Open Street Map was first launched 11 years ago and was created by Steve Coast, an entrepreneur from Walderslade, London. Open Street Mapping is essentially a way to edit maps in real time, focusing on current buildings, roads etc. One’s contribution to a map is also recorded and visible by other potential mappers who may then “validate” or comment on that contribution as they see fit.
Before contributing to OSM as part of my course, I must admit that I had not previously heard of it. As part of our assignment, we were required to register with Open Street Map and either contribute to a Humanitarian Task, or to a Neighbourhood (local or otherwise) with which we are familiar.
I didn’t fully comprehend the advantages of using it and one of the first questions that sprang to mind when researching OSM was “What is the point of this when we have Google Maps?” Upon confirming my account with OSM, I am immediately greeted with a list of “important things to know”. The most noteworthy on this list for me was the short guide to what OSM does not include and perhaps this is one of several reasons why it stands out from the likes of Google maps. OSM does not include “opinionated data”, copyrighted sources, ratings or historical and hypothetical features. One of the more obvious reasons why it differentiates from Google maps is that it is editable. We are contributors as opposed to passive observers, and our contributions could have implications.
But before I was fully aware of any of this, I dived straight in. I picked a task at random, as there are pages and page of them and some are in more urgent need of mapping than others. I had never mapped before so I was clueless as to what I should expect. When I clicked onto the task, I was given a landscape that was green but very blurry, it was impossible for me to decipher a river from a road. I thought that maybe all the tasks are the same and that each landscape was going to be just as blurry as the next. I simply did not know where to begin. I asked myself “Why would they upload bad quality aerial images for us to try and map?” The answer to which I am still unaware of but I would be very interested to know. I am assuming it is down to bad weather conditions. So I took a step back from the project. In fact, I took a whole day off from it and decided to come back to it again with a clear mind.
I decided the main reason why I became discombobulated using OSM was because of my unfamiliarity with it and perhaps over-zealousness.
I chose to start off mapping a neighbourhood that I was well versed in and to then move onto another Humanitarian task afterward, by doing so I was hoping that I would become equipped with the tool and its interface whilst also incorporating both requirements for the assignment instead of just one.
I searched for my home town of Mitchelstown and I discovered that it had already been completely mapped, so instead I looked for discrepancies.
There were one or two lane ways that had been given the incorrect name, as well as one or two buildings that had not been listed on the map, I edited those. I went further toward my house and started tagging some historical points of interest, such as a ringfort and fulacht fiadh.
From Mitchelstown, I moved onto the village where my Father was born and raised and where I would have spent a lot of time as a child. It is the village of Coachford, located on the north side of the River Lee. The difference with mapping Mitchelstown and Coachford though, is that I did not need to reference any other maps when working on Mitchelstown but with Coachford I found myself relying on Google Maps for the place names of particular areas.
Open Street Map may be compared with Google Maps but I now realise that they can both be used happily in conjunction with one another.
They both share differences (one considered as open source, the other closed) as well as similarities, and they both solve the basic “where” question. I find the most praiseworthy aspect of OSM is that it is run completely by the voluntary efforts made by that of the online masses.
I mapped dozens of features of Coachford, which really helped me grasp the editing tool-ID Editor.
Mapping a building is straight forward, you trace all around the building with your mouse, stopping at each corner to connect a new line, as it doesn’t allow for curvature, and same is said for mapping roads. Mapping a particular area is essentially the same method. Once I finished mapping the village I felt I was comfortable enough to start on a Humanitarian task. I logged in to tasks.hotosm.org and took my time in browsing the various tasks. In the end I decided to go for an area in Sri Lanka, called Uduvil.
Uduvil is located north of Jaffna City, and is an agricultural village. It is on OSM’s radar because it has been proposed as a new area for buildings aimed at the elderly, requested on behalf of Engineers without Borders.
In this instance the mapping process is laid out slightly differently to mapping a neighbourhood. Humanitarian mapping is measured in “tiles”, the tile being an outlined square area with which you map inside the lines. I found that the tiles made the mapping structurally easier and appreciable. The requirement for my assignment was to map a minimum of three tiles, and to validate another’s mapping efforts. I worked through three tiles, being as detailed as I possibly could. Unfortunately, most of the area that I chose didn’t have many buildings that I could map. Instead there were pockets of residential houses and places of worship, with the majority of the landscape consumed by greenery.
I went on to validate another user’s tile. The area I chose to validate was particularly dense with “buildings”. Every one of those buildings were marked as such, which must have been fairly time consuming. I did however, feel that maybe one or two of those buildings could have been something specific, such as a school or hospital. I went in for a closer look, and I used Google Maps again as an aid. Nothing to my eye was left unmarked or incorrectly marked, so therefore their work was commendable. I did find the process of mapping Uduvil a pleasurable one after my initial struggle and I decided to reflect on how my mapping efforts could contribute in the overall aims of Open Street Map and Engineers without Boarders.
I’ve learned a lot in a short space of time, about OSM and about how I could utilize these types of initiatives. I hope that Engineers without Boarders, through mine and others contributions can possibly eradicate poverty in some of the more harsh areas of Sri Lanka. The implications of my mapping could help engineers to figure out the best route to take to the nearest residential area, or clinic or what roads or pathways urgently need repairing.
Maybe they could see where they could build a water filtration system or maybe there won’t be any implications of my work. Time will tell.
There has been many accounts of how OSM has ameliorated disastrous situations. Take for instance, the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010. Over 100,000 people were feared dead. The OSM community immediately sprang into action and traced roads from images only previously available on Yahoo. Not long into this operation, it became the wonted base map for response organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and Search and Rescue Teams. OSM continues to contribute in Haiti even now-6 years on, and the data is consistently improved upon.
What I most appreciate about OSM is that I, as an individual, get to decide what I feel should be included on a map. Many big companies have the monopoly over maps and that’s when they decide what they find relevant, emphasising some areas and perhaps not including others whatsoever. With OSM that control is given back to the individual. That bit of control can help advertise businesses in local areas, it can highlight hospitals or clinics that may have been otherwise overlooked.
Big map providers are thought of as the truth, but as we can see with Open Street Map there is much more depth and richness to it, much more that can be included and seen as “true”. Recently in class, as well as OSM, we were also introduced to “crowdsourcing”. We had to contemplate on how our neighbourhood could be used as data. In crowdsourcing, a lot of people can be involved in modest sized projects. For example, maybe in my future projects I could use crowdsourcing and OSM to analyse how healthy my neighbourhood is? Or what my neighbourhood needs in terms of resources? The possibilities could be endless.
OSM and I initially got off on the wrong foot. But since then we have happily made up. I am still unsure whether or not I am mapping correctly, and for the sake of potential humanitarian aid, I hope I am. Mapping a village in west Cork carries different implications than mapping an impoverished area of Sri Lanka, but both are just as important for different societal reasons. We need OSM and crowdsourcing information to learn more about ourselves, our neighbourhood and the world around us. We no longer have to sit idly by and helpless as an earthquake shakes and devastates. We can contribute. It might seem like a miniscule contribution, but every small contribution can form something substantial. From a technical standpoint, OSM and ID Editor may not agree with everyone (including me) initially, but you must give some time to familiarise with it, the website provides a brief tutorial for beginners also. In the end it could even turn into a hobby or pastime. And though it may be a hobby for us in the Western world, it could be a survival guide for those in the Middle East.