your particular tastes. You could sign up to join a "mapping party" (pictured here) where everyone fans out with his or her own GPS to make readings that are submitted at the end of the day. Or you could just walk about your own neighbourhood—or a small section of it—making notes of the precise locations of specific points of interest, such as restaurants, ATMs or even recycling bins. The appeal of this project will be immediately obvious to anyone who has an interest in cartography, or open source coding—or, especially, both—but don't let the huge scale of the project or the more technical aspects of the "coding" scare you away. There is plenty of help to be found all over the internet or at any of the meet-ups (like "Mappy Hour") in your community. An excellent place to start is on Richard's own website, "Be a Mapper", which he tells me he created essentially for the radio spot but will be updating fairly regularly as time passes. I read a great little piece on the project on PC World blogs, dating back over three years ago (the project started in 2004); just imagine how much more complete the maps are now than at the time of that glowing review. Another sort of "stepping stone site" is "Switch2OSM", which gives you some excellent pointers about why and how to use OpenStreetMap before you dive right in. If you want to skip all of that, of course, and feel confident enough in your tech-savvy, then head straight on over to OpenStreetMap's main site or its corresponding internal Wiki. Hopefully you will find all the information you need among all those pages.

Once I take the plunge and start to make my own contributions, I'll report back further. In the meantime, why not take a look at the OpenStreetMap sector that you live in and see how you can make it better?


  1. Nice, quick review Steve. Have you thought about where you want to survey first?

    1. Patience, my dear sir. :) At the moment, I need to get through my Zoo training (three more weeks) before I can sink my teeth into any larger projects. In the meantime, did you have anything to add or correct for the myriad readers of this post? (And I use the term "myriad" extremely loosely.)

  2. um...Britannica has one "t"... :p and also: this looks like fun!


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