OpenStreetMap: the simple map that became a global movement

When I created OSM (OpenStreetMap), more than 10 years ago, my idea was to create a simple map“. So thought Steve Coast, creator and founder of the OpenStreetMap (OSM), probably wouldn’t have imagined that in 2016, the registered users around the world, would have been over 2, 4 million, a number that makes OSM the Wikipedia of the maps and, in the terms of participation and sharing, the largest map in the world.

Written by Claudia Mocci


One of the questions I often asked to myself and I guess that all the users ask themselves the first time they use this tool is: what makes OpenStreetMap so special?

There are two key aspects to be considered, one purely technical and an other more sociological. Contributing to OSM, by “drawing” what is visible can technically be done from anywhere and from anyone. Using one of the various editing interfaces, you can create the data starting from an aerial photograph of a particular place in the world and drawing long lines (roads, waterways, paths), or drawing around the areas (buildings, playgrounds, forests …) that you can see in the picture.

The second aspect, according to me, is the most important and it’s related to social utility: these maps are based on the philosophy of open source and open data, sharing and free reuse are the cardinal principles.

Contributors and users are different, as different are the reasons that lead each of them to contribute. There are random or systematic mappers, those who participate because they have a special connection and interest with a particular place, others that add and modify datas associated to humanitarian events and crises.

The data produced by OSM, as raw and free, have given birth to many important social projects, as Wheelmap, an online map and related app, open and free for the wheelchair accessibility. Wheelmap allows users to share and access information on accessibility for wheelchairs in public places.

On the subject of humanitarian emergencies, there is a project developed by HumanitarianOpenStreetMap Team for remote mapping of areas affected by the crisis, the Tasking Manager .The basic idea is that a free geographic database improves the readiness of response in case of crises and natural disasters, helping to save lives. In addition, access to this geo-database is a great way to get involve local actors and the start of the community resilience processes. Another aspect, not least, is to consider: this kind of mapping – conducted mainly by volunteers using open source tools with connections often household – has no cost for humanitarian organisations.

Shortly, maps help aid workers to understand and respond to humanitarian crises (MapAction, 2015). The Director of Save the Children International, Charlie Mason (from MapAction, 2011, p 3) said that: “In case of emergency we need maps, maps of the affected population, displaced persons, the main streets, other humanitarian actors, clinics, water points and so on, all the things we need to plan and coordinate the response “. OpenStreetMap has become even this, a comprehensive and participated response for this type of need. Projects such CartOng, Missing Maps and many projects born after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, in Nepal in 2015th the latest in Ecuador and Sri Lanka are a practical and tangible demonstration.


Photo credits: Mapping in Lubumbashi (RDC) 

How mapping can help defeat the Ebola virus

Over time, technological tools for emergency services have evolved. Particularly, digital mapping plays an increasingly important role in helping people in charge of managing humanitarian crises and their operations.

Some months ago, doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reviewed existing tools and skills to deal with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. MSP then decided to send an expert cartographer of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Guinea to support international and local medical teams fighting the epidemic.

The case study written by Timo Luege, the MSF officer sent to Guinea, helps to understand if it was the right approach to deal with the emergency. Some points of interest in the report by Timo Luege:

  • Many of the areas close to the border of Guinea and Sierra Leone never had been mapped before. For this reason, differences were easy to spot.
  • Despite being in a remote area, the GIS officer had an internet connection which was enough to obtain support. This, in turn, allowed the OpenStreetMap community volunteers to make a direct contribution, and this whole experience is an evidence of how crowdsourcing can help respond to the humanitarian crisis.
  • The officer, as well as his local staff on the ground were able to provide enough information for the mapping to be done remotely. It is important to notice that, without remote support, Timo Luege could not have produced actual accurate maps. On the other hand, without the GIS technician on the ground much of the mapped data would have no meaning. In fact, it takes local knowledge to know whether a building is a school, a hospital or a police station. On top of it, assigning the correct names to the villages is as important as mapping the streets. And for this, too, we need people on the ground.
  • Because MSF chose formats and tools that encourage and require sharing, many of these maps will add value to both the community and its local government. They will also help other humanitarian organizations and development cooperation to work in the area. That is to say, these results will provide sustained benefits.

The whole study can be downloaded from: GIS Support for the MSF Ebola response in Guinea in 2014

Source: TechChange