OpenStreetMap: A free map for a global village

In the age of the internet, for the layperson, maps have gone beyond mere geographical markers or things one saw in an Atlas and forgot about. It has become the key to getting things done online, from making sure you never get lost, helping you navigate in a new neighbourhood in your car, getting the latest set of groceries from an online supermarket and so on. With new disruptive technologies such as autonomous driving on the anvil, the use of maps is bound to see an uptick.

However, most of the maps online are owned by big corporations such as Google. These maps are often chargeable and do not offer much privacy and security.

The OpenStreetMap (OSM) project is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the globe. The movement, modelled on Wikipedia, was motivated by restrictions on use or availability of map information around the globe. Globally, it has more than two million users, collecting data using surveys, GPS devices, aerial photography and other sources.

In India, OSM has its share of active communities and users. So what is the OpenStreetMap movement in India? What are its applications in real-life situations? And what do they see on the road ahead?

Bengaluru-based Arun Ganesh has been an active member since 2008. He explains, “Open street maps are basically like a Wikipedia for maps. It is completely user-generated and run by the community. The initial map is created using data from satellite imagery. The other features are added on as more users are added to the network. Like Wikipedia, there are dedicated users who verify the alterations made by the users.”

He points out, “When Wikipedia was launched, no one expected it to survive and compete against the established names in the business, but it flourished. Open street maps has a similar trajectory, where we make sure that a large corporation like Google does not hold all our data. Moreover, companies like Google charge users for accessing maps after a specific number of hits. In open street maps, the content can be used by everyone and is free of cost.”

He says that a number of companies are using OSM: Zomato and Apple, for instance. Uber is also using open street maps for its internal communications. Many governments around the globe are using these maps to help sort civic issues. In India, navigation on OSM is a little problematic, but we are trying to get that fixed. As more and more people get involved in making these maps and sharing locations, it will become more accurate.”

How does it work?

Arun says it’s especially helpful with humanitarian disasters. “They were used on a large scale when the massive earthquakes happened in Haiti (2010) and Nepal (2015). Google maps did not have a lot of data on these countries and OSM helped a lot. In India, we saw the need for OSM during the 2015 Chennai floods when we developed an app that allowed residents to mark flooded streets. We used open-source tools to come up with the app. It was very helpful in the relief operations. OSM also played an important role in managing the aftermath of the Kerala floods last year. On OSM, edits can be made live, unlike Google maps.” It helps that OSM is available in many local languages.”

For software professional and OSM creator and user Naveen Francis, who splits his time between Kerala and Bengaluru, it was being a witness to a road accident that got him interested in OSM. “I wanted to create an open-data resource on roads in India. I started by creating road articles in English Wikipedia. Those articles required maps and the default choice was OSM. I began with focussing on state and national highways. I began disaster response mapping only after the Kerala floods,” he says. Many disaster-zone areas have benefitted: As part of relief operations, we aided in many situations, such as the Kerala and Coorg floods, cyclone Gaja and the Nagaland flash floods last year. “The precision in details offered by OSM aided in the relief operations.”

Currently, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Grab are contributing to OSM mapping. “As far as making the maps goes, the projects have covered 16 lakh kilometres, out of 56 lakh kilometres are roads in the country. Most of the national highways, railways, rivers and forests are covered. There is a lot of ground to be covered in terms of buildings and structures,” says Naveen.”

Floods and beyond

For Manoj K, from Thrissur, OSM was the go-to resource for aiding in flood relief, post the August floods in Kerala. He explains, “Most applications involved in flood relief ran OSM as the background map, including This was mainly because Google maps would freeze beyond a point and there was a need for free maps. We were aided by the humanitarian OpenStreetMap team and Facebook as well.” He says that since OSM is a voluntary service, work has been a little slow, but is seeing new energy and direction, post the work done during the recent floods. “I think that as the community grows, OSM will be used for multiple purposes.”

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 12:06:45 PM |

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