Why I Love OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap logo drawn by Ken Vermette.What have I been up to lately? Mostly editing OpenStreetMap. It’s an online map free for the world to edit and use. Think of it as the Wikipedia of maps. It lets users correct errors and add new data to keep it up to date. My wife would say it’s become an obsession, but I just love good data so I’ve been very active in mapping the world around me.

The whole idea behind OpenStreetMap is to create a useful, up-to-date map for the people, by the people. It’s free to use in your projects (just requires an attribution, no payments). You can style the data however you’d like, in fact some services like Mapbox make it super easy to create stunningly beautiful maps.

I first heard of OpenStreetMap when Foursquare made the jump from Google Maps. I was intrigued by the project. I was already a very active super user on Foursquare, editing their data, so it seemed like a natural step to edit the mapping data they were now relying on behind the scenes.

It’s been very rewarding. Kalamazoo wasn’t terrible road-wise, but they had barely any other data on the map. I started with Western Michigan University’s campus. As an alumnus and employee spanning nearly a decade, I’ve become pretty familiar with the area. I traced all the buildings, parking lots and sidewalks. I tracked down the info on WMU websites to fill in correct building names and information. As I travel around campus for meetings, I make note of certain things (like bus stops) and add those in too.

I expanded my reach far beyond WMU, or even Kalamazoo at this point. I’ve taken part in some of Scout’s OSM challenges and have made edits throughout the United States. I haven’t won yet, but I’m going to keep trying. I really enjoy cleaning up and adding data. I find it strangely soothing and absolutely satisfying. One of the coolest parts is seeing that data pulled into Foursquare. When on their site, the maps show all the building traces that I (and others) have done. It’s nice to see some more context to the maps than just empty gray space between white road lines.

One of the best part of OSM is that it’s an ongoing project. It will never be finished because the world is constantly changing. New roads, new buildings, they’re being built everyday. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the project and I highly encourage everyone to find out what it’s all about. Edits can be as simple as fixing a one-way street or as massive as mapping out all of your city’s schools. OSM relies on everyday people with local knowledge. You could really make a difference.

Are you intrigued yet? Start with this welcome page and then check out the wiki and help sites to dive further into the OpenStreetMap world.