The Wikipedia of Maps: OpenStreetMap

My new hobby: editing the Wikipedia of maps, OpenStreetMap (OSM). Click on the link and you’re greeted with a map of the world that’s been drawn entirely by its users. You can take this map and do literally whatever you want. Print it, download it, use it for your own maps, etcetera. And if something’s missing, you can just add it yourself. That’s amazing.

The map used to be painfully bare, but years of effort by volunteers are slowly making it surprisingly comprehensive.

On its own the OpenStreetMaps website doesn’t look terribly useful. Sure, it’s a great map, but there’s no mobile app, and you can’t even click on anything to get more information. Well, that’s because OSM is not so much about what you can visually see, its real richness lies in the database below. The OSM website will “render” this database of points and names in a way that tries to look pleasing to most, but OSM is more of a database than a map. People can then download that database and build on top of that, or visualize it in other ways. And they have done just that.

Cool Things People Made with OpenStreetMap

You might have noticed OSM doesn’t have a mobile app. Well, that’s where Organic Maps steps in. It’s an app that puts OSM in your pocket, so that you can use it for directions on the go, be it by car, biking, hiking, etc. Of course the directions are only as good as the map: if your street has been mapped incorrectly, you’ll end up in the wrong place. But, as the map is completely open, you can dive in and fix that yourself.

Another favourite activity of mine is looking at opentopomap, and understand why some countries/cities have embraced biking while others haven’t. The directions roads take also starts to make sense, as you can see how roads are mostly built on the “path of least resistance”. See the orange and yellow roads here below for example, they follow little “valleys” almost perfectly. I know it’s obvious that it should be like that, but it’s not immediately clear when looking at your usual “flat” map. Plus, I kind of love the look you get when zooming all the way in, it gives off an “old foldable hiking map” vibe:

One of the most useful maps, for me at least, has been the collection of maps over at Waymarked Trails. They have maps for hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and skiing, all incredibly detailed. And best of all, that’s all information that’s already present in OSM, they’ve just rendered it in a way that’s more useful to hikers, bikers, etc. is incredible for getting biking directions between two points.

Some artsy stuff has been done too. Someone’s taken bits of the map and turned them into old school 8-bit pieces of art that could be right at home in a NES game from the late ‘80s. Then, Stamen’s watercolor map looks just beautiful, and bonus points if you can guess the city:

Comparisons to to products such as Apple or Google Maps are the first thing that come to mind, but such comparisons, I think, are wrong, since OSM is completely different. OpenStreetMap is an open, free database of points and lines people can use freely in their own projects, while Google Maps is a commercial endeavour. Plus, while OSM’s goal is to “just” accurately map our world, Google Maps wants to be useful in other ways, like showing photos and reviews. I don’t think OSM will ever have business user reviews.

Yes, for more “practical” navigation purposes, or to look at reviews of businesses around you, you’re probably better off using Apple or Google Maps. That said, OSM has immense value even just by virtue of being a map that’s open and free for everyone to use, and it benefits you even if you don’t use it “directly.” That’s because it’s likely that other products you use use OSM themselves. Whenever you share your latest run on Strava, for example, you’re sharing a bit of an OSM map. And if you start looking, you’ll see OSM in the wild. My latest spotting was on the train, on one of those screens that shows the train’s current location on a map. That was OSM in the background.

Getting Started Contributing to OpenStreetMap

“Ok, I like the idea of making a map all together. How can I help?”

The best and most fun way to contribute to OSM for an absolute beginner is by using the StreetComplete app, sadly Android only. Open it up and it’ll start asking questions about things that are in your immediate surrounding, such as “what is this house’s street number?” “Is there a cycleway here?” and things like that. It’s actually fun, addicting, and it’ll make you want to walk around your neighborhood to map more. Who needs Pokémon Go?

One step further from that is to edit directly from the OSM website. Go to OSM, zoom in on an area you’d like to map, and click on “Edit.” There’ll be a little tutorial showing you how to edit the map. It’s really not bad, and much better than the übercomplex editors they used to have back then.

A great place to start mapping if you’re new to the editor is farmland. Farmland is dead easy to map: in the editor, press 3 to start drawing an area, and draw an area around the bit that’s cultivated. Then, select “Farmland” from the list on the left. It takes 0 brain power and it’s almost meditative. I sometimes do that while having a podcast in the background, mapping random remote British farms. Its utility value is really low, but hey, at least OSM gained one more farm.

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