Making An Impact With OpenStreetMap: A NetSquared Cambridge Event Wrap-Up

Claire Sale's picture

Besides my role with NetSquared globally, I also organize a monthly NetSquared event locally, in Cambridge, UK. The April Net2Camb event was led by David Earl, an early member of the OpenStreetMap team who has helped to record mapping data for much of our region. In his talk, David shared the journey the small OSM team and larger global community have taken to make real humanitarian impact using open source maps.

David has kindly written a wrap-up of the event to share with you, and included his presentation slides for your reference:


OpenStreetMap was started in 2004 with the grand intention of mapping the world from scratch, free from the copyright encumbrances of conventional maps, restrictions which were holding back the development of geographical information on the internet. Founder Steve Coast had the vision that ordinary people would be their own surveyors, using recently affordable GPS technology and a lot of pedal power. And 300,000 people did just that.

The aim was not simply to repeat what others had done commercially, but to effect a change in attitudes from the big players, many of them governments. One of the most conservative was Britain's Ordnance Survey. They charged huge amounts to use maps in online applications making business models non-viable.

Ordnance Survey pooh-poohed the idea that ordinary people could collectively produce anything comparable to their efforts over a hundred years. At conferences they would hold up maps of London showing theirs compared with OSM. The first time, there was just a skeleton on OSM. But each time after that there was less and less difference.

Using GPS, bikes, cameras and foot leather, OSM now has the level of detail in many places to rival and in some cases exceed what Ordnance Survey can provide, in just six years.

And change it has produced. In April 2010, the British Government released Ordnance Survey data to 1:10,000 scale and less on much the same terms as OSM. Many maps were freed from the tight embrace of Government. Result!

In some ways this was an amazing achievement, a vindication of OSMs goals. But in some ways it was also a bit of a let down: why would we finish our map now?

I joined OSM six months or so after mapping started in earnest, in September 2006. Increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of publishing maps in Cambridge Cycling Campaign's newsletter, I set out to make an alternative. It took three months, and along with Chester was one of the first cities in the UK to be mapped to street and point-of-interest level. Since then, with others, I've mapped most of our County and elsewhere.

But while in Cambridge our maps are a matter of cost and convenience, in some parts of the world maps may be a matter of life and death. These are often the places where maps are least adequate. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) was set up to see how people could help. Mikel Maron is the inspiring and inspired mapper behind this effort. Using often remote sources, they mapped Bagdhad during the war and Gaza at the time of the Israeli incursions. The project is best known for its work during the Haiti earthquake in 2009, where timely crowd-sourcing most definitely saved lives. Perhaps the most inspiring project is, however, the mapping the shanty city of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi, Kenya, at the time a blank on every commercial offering yet home to a million people.

View the slides

Click to view the OSM slides