Open source mapping

A map of South Cambridgeshire District Council

© OpenStreetMap contributors, CC-BY-SA

This was the second of three topics at #Brewcamp on 6 October led by Stu Lester – @stu_lester and My Brain Dump

Stu spoke about open source mapping (OSM) – a completely new topic for me – and the huge potential it offers to councils and communities to collaborate on local mapping. It could also save local government huge amounts of  money – always a winner in these straitened times.

OSM can apparently be just as good, if not better, than paid-for information. And if it’s good enough for the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) ….. The UNEP is working with Vizzulaity on mapping methane info around the world. They take feeds from Wikipedia and link with Flickr and Youtube. Using Wikipedia as a Content Management System, UNEP pushes out data that other people can see and use.

Humanitarian relief has also used OSM. After the earthquake in Haiti, Open Street Map used aerial photography from Yahoo to map the country and help direct aid and other activity.

Current GIS products are often hard to use for non-experts. It’s easier for councils and residents to use OSM. New York City identified potential areas for hurricane issues earlier this year and produced PDFs for locals to download. Bloomberg announced them and the NYC site promptly crashed. The PDFs were instead posted to Tumblr – easy access and a social media win.

Open source has fostered a sense of community. Stu cited that 15 to 20 people tend to work on systems based around the world, meaning there’s potentially 24/7 responsive IT support. If users come across functionality that would be handy it can be suggested and perhaps incorporated. It may be free, or could need a small amount of seed funding. Cheap bug ransoms can also help to iron out creases. It’s a real collaboration.

And just because OSM is free, doesn’t mean it isn’t sound. The same goes for other online tools and sites. The website that kept coming up was Open Street Map – a free, editable map of the whole world. Yes, the whole world. Wow.

Local uses for OSM include:

  • taking a screenshot of a map and adding it to your blog. As long as correct credit given, it can be used freely. Doesn’t matter if you’re an indivdual or an organisation
  • crowdsourcing to create information quickly and accurately – accessible public toilets – The Great British Public Toilet Map – and places of faith both examples cited – local government releases an area map and people/groups add their own details. It’s free, useful and the data is then available for everyone else to reuse
  • while people can and will abuse open source maps, others will correct it. If it’s a critical system, you can download a local copy and now and again fetch an update
  • The University of Nottingham is studying OSM to assess if it is better quality than other mapping. Open Street Map apparently has more correct roads that Ordnance Survey
  • Surrey Heath Borough Council is using Open Street Map data for tourist information
  • Open Street Map has even been used by artists to create new work.

This is an area that is bound to become more prominent in local government. It’s very exciting and has the potential to create great working relationships between councils and our communities, and produce really useful information for people who live in, work in or visit our areas.

Links – from @stu_lester and as tweeted by @siwhitehouse, @pigsonthewing and @mappamercia
Stamen Design – the poster boys of the GIS world (apparently!) – push all their tools out as open source
Indigo Trust – great example of user-generated content on OSM helping a community in Kenya
Open Street Map – provides old, out-of-copyright Ordnance Survey maps
Mapquest – personalise, save and share maps
Quantum GIS – free, open source geographic information system
Creative Commons: Map image of South Cambridgeshire District Council downloaded from Open Street Map. It was my first visit to the site and I found it  really easy to locate and download the image. Give it a go!
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