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. An illustration of a private train.
    Transportation

    Want to Buy a Private Railroad Car? This Might Be the End of the Line

    If you dream of roaming the U.S. in a your own personal train car, you still can. But Amtrak cuts have railcar owners wondering if their days are numbered.

  2. Equity

    How Poor Americans Get Exploited by Their Landlords

    American landlords derive more profit from renters in low-income neighborhoods, researchers Matthew Desmond and Nathan Wilmers find.

  3. A photo of a new subdivision of high-end suburban homes in Highland, Maryland.
    Equity

    Unpacking the Power of Privileged Neighborhoods

    A new study shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents.

  4. Life

    The Bias Hiding in Your Library

    The ways libraries classify books often reflect a “straight white American man” assumption.

  5. Homes in Amsterdam are pictured.
    Equity

    Amsterdam's Plan: If You Buy a Newly Built House, You Can't Rent It Out

    In an effort to make housing more affordable, the Dutch capital is crafting a law that says anyone who buys a newly built home must live in it themselves.