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Mar 12

Is 2012 the year of OpenStreetMap?

If you’ve been paying attention to online mapping in the last few months, you’ve noticed some big news related to OpenStreetMap (OSM). The biggest news came in February, when foursquare announced that they’re adopting OSM-powered maps on the website portion of their service, which now has more than 15 million users worldwide. Shortly thereafter, folks discovered that Apple is using OSM data as well. The way I see it, 2012 may well be the year of OSM, the year that more people than ever use and contribute to OSM. While the OSM community has toiled away for years on building up a formidable database of roads, cities, and other geographic features, it has never been easier to put these maps to use in fast, beautiful web applications.

A number of teams and organizations have been instrumental in pushing OSM out to a large audience, including (improbably) MapQuest. Another group that has played a major role in accelerating the widespread use and adoption of OSM is Development Seed, a DC-based team that I’ve had the pleasure of working with. The hard work and creativity of Development Seed and their Mapbox brand of open source mapping tools have made it easier than ever to leverage OSM data to create visually appealing, data-rich maps that serve a variety of purposes, from supporting foursquare’s check-in service to helping us understand U.S. census data to making it possible to do in-depth analysis of Afghan election results.

I’m excited about OSM because while working in the developing world I’ve attempted to use commercial mapping services like Google Maps to analyze development data, manage operations, and understand the geographic context of my work. In many places, the data offered by Google Maps is woefully inadequate for those tasks or, worse, simply unavailable. In some cases, OSM offers superior data (a number of people have favorably compared OSM to Google Maps in places like Kabul, Port-au-Prince, Cairo, and Kibera in Kenya). In other cases, where OSM data is incomplete, we see the difference that OSM can make in the world of online mapping.

Instead of waiting for a massive corporation to acquire and integrate data in the places we care about, thanks to OSM we have the ability to add the data ourselves. The results are impressive: the data is better, everyone can use it for free, there are no onerous or expensive terms of use, and the addition of data doesn’t benefit one corporation competing against others (it benefits everyone). One of my concerns with OSM has been that the tools for adding new data to OSM are built for mapping enthusiasts and technical specialists rather than the general public. To contribute to OSM, individuals must have a high degree of computer literacy and the patience to work through OSM’s toolset. In the developing world, this often means that rigorous training is required before local individuals possess the knowledge and skills to contribute data.

Fortunately, Development Seed is hard at work on this problem. They’ve submitted an application to the Knight Foundation that details their plans for creating contribution tools for the average person. It is my belief that these tools will help accelerate the contribution of data to OSM, much in the same way that Development Seed’s Mapbox ecosystem has helped accelerate the adoption of OSM in mainstream consumer web applications. With TileMill, they’ve lowered the barrier to creating maps. With these contribution tools, they will lower the barrier to adding data to OSM. We’ll all benefit.

I encourage you to take a look at their application and to support them by getting the word out via social media. Help make 2012 the year of OSM!

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