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Putting the World on an Open-Access Map

News article from March 4, 2014

You’ve heard of Wikipedia…but what about OpenStreetMap?  

Mann’s geographic information systems librarian Keith Jenkins recently led a workshop for New York State GIS specialists that put a spotlight on this growing initiative to crowd-source geographic data for a mapping database that is freely available to a global public.

For those not at Keith’s presentation, here are a few highlights: 

  • What is OpenStreetMap?  Launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap, or OSM (and yes, one could pronounce that as “awesome”), is a database of global geographic information, visually presented to users as an online map that is zoomable to street-level views.   The project is organized and supported by the OpenStreetMap Foundation, a UK-registered not-for-profit organization.  All data in OSM is available as open data, licensed under the Open Data Commons Open database License (ODbL), allowing the public to freely use, share, and modify the information provided.   One thing to note:  Thanks to its roots, tagging conventions in OSM reflect a lean towards terminology common in the U.K., so U.S. users of the site may need to bone up a wee bit on their British English!
  • Where does OSM get its data?  Some of the geographic data in the OSM database builds on data imported in bulk from existing publicly available geographic information sources, such as the US Census.  Most of the detail, however, has been and continues to be provided by registered users of the site, who can zoom in to street-level views of local areas and then—using an application available through the OSM site—identify and tag specific buildings, geographic features , special amenities (restaurants, parks, etc.), specific characteristics,  and current conditions in those areas for the database.  Experienced GPS users can enter data using the coordinates they collect using their GPS devices. 
  • What is OSM good for?  The potential uses of OSM are about as varied its global user community itself.  Some of the most heralded promise of OSM has come from its usefulness in helping support humanitarian and community development work. Devastating natural disasters in various parts of the world over the past decade have inspired scores of volunteers to help transcribe information gleaned from aerial photography of affected areas into the OSM database, so helping to generate internet-accessible maps used by workers involved in relief and rebuilding efforts on the ground.  In the same spirit, community development advocates and practitioners in some parts of the world have been turning to OSM to enter data gathered from neighborhood surveys  of the local infrastructure—available sources of clean water, roads, schools, health care facilities, and the like—in order to generate powerful visual summaries that become effective tools for promoting change. 

But you don’t have to be a U.N. fieldworker to benefit from OSM.  For tourists or business travelers planning a trip to a city that’s been  well-covered by OSM enthusiasts, a visit to openstreetmap.org will provide detailed overviews  of the varied attractions—restaurants, concert halls, conference centers, museums, parks, monuments, shopping districts—to be found in different neighborhoods.  Social networking and commercial websites such as Foursquare and Craigslist use OSM data to generate maps that help their users connect with each other and their desired destinations and products.  Even the U.S. National Park Service is getting into the game, making sure that the parks they manage are well-documented within OSM, and using a validated version of the OSM data to publish official NPS maps.  And if you zoom in for a view of Cornell University, you’ll see that someone has taken the trouble to identify the various eating spots on campus along with at least a few of the libraries—reflecting what at least some OSM users have identified as the most important information to start with when it comes to mapping the local Cornell terrain. 

The OpenStreetMap user community has seen strong growth since its early beginnings a decade ago. There are nearly 1.5 million registered OSM users today, and over 20,000 of these are making new contributions to the database every month.  As OSM enthusiasts might say, it’s a big world out there, and somebody’s got to map it for the public good.  If you think you might have time and interest in helping out, consider joining the cause!

Street-level view of Cornell Ag Quad on openstreetmap.org.Street-level view of Cornell Ag Quad on openstreetmap.org.



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