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. a photo of a tiny house in Oregon
    Design

    How Amazon Could Transform the Tiny House Movement

    Could the e-commerce giant help turn small-home living from a niche fad into a national housing solution?

  2. a photo of a person sleeping on the street in L.A.'s Skid Row.
    Equity

    Trans Teens, Trailed by Homelessness

    In California and other states, transgender and non-binary people are more likely to be unsheltered than any other unhoused population.

  3. Environment

    What U.S. Cities Facing Climate Disaster Risks Are Least Prepared?

    New studies find cities most vulnerable to climate change disasters—heat waves, flooding, rising seas, drought—are the least prepared.

  4. The downtown St. Louis skyline.
    Perspective

    Downtown St. Louis Is Rising; Black St. Louis Is Being Razed

    Square co-founder Jack Dorsey is expanding the company’s presence in St. Louis and demolishing vacant buildings on the city’s north side.

  5. Warren Logan
    Transportation

    A City Planner Makes a Case for Rethinking Public Consultation

    Warren Logan, a Bay Area transportation planner, has new ideas about how to truly engage diverse communities in city planning. Hint: It starts with listening.

×