OpenStreetMap – Open Source’s Answer to Google Maps

OpenStreetMap is a community driven, open source tool launched in 2004 by its creator, Steve Coast, in a bid to provide users with a free, editable map of the world (Wikipedia, 2016).  Initially the main focus of the site was to map the UK but in 2006 the OpenStreetMap Foundation was set up to to encourage growth and development of this tool worldwide (OpenStreetMap Wiki, 2016). Nowadays, the tool has over one million users each mapping and validating parts of their own area and areas from all over the world from the comfort of their own computers (OpenStreetMap Wiki, 2016).

I chose to undertake a humanitarian mapping task while testing out this tool. After looking through the wide array of humanitarian tasks on offer, I settled on an appeal set out by the Peace Corps stationed in Manyaana, Zambia asking people to help map out the roads and buildings in the surrounding area so that a more comprehensive map could be made for the health services in the area so that they can conduct a basic public health analysis. Each of the humanitarian tasks that are posted are placed in a rank order type system to highlight their importance. This system ranges from low to medium to high and finally, to urgent. The task I chose to add to had a high importance level showing that this task needed to be completed at a fast pace. This system helps classify whether the task at hand is a relatively unimportant task that people would like to have completed to a task that needs to be done as soon as possible so that help can find its way to affected area after a natural disaster. 

For every humanitarian task that is created, a set of instructions from the tasks owner are supplied alongside it telling the volunteers what they want done on the map in the area. In Manyaana, the instructions stated that the volunteers should map the roads they could see to the best of their ability and also mark out any buildings in the area and provided them with a building tag. These clear instructions prevent the maps from becoming cluttered and difficult to read. I completed three tiles in this area marking out the roads and specifying whether they were tertiary or residential roads or even just a track and also, marking out buildings where they could be seen.                      

Tile No. 1

Tile No.2

Tile No.3

I found the task to be a relatively simple and while it was time consuming to map out every individual line on the map it was also very enjoyable. The tools interface was very easy to use with it allowing the user to do what they please on the map with minimal effort. This simplistic point and click methodical approach to mapping is what I feel makes this attractive to people. There is no particular skillset necessary to take part in this, you just make an account and the user is free to map any area they like throughout the whole world. While this tool can be a massive time-sink, it also allows the user to apply their free time to something meaningful and useful to other people all over the globe.


While using the tool, I enjoyed the freedom given to users so that they can validate tiles that others have created. This allows users to critique other people’s work ad if they feel there is more to do on the tile or simply that it wasn’t done correctly they have the freedom to invalidate it. When a tile is marked as done by a user it turns a yellow colour showing users that the tile is up to be reviewed and when it is validated it then turns green so that the users know the tile has been completed. I chose to validate a tile in Figi as the tiles in the area I was mapping hadn’t been marked as complete yet as the task was relatively new. I found the ability for the user to go to the map and assess it was a very good feature which prevented the tool from being abused by people who wouldn’t take the tasks seriously.


I also had the chance to invalidate a box in the area I was mapping in Zambia. When I checked the tile there was very little done and it wasn’t near completion so I chose to invalidate the box so that others could come along and add more to the tile. I feel that the feature for users being able to invalidate a tile is very helpful as it makes sure that the best quality maps are being created for the people who need it most.

box 3 prob sat image

While I thoroughly enjoyed the tool, I often ran into problems in relation to the maps such as discolouration where two satellite images have been sewn together. Of course, it’s impossible to get one continuous image of a large landscape but the difference in colour sometimes made it difficult to see where roads began and ended and made the task of mapping somewhat trivial at times. However, I do realise that this is no fault of OpenStreetMap as the maps are provided by Bing.

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience with OpenStreetMap and the ease at which I and others are able to map our own areas and areas in far off lands from the comfort of our own homes while using this tool. While it may seem like an enjoyable way to pass the time for somebody sitting at home, the maps that we create may just be helping rescue efforts in an area after a natural disaster or simply just help somebody get around an area they aren’t native to. I believe this tool may be useful to me in the future as if I am ever representing data from an area it would be convenient to have an open source way of representing the area in a visual form.

In conclusion, I found the use of OpenStreetMap to be an eye-opening experience as it highlighted the effect that us as the next generation of web users can have on people all over the world wherever we may be by just using simple tools such as this.



  • OpenStreetMap Wiki (2016). History of OpenStreetMap. Available at: [Accessed 5 March 2016].
  • OSM Tasking Manager (2016). #1568 – Peace Corps Zambia – Manyaana. Available at: [Accessed 6 March 2016].
  • OSM Tasking Manager (2016). #1623 – Fiji – Cyclone Winston – Vanua Levu 10 – Lekutu to Naduri. Available at: [Accessed 6 March 2016].
  • OSM Tasking Manager (2016). Projects. Available at: [Accessed 6 March 2016].
  • Rund ums Rad (2016). logo-osm.jpg. [image] Available at: [Accessed 5 March 2016].
  • Wikipedia (2016). OpenStreetMap. Available at: [Accessed 5 March 2016].

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