In todays world Google is everywhere. Your web search is powered by Google, your phone (if using Android-based device) is filled with Google services, used not only by people with Android smartphones, such as Google Play, YouTube, Translate, Gmail, Google Drive, Chrome, and Google Maps.

From its humble beginnings, Google became one of the most recognizable companies in the world and one of their largest projects is Google Maps. Providing a complete, accurate, and an almost perfect map of the world. But, the problem is that Google Maps is a project led by one company where that company makes all the work, but at the same time keeps all the data. A common user can only use the data, she cant change it, add new details, or make any changes.

So, is there a map project allowing all that, giving a common user means to map her surroundings, to make changes, to update maps with more recent data? Yes, there is. OpenStreetMap foundation is basically Wikipedia of maps. Anyone can add new data, anyone can do the mapping, and anyone can update maps.

Enter OpenStreetMap

The project was founded in 2004 by Steve Coast. The initial goal was to map the entire United Kingdom. After a couple of years, OpenStreetmap foundation began to grow, becoming the first choice when it comes to free geospatial data. During 2006 Yahoo allowed the foundation to use its aerial photography for mapping purposes, and in 2007 AND (Automotive Navigation Data) donated road data for the Netherlands, India and China to the project. In coming years, the project managed to construct tools needed in order to export map data to portable GPS units.

OpenStreetMap map data is used today by Foursquare, Craigslist, and Apple, who all switched from Google to OSM.

OpenStreetMaps can be used by everyone, all you have to do is visit the site and start browsing the map like you would do with Google Maps. But Google Maps cant be edited by users. Google decides about the businesses shown, about street addresses, about every single detail. OSM is quite different. After making an account, you can add POIs (points of interest), change street names, and generally change the map in real time.

Truly Open Source and Community Driven

This is certainly a cool feature, but since OSM relies on its user base to make map data accurate and up-to-date, there are more tools, powerful tools allowing volunteers from around the world to record their own map data, mapping their world and adding it to the growing vault of map data already available on OSM.

As long as users credit OSM and its contributors they can freely copy, transmit, distribute and adapt the map data since OSM is open data project. OSM has more than 1.3 million registered users and all of them can contribute OSM in their own way. Whether its just making a couple of changes, adding new places or updating the maps layout for instance, adding new roads or updating the data so it reflects recent changes, or providing the foundation with maps of whole areas, towns, villages, or countries, users can do anything as long as the data is accurate and up-to-date.

OSM cherish its community and as Mikel Maron, the President of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, said:

“We really think its important that the people who are creating the map data, or are involved with creating the map data, are the people who are living there, and the data that's created from their communities is something they have a stake in and is something that they can fully use to improve their own situation and advance the agenda of the community. That is why its crucial that this kind of project happen in a Commons with open data and within a community that supports that kind of work, and that is why I have been working with OpenStreetMap for so long.”

Mapping can be done while on foot, car, on a bicycle, in a boat, in any kind of ground vehicle. By using a GPS unit, users can collect the data and later upload it to the OSM site, thus further enriching the database. Data can be collected with a notebook, a camera, or just with pen and paper. After uploading the data, one of the free map editors (like iD, MapBox, and JOSM) can be used to edit places and roads, giving them names, selecting types of places that will be shown, and generally filling the blanks of raw map data collected via GPS. If the area is already traced by satellite imagery volunteers can use that data and enrich it by adding roads, places, streets, and all elements needed for an area to be fully mapped.

Aside from the data provided by certain companies or by volunteers from around the world, OSM uses map data provided by governments. For instance, the US has put the map data collected by the federal government under public domain, allowing OSM to use it in order to fill in the blanks on their maps.

We need different map sources. Google Maps is one excellent map source, but the info shown on maps is controlled by Google. The company decides which POIs will be shown; the map accuracy and quality can be really poor for some areas that aren't interesting to Google because there aren't enough users in those areas for Google to make better maps.

Jerry Brotton, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University London says that “There are always questions with a map of the world about whats put on the map and whats left off the map. All geographers and cartographers know that's a basic principle of mapping, but cultures tend to forget that that's at work, so every culture believes that their own map is completely transparent and objective and shows the world as they understand it.”

OSM users mapped Palestinian territories, which are almost nonexistent on Google Maps, volunteers mapped lots of cities in Africa and in some parts of Asia that are practically nonexistent on Googles service. On OpenStreetMap site, they are accurately mapped, filled with POIs and generally can be used for everyday guidance. Many villages that are just a bunch of lines on Google Maps are mapped in detail on OSM site. Even you can add, change, or import data of your area if you find that it is shown poorly on the OSM site.

The Future of OSM

Today, OSM map data is used by Apple, Flickr, MapQuest, Craigslist, Strava, all those companies use OSM data. The project is by far the largest crowd driven mapping project in the world, and it will continue to grow in the coming years. You can become a part of the OSM community by visiting the site and contributing with your own data. OSM is open for everyone to contribute, and that is the project's greatest strength.

When it comes to maps, it is logical to assume that anyone can help with mapping data, since we all want to have detail map of our surroundings and since we live in an interconnected world, we all want a detailed map of the world. OSM can provide that, but it needs help from every person in order to manage to achieve that goal. Cartography existed for thousands of years, but only recently people from around the world got a chance to be cartographers of their own world, to make themselves visible from any point in the world, of making their world mapped.