You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

OpenStreetMap Report Maps New Lands of Growth

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, June 7 2013

OpenStreetMap's map of New York

The crowd is teeming with cartographers. At least according to a (very pretty) new data report from MapBox. The report details the explosive growth of OpenStreetMap, a free global, crowdsourced map, started in 2004, which (not coincidentally) is holding its US conference this weekend in San Francisco.

“We are well on track to do to geo data providers what Wikipedia did to Encyclopedia Britannica,” says Alex Barth, datalead at MapBox, and secretary of OpenStreetMap US.

Since its start in the UK in 2004, OpenStreetMap’s volunteer Vespuccis have now mapped 21 million miles of road data and 78 million buildings. The map can contain fine-grain details covering specific trees, alleys, and the interior of some buildings.

Like Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap is a non profit that depends on a small proportion of its total user base to handle most of the heavy lifting. According to the report, 90 percent of changes to the map are submitted by less than 4 percent of its users. Fortunately for OpenStreetMap, it has over one million users. It has added 500,000 of them in the last six months, doubled its total in the last year and a half, and adds one thousand every day.

“More than anything it’s a dataset,” says Barth. “The point is that OpenStreetMap can power so many people’s maps.”

Indeed, OpenStreetMap has given way to a subsidiary industry of companies making apps out of all that map data, like Skobbler, Telenav, and of course, Barth’s company Mapbox.

Being open doesn’t mean being perfect. OpenStreetMap took some flack for being one of Apple’s data sources for the company’s disastrous iOS6 map rollout, but the OSM Foundation insists problems with the maps originated elsewhere.

“In general the OpenStreetMap community is happy if someone is using their map, because the bigger the name the better,” says Barth. He says the Apple kerfuffle contributed to a spike in new users.

OSM is a dataset, but according to Barth it's also a community. And while he admits the quality of the map differs place to place, the growth of OSM reflected in the report shows people need not rely on for profit companies to tell them where they are.

“You don’t need to send street view cars around the world,” to provide a map he says, "you can tap into an extremely distributed network of volunteers."