Navigating OpenStreetMap

Spatial data is a very new term in regards to computing, we can use this data in map form or otherwise to get a better understanding of the world around us. Open Street Map I found to be a good tool in regards to spatial data.

The main advantage OSM has over say, Google Maps, is detail. Something which can be lacking with other map services. With Google, you must pay to be featured on their map service, which can be of much difficulty for humanitarian purposes or charitable organisations. Since OSM is crowdsourced, this negates the need for payment as long as the user/editor sticks to the guidelines laid down by the Open Database Licence, it is my understanding that work carried out by editors before OSM grew was under a Creative Commons licence.

The map service itself is quite good, using Bing Maps as an overlay for much of the data entered by individual users. This allows users to apply their “Local Knowledge” to OSM, which can be very beneficial especially for humanitarian missions. My knowledge of my home town of Passage West allowed me to give a rundown of my town complete with local knowledge of individual buildings, places of worship, sports clubs, and historical monuments.

Google Maps on the other hand will only include this if the data is readily available, something small towns in Ireland lack as they do not have a large web presence as cities, etc.

One of the features I really enjoyed was the use of historical maps, which can be accessed through the side panel while in edit mode. It was very interesting to see how my town has grown over the years and how it’s been repurposed from a fishing/dockyard/industrial town on the late 19th/early 20th century, to a residential suburb of Cork City

The humanitarian function this tool serves is an important one, OSM responded to the 2010 Haiti earthquake by building a very comprehensive map of Haiti’s roads, buildings and refugee camps in just two days. The great thing about this (aside from the obvious help this was to aid organisations) is that it was fully crowdsourced, OSM users used their knowledge of Haiti to assist in creating the map, therefore speeding up the process of creation, re-evaluation, and validation.

Since then, OSM has been used in several humanitarian missions spanning from the Philippines to West Africa and the data from this has been used by many humanitarian organisations to co-ordinate aid efforts.

The “collective” aspect of this tool is fascinating, there are not many tools out there that uses vast amounts of primarily user based data and uses them to create a very real representation of the world around us. Through my experience with the tool, I have seen other parts of the world, particularly my old neighbourhood in Oshawa, Ontario, which has been completely mapped out, validated and published and the level of detail is dense. I was very pleased to see this, during the winter it’s quite difficult to navigate your way around with the snow and ice and such, This tool would be a great asset to individuals, businesses and emergency services to help them get around during that time of year. I have noticed also that there has been constant changes made to the map as Oshawa has changed over the last few years, the north of the city has been completely redeveloped from woodland and fields to vast, sprawling neighbourhoods to accommodate how Toronto itself has grown. Likewise in Cork, in the last 10 years, most of our city has been redeveloped. The road system has changed in Cork city to a primarily one-way system which can be a nightmare for drivers not used to driving around the city.

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Tourists can also benefit highly from OSM, something I found while visiting New York City recently. I used OSM to find my way around East Village. NYC can be quite confusing at times but I found by using OSM instead of Google Maps, I could accurately see the individual building numbers, landmarks and nearby restaurants. This not only helped me get around, but also helped me find the places I wanted to go which were off the beaten track, as the map data is generated by locals.

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In conclusion I think Open Street Map is a fantastic tool that can be used in many different ways for different objectives. The use of local knowledge is something travel writers have been trying to attain for years and now we have it in map form. From mapping out much of my own home town I have seen just how essential local knowledge is in creating these maps, whereas government organisations can map out the land and transport infrastructure, they cannot map out individual houses and buildings with knowledge on locals can give.


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