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)