OpenStreetMap – In Review

Open Street Map was launched back in 2005, created by Steve Coast, an entrepreneur from Walderslade, London, it’s similar to the likes of Google Maps, except far more detailed and most of all open source.  Open Street Mapping is the method of editing Open Street Map in real time, with emphasis on placing buildings and roads on a map, and then labeling the specifics of them, so not just a building but also the buildings function, for example is it residential, commercial, or industrial? If it is residential what is its address? If it is commercial what is the name of the business? It is very specific and offers a lot that big money maps like Google Maps just don’t. Another thing one can map on to it that is unusual but very helpful are the likes of walking trails, which is great for anything from finding shortcuts to going on hikes. One’s contribution to a map is also recorded and visible by other potential mappers who may then adjust the contributions, “validate” them, or comment them if they so desire.

Prior to contributing to Open Street Map as part of my digital tools & methodologies class, I have to admit that I had previously not even heard of it.  As part of this assignment, I was required to register with Open Street Map and either contribute to a Humanitarian Task, or to a Neighborhood (local or otherwise) with which we are familiar.

I personally chose to do my own small Neighborhood and some of its surroundings, around Ballysheedy, in county Limerick, just a few kilometres south of the city. I felt that it was not adequately represented, and the majority of my class comrades were doing the humanitarian task anyway so I thought I’d be a special snowflake.

The map service itself is quite fantastic in my opinion, it uses Bing Maps by default as an overlay for the majority of the data entered by individual users. This all enables mappers to apply their “Local Knowledge” to OSM, which can be very beneficial to the world, especially for humanitarian missions. My own knowledge of my country suburb of Ballysheedy allowed me to give a more detailed rundown of the place, for example I was able to tag buildings as commercial that from simply looking at the Bing Maps overlay merely look residential.

The likes of Google Maps on the other hand will only include this if the infortmation is readily available and beneficial to the masses, not just the locals or passer-by’s, which is understandable, it takes a lot of time to map this much detail, but it is slightly unfortunate that they don’t and that volunteers must do the work.

One feature in particular I quite enjoyed was ability to access historical maps of the area that you are editing, as opposed to just the Bing Map. This can be easily accessed through the side panel while in edit mode. It was very interesting to see how my little suburb has appeared over the years, from just a couple of houses stretched across, being mostly farmland in the 20th century, to the growing county suburb that it is today!

The most enjoyable part of the whole exercise was knowing this could affect people in the world looking in to the area, I wanted to map Ballysheedy and its surroundings as precisely as I could to do it justice, for the first time ever I have the power to put my little home on the map – literally, so I spent well over an hour mapping all of the buildings and fixing up some incorrect notches in the roads, doing things only a local could do, and I felt kind of special for it. By the end of my time mapping I had added over 100 new features to the neighborhood – mostly buildings in the form of houses, and corrected about a dozen deficiencies, mostly slight things wrong in the roads.

I think as someone who learns by visuals I liked the fact that it was hands on and that I was able to see the fruits of my labour so to speak practically immediately. I think I’ve fallen in love with the idea of crowdsourcing, and really getting work done as a team, after using Open Street Map, seeing everyone else who had worked in that area before, being able to approve of their work, and then expand upon it, and know that someone can come along and look at my work as I looked at the work before me. Ultimately I think what Open Street Map is doing is very noble, and I think there’s a lot more to it then the handiness of throwing in extra details in places akin to my cosy neighborhood here in Ireland. I will definitely attempt a humanitarian Open Street Map task soon, now that I’ve learned how to use the editor most efficiently.


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