Open Street Map… get into it

If you’re reading this blog because you like map things, then Open Street Map (OSM) is probably (hopefully) not a a new thing. If you’re a casual lookie-loo trying to pass time on the internet, you’re lucky, because OSM is a really, really cool project.

osm logo
Open Street Map Logo

So what is it? Well, think Wikipedia, the user-generated, self-regulating champion of public information. An online encyclopaedia where everyone can be the author.

Now think mapping.

All the roads, rivers, buildings, parks, and other things that exist are drawn on the computer, by anyone (you?). Usually this is done by looking at satellite images and drawing over top of them, but it can also be done by turning on your GPS device and using it to record where a feature (street, path, river) is. Then you can upload the file from your GPS and update the map.

When it first started, it was a blank map. Over time it grew and is still growing into a critical spatial database of the world. Here’s a timelapse video of Vancouver’s contributions starting on the fourth of January 2007 (blank map) and being updated on the fourth of every month until August 2009.

Pretty cool to see the city grow with free contributions from the public, right? It’s map socialism at its finest.

So what can you do with this free map of the world? As it says on the OSM About page:

“OpenStreetMap is open data: you are free to use it for any purpose as long as you credit OpenStreetMap and its contributors.”

So basically, you can do anything you want: commercial use, physical high resolution prints, embedding on your website, personal mapping, and anything else you can think of where a map might be handy. No fees, no restrictions, just free and awesome maps.

One sector where this is incredibly useful is disaster relief in poor countries. Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines in November 2013 was “the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall” damaging or destroying 281,091 homes and leaving 1.9 million people homeless. With this kind of intense change in the geography of habitable land, getting the right amount of aid to the right places isn’t an easy task. Luckily though, with contributions of fresh satellite imagery, the time of over 1,000 volunteers from 82 countries, and the organization of a group called Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) had, after just one week of mapping, already drawn more than 250,000 buildings and made more than 2 million changes to the OSM database.

Check out this before and after map of the area

Now all the aid money, medicine, food, water, support can be taken to the places that need it most. This incredible feat is possible because OSM exists and because generous people contribute. For anyone who might want to support and help during disasters, money isn’t the only thing you can contribute. Contribute your time, map some places, get into OpenStreetMap and the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team.


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