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This Cutting-Edge Map Tool Turns Anyone Into a Cartographer

OpenStreetMap debuts a new map editor that will close the gap between grassroots mapping and its giant industry rivals.

Back in January, OpenStreetMap passed the 1 million mark of registered users, with contributors from all over the world – amateur cartographers, tech-savvy developers and people not particularly fluent in either maps or technology – adding to a growing picture of the world drawn by its own people. In the mapping universe, their collective effort has become the open-source antipode of proprietary giants in the business like Google Maps. Most mapping data in the world today is owned by someone. The information layered in OpenStreetMap is not, and that is precisely what makes it so valuable.

Now, the global project that was first launched in 2004 is growing up: OpenStreetMap today unveiled a new super-fast map editor that will give laymen near professional-grade tools to edit the world. A million people working together have now been armed to take on Google. And the product of their efforts – free geographical data that can form the foundation of infinite apps, tools, and even art – can be used by anyone.

"What separates OpenStreetMap is that that data is actually open," says Eric Gundersen, the CEO of the Washington-based company MapBox that developed the new "iD" editor, with financial support from the Knight Foundation. Private companies in the geo services industry, which was recently valued worldwide at as much as $270 billion, have caught on to the value of crowdsourcing information from an expansive planet. But that often means that they take data from the crowd and keep it.

"OpenStreetMap is not about crowdsourcing," Gundersen says. "OpenStreetMap is about community collaboration. This is not you being a mindless crowd adding data to some big company’s map. This is about you putting in data in your own neighborhood, working with your neighbors, working with a larger community to refine and make a really cohesive map. That's the kind of experience that was so successful with Wikipedia."

Now, if you click over to OpenStreetMap and sign up (or already have), you'll encounter an interface that's less intimidating for newbies but that will also ratchet up the capacity of long-time contributors.

With the new editor, the hope is that OpenStreetMap will now grow at an even faster clip, covering roads that didn't exist even a year ago, or whole parts of the world where neighborhoods go unmapped by their own governments.

"The world is really, really big, and there is a lot of detail to be putting on that map," Gundersen says. "Cities themselves have continued to grow." Consider how much change happens in the world between any decennial census. And this project is now almost 10 years old. "What’s exciting about OpenStreetMap," Gundersen says, "is that it is a system that inherently can keep up with that change."

Come to think of it, how would you keep up with so much change (affordably) without such an army?

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.