Why I Map

Posted at — Nov 1, 2019

Since mid-October in my free time I’ve been adding roads and houses, benches and fire hydrants to OpenStreetMap. When I started, I didn’t expect it to turn into the hobby it has become. With now over 300 trees added and 150 buildings added or modified, OSM is something that I interact with daily.

It started out as a curiosity, could I change the map so that my house was accurately represented? It turned out that making such changes were very easy with their visual editor and aerial imagery.

Next came the mobile apps which allowed me to easily add information on foot. These apps either ask simple questions about roads and buildings around you or allow you to add “points of interest” like public BBQs or statues. Even my walk home now functions as an opportunity to help complete the map of Charlottesville.

Adding to the map has made me notice things in the world that I would’ve overlooked in the past. I’ve learned that ditches are common in residential aeras and that American buildings have input ports for firefighters to feed water to the sprinkler systems. Also, every statue and public piece of art should be added with the greatest detail.

One of the primary reasons I map though, is a fear of companies owning our knowledge. We’ve successfully decentralised our knowledge of the world into Wikipedia but companies like Google and Apple have successfully convinced the world that they own the maps. This is unfortunate as you need a license to use their maps — therefore only people with a business plan can create content about our world. OSM however is liberated from companies and is free for anyone to use. Additionally, even if Google maps had the same editor as OSM, contributing to it without getting paid is laughable. Why generate profit for one of the biggest companies on earth without receiving a cut of it.

Additionally, by adding to the map my contributions live on forever, of course only if the features stay relevant. My contributions lay the groundwork for future generations of eager mappers and create a record in history of what the world was like at the time.

My dream for OSM is for it to be a living map that grows with the community around it. I imagine a map that is constantly changing that allows people to go back in time to see what the world was like at any point. If a tree gets chopped down, it’s reflected in the map. There’re benefits to this outside of aesthetics, a disabled person can know for sure if the restaurant they are going too will be accessible or allow cities to see what areas are changing the fastest.

Not only does OSM help my local community, it can also help those across the world who’ve been hit by natural disasters. In the aftermath of such an event, imagery is uploaded and mappers like me update the map with what is left. This allows aid workers and people on the ground to know if there are roads to navigate to where they want to go or if there are houses that need to be checked for survivors.

This sort of work feels important. Seeing the word “Urgent:” beside a task fills me with a sense of purpose and how what I am doing is helping people in crisis. And underlying all of this is what I have mentioned previously — the roads I lay for these communities will help them to navigate in the future if they want to.

OpenStreetMap is a project much the same as Wikipedia, but you don’t need to know anything to contribute as everyone is an expert in their surroundings. Anyone who looks at their home on the map will see something missing or something wrong. Everyone has the power to fix this and help them, their community and future mappers.