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Originally published May 2, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified May 3, 2010 at 6:53 AM

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Citizen mapping gaining ground

OpenStreetMap, is a kind of grass-roots Wikipedia for maps that is transforming how map data are collected, shared and used — from the desktop to smartphones to car navigation.

San Jose Mercury News

What is OpenStreetMap?

A visit to www.openstreetmap.org reveals a searchable map that covers cities and towns around the world and that looks and acts a lot like Google Maps or Microsoft's Bing maps — with two crucial differences: OpenStreetMap has an edit button, allowing users who sign up for an account to make changes or add features, and it has an export button, allowing people to freely use map data for software applications or other uses. An iPhone app, Mapzen, is an easy way to contribute to the map.

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When Brian "Beej" Hall first heard about an audacious volunteer effort to create an Internet map of every street and path in every city and village on the planet, he was hooked. At the time, the nascent effort had only a few American members, and the U.S. map was essentially a digital terra incognita.

Just a few years later, the Berkeley software engineer is editing digital maps so precise they include drinking fountains and benches in the Bay Area parks where he hikes, and the mapping community has swelled to more than 240,000 global members.

The effort, OpenStreetMap, is a kind of grass-roots Wikipedia for maps that is transforming how map data are collected, shared and used — from the desktop to smartphones to car navigation.

Volunteers have mapped everything from bike paths in Silicon Valley to bear cages in the Berlin Zoo, and added places like Nairobi slums that are often ignored by commercial cartographers. In the hours after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, OpenStreetMap produced detailed digital maps of a quake-altered Port-au-Prince that were crucial to relief workers on the ground, a "crisis mapping" template for future disasters.

But increasingly, the nonprofit community-collaboration model behind OpenStreetMap, which shares all the cartographic data in its maps for free, is also changing the business of mapping, just as Wikipedia changed the business of reference. More and more, the accuracy of searches on Google Maps or directions issued by your car's navigational device are based on data collected by volunteers like Hall and other members of OpenStreetMap's do-it-yourself army.

"A lot of people thought 'garbage in; garbage out' — if you only had the ordinary Joe on the street contributing data, you'd get bad data," said Steve Coast, who founded OpenStreetMap as a university student in Britain. He started the effort in 2004 when he couldn't find any open-source digital map data, and decided to go out and map Regent's Park in London himself. "And in fact, it's much better data."

Coast also has co-founded a Menlo Park, Calif., startup, CloudMade, which produces a variety of for-profit map software products drawn from OpenStreetMap data.

OpenStreetMap uses public mapping data from government agencies and aerial imagery donated by Yahoo and others.

Its master Internet map is also based on large amounts of data uploaded by volunteer mappers who use GPS units to trace roads, trails and other features. Google also increasingly relies on feedback from users to make sure its digital maps are accurate and comprehensive, but it does not allow users to directly upload data into its maps, at least not yet.

In the next few months, though, Google plans to introduce a product in the U.S. called Map Maker, which gives users much more power to customize maps.

And Tele Atlas, a company that supplies digital map data used for everything from car-navigation devices to 911 dispatching, now allows individual users to suggest map changes directly from their navigation devices.

Outdoor hobby

Citizen mapping is "an evolution of the entire mapping process," said Richard Taketa, chairman of the geography department at San Jose State University. It "is going to be part of the mapping world as we move on to the future."

Like orienteering or geocaching, mapping can become a kind of outdoor hobby, with a touch of something more.

"There is a very strong community ethic around it," said Marc Prioleau of Palo Alto, Calif., who has mapped mountain bike trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains and ski trails at Squaw Valley in the Sierra. "In some parts of the country, in some parts of the world, it's as much a social group as it is a maps group."

Shawn Britton, a Santa Clara software engineer, has discovered that adding mapping to the Sierra Club hikes he leads attracts more people. On a recent five-mile hike through Uvas Canyon County Park near Morgan Hill, his group carried two GPS units that tracked the exact location of trails.

Hall, who uploaded some of the first U.S. place names into OpenStreetMap from a government database back when the community was first branching out from the U.K. and Europe, has attended a number of "mapping parties" in the Bay Area. People get together to map an area, then adjourn to a local watering hole to upload data and socialize.

"It's everything from young students still in college to retirees," said Hall, 38, who has also mapped remote areas of California such as the Lava Beds National Monument. "Some people love it because they love maps. Some people really like the idea of free data."

It took about three years for OpenStreetMap to hit 10,000 users, but over the past 12 months, the community has jumped from about 110,000 members to 244,000.

Google has also been surprised by the emotional response people have had to its Map Maker product, which is available in 181 countries from Africa to the Philippines, with some individual users contributing tens of thousands of edits.

"Those local users took that to heart as a way to elevate their local community, to sort of put themselves on the map," said Lior Ron, group product manager for Google Maps. "The concept of what a map is, is changing. With these tools, this is no longer just something that is owned by a government; it's owned by the community."

Debate on models

There is debate about which model produces better maps — OpenStreetMap's volunteer community or a traditional commercial mapmaker like Tele Atlas, which primarily relies on its proprietary mobile-mapping-van technology, as well as satellite and aerial imagery and other sources.

Of OpenStreetMap, "I'm sure for some people and some applications the data they have is sufficient," said Patrick McDevitt, vice president of community mapping for Tele Atlas, noting its data are used for critical functions like dispatching ambulances.

OpenStreetMap users say that because their data are collected by people who actually live in a place, it is more likely to be accurate.

"It's the people's map," said Paul Jarrett, director of mapping at CloudMade.

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