The open-source, citizen-driven mapmaking tool has democratized the insular world of cartography.

OpenStreetMap passed its 10th anniversary last fall. Over those years, it's led a quiet revolution in digital mapmaking.  

Using GPS tools, satellite photographs, and their own local knowledge, citizen cartographers the world over have used the open-source platform to map the world little by little, creating a free, nimble alternative to geographic data from Google, Microsoft, and the like. In many ways, OSM represents a democratization of cartography, a field long closed off to non-experts.

To mark the decade gone by, Mapbox has created a remarkable interactive that shows years of crowd-sourced geographic data—streets, buildings, natural features, points of interest—coming to life across the globe. In gorgeous technicolor, you can "jump" from city to city, or move around the world as you please. Some regions light up gradually, representing regular additions of data over time, while others are slow for years before suddenly bursting with data.

While OSM's wide field of mapmakers has its drawbacks, it's also got huge advantages. Because it's so readily adaptable, OSM has become a go-to resource during humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

During last year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, hundreds of volunteer cartographers sprang to fill in previously unmapped towns and cities across the affected region, which helped the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and other organizations to strategize their responses more effectively.

To drive home the power of OSM, watch these GIFs of Mamou, Guinea and Gbapolu, Liberia grow and glow with data from 2006 to 2015.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    A 13,235-Mile Road Trip for 70-Degree Weather Every Day

    This year-long journey across the U.S. keeps you at consistent high temperatures.

  2. Transportation

    CityLab University: Induced Demand

    When traffic-clogged highways are expanded, new drivers quickly materialize to fill them. What gives? Here’s how “induced demand” works.

  3. An illustration of the Memorial Day flood in Ellicott City, Maryland.
    Environment

    In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

    Storms supercharged by climate change pose a dire threat to river towns. After two catastrophic floods, tiny Ellicott City faces a critical decision: Rebuild, or retreat?

  4. Equity

    Why You Should Say 'Hello' to Strangers on the Street

    On sidewalk psychology. 

  5. A line of stores in Westport, Connecticut
    Equity

    Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

    In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Invisible walls created by local zoning boards and the state government block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.