Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The open-source, citizen-driven mapmaking tool has democratized the insular world of cartography.
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.