OpenStreetMap Overview

by Dan Rasmussen. Published 2013-01-23. For updates, follow @pdxwifimap on Twitter or visit twitter.com/pdxwifimap

OpenStreetMap is "a free worldwide map, created by people like you." It took me a long time to really understand what this meant and become excited about it. OpenStreetMap's homepage, openstreetmap.org, isn't very flashy or impressive compared to Google Maps and MapQuest. OpenStreetMap.org doesn't show you driving directions, phone numbers, website addresses, satellite photos, or Google Street View. I discovered OpenStreetMap, got bored by the homepage, and forgot about it.

Several years later I began to understand that OpenStreetMap is more than its homepage. The big idea is that everybody can edit the map, and anybody can use the map data to do some really useful and interesting stuff. This dawned on me when I purchased one of the first Android devices available in the USA that didn't require a contract with a cell phone company. It was 2010. The Google Maps app worked great when my tablet was connected to wifi. When disconnected from wifi, I was mapless.

OpenStreetMap first became useful to me when I discovered MapDroyd, an app that would let me download map data to use offline. I used it frequently during my last visit to Europe, and it was often better than using paper maps. Paper maps made me feel like a tourist, attracted unwanted attention, and were difficult to use in the wind. Also, free paper maps are full of ads. Yuck. In 2013, OsmAnd does the same thing as MapDroyd and a lot more. It's no longer necessary to drag bulky paper maps and guidebooks everywhere, or to buy a separate GPS device and subscribe to a map subscription service. Not when hordes of volunteers around the world are collaborating to build a great map and give it away to everybody. You can watch this process in real-time, and I find it fascinating.

Downloading free-of-cost map data and using it on your choice device is exciting when you first realize it's possible. Even more exciting is what others do with that data. The Open Brewpub Map is one of my favorite uses of OpenStreetMap data. Traditionally, somebody creating such a handy internet resource would compile a list of brewpubs, make a map of the results, and then struggle to maintain it. The genius of the Open Brewpub Map is that its creator has made maintenance much less of a struggle - he's gotten the OpenStreetMap community to do it for him! The brewpub map regularly updates itself using data from OpenStreetMap.org - whenever a brewpub is added or removed, or its details are modified, those changes appear on the Open Brewpub Map. Its creator is free to neglect or even forget about it, and the map will remain up-to-date!

A few years ago I helped petition Google to implement a "Bike There" option in Google Maps. At that moment in time, perhaps only Google could have done such a thing. Google had the map data, the expertise, and the resources to tackle bicycle routing. Fortunately Google Maps did implement a "bike there" feature. But what if they hadn't? What if Google had decided that bicycle routing was too costly an effort or that bicyclists were a minority not worth catering to? What then?

Thanks to the efforts of OpenStreetmap contributors, Google is no longer the only entity in possession of a vast amount of data about roads and highways worldwide. Now anybody can download and use lots of high quality transportation data. The Open Source Routing Machine uses OpenStreetMap data to generate driving directions from one place to another. Had OpenStreetMap's data existed a few years sooner, people with the necessary skills could have programmed "bike there" directions themselves rather than petition Google to do it. As of December 2012, anybody with a GPS-enabled Android device can install OsmAnd (make sure it's version 1.0 or later), download map files for where they live, and use the OsmAnd app to direct them to their destination whether they are driving, bicycling, or walking.

Can you imagine a commercial entity creating something like Google Maps for a niche group such as wheelchair users? A small group at a university in Germany did just that with their "Rollstuhl-Routenplaner." Along the same vein, there's OpenRouteService.org and Wheelmap. These undertakings would have been, fairly recently, prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Because there's now so much map data -- open data that anybody can legally use, not just companies with lots of money -- and computer programming tools to work with that data, we have myriad new ways of viewing the world that didn't exist until recently.

Within Portland, home of the PDX Wifi Map, TriMet uses OpenStreetMap data for their Trip Planner to help you navigate Portland and some neighboring cities with bicycles, public transit, and your feet. On pdxwifimap.com, when you change the map view to "Bicycle Map" or "Public Transit Map," you are viewing OpenStreetMap data that has been processed to visually highlight and emphasize certain features over others, such as bicycle-friendly streets and public transit stops. Neat, huh?

If you use the internet much at all, you probably see lots of OpenStreetMap-based maps without even realizing it. Lots of people in lots of places spend their time towards making a better map of this world we live in -- a map that everybody can use and benefit from. Some OpenStreetMap volunteers walk everywhere carrying smartphones, GPS units, or even very odd-looking equipment, enjoying the opportunity to better explore an area. Others sit at computers, improving the map through aerial photos and GPS data from the people who are out walking everywhere. If you think you might enjoy mapping, have a look at openstreetmap.org. Browse your area, search for a favorite place. If it's not on the map, try adding it. Visitors and newcomers to your town will be happy you did! The OpenStreetMap Beginner's Guide has some good tips on getting started. Enjoy!

Thanks to Andrew Rasmussen and David Schilmoeller for a fine job proofreading and otherwise improving what you see here.

<< Return to pdxwifimap.com

Page last updated: January 23, 2013.
Stay in the loop via RSS icon RSS or with @pdxwifimap on Twitter.