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April 30 2012


How to Contribute to OpenStreetMap and Grow the Open Geodata Set

Hundreds of delegates from government, civil society, and business gathered in Brasilia recently for the first Open Government Partnership meetings since the inception of this initiative. Transparency, accountability, and open data as fundamental building blocks of a new, open form of government were the main issues debated. With the advent of these meetings, we took the opportunity to expand an open data set by adding street names to OpenStreetMap.

Getting ready to survey the Cruzeiro neighborhood in Brasilia.

OpenStreetMap, sometimes dubbed the "Wikipedia of maps," is an open geospatial database. Anyone can go to openstreetmap.org, create an account, and add to the world map. The accessibility of this form of contribution, paired with the openness of its common data repository, holds a powerful promise of commoditized geographic data.

As this data repository evolves, along with corresponding tools, many more people gain access to geospatial analysis and publishing -- which previously was limited to a select few.

When Steve Coast founded OpenStreetMap in 2004, the proposition to go out and crowdsource a map of the world must have sounded ludicrous to most. After pivotal growth in 2008 and the widely publicized rallying around mapping Haiti in 2010, the OpenStreetMap community has proven how incredibly powerful a free-floating network of contributors can be. There are more than 500,000 OpenStreetMap contributors today. About 3 percent (that's still a whopping 15,000 people) contribute a majority of the data, with roughly 1,300 contributors joining each week. Around the time when Foursquare switched to OpenStreetMap and Apple began using OpenStreetMap data in iPhoto, new contributors jumped to about 2,300 per month.

As the OpenGovernment Partnership meetings took place, we wanted to show people how easy it is to contribute to OpenStreetMap. So two days before the meetings kicked off, we invited attendees to join us for a mapping party, where we walked and drove around neighborhoods surveying street names and points of interest. This is just one technique for contributing to OpenStreetMap, one that is quite simple and fun.

Here's a rundown of the most common ways people add data to OpenStreetMap.

Getting started

It takes two minutes to get started with contributing to OpenStreetMap. First, create a user account on openstreetmap.org. You can then immediately zoom to your neighborhood, hit the edit button, and get to work. We recommend that you also download the JOSM editor, which is needed for more in-depth editing.

Once you start JOSM, you can download an area of OpenStreetMap data, edit it, and then upload it. Whatever you do, it's crucial to add a descriptive commit message when uploading -- this is very helpful for other contributors to out figure the intent and context of an edit. Common first edits are adding street names to unnamed roads, fixing typos, and adding points of interest like a hospital or a gas station. Keep in mind that any information you add to OpenStreetMap must be observed fact or taken from data in the public domain -- so, for instance, copying street names from Google is a big no-no.

Satellite tracing and GPS data

JOSM allows for quick tracing of satellite images. You can simply turn on a satellite layer and start drawing the outlines of features that can be found there such as streets, building foot prints, rivers, and forests. Using satellite imagery is a great way to create coverage fast. We've blogged before about how to do this. Here's a look at our progress tracing Brasilia in preparation for the OGP meetings:

Brasilia progress

OpenStreetMap contributions in Brasilia between April 5 and April 12.

In places where good satellite imagery isn't available, a GPS tracker goes a long way. OpenStreetMap offers a good comparison of GPS units. Whichever device you use, the basics are the same -- you track an area by driving or walking around and later load the data into JOSM, where you can clean it up, classify it, and upload it into OpenStreetMap.

Synchronizing your camera with your tracker

Synchronizing your camera with the GPS unit.

Walking papers

For our survey in Brasilia, we used walking papers, which are simple printouts of OpenStreetMap that let you jot down notes on paper. This is a great tool for on-the-ground surveys to gather street names and points of interest. It's as simple as you'd imagine. You walk or drive around a neighborhood and write up information that you see that's missing in OpenStreetMap. Check out our report of our efforts doing this in Brasilia on our blog.

Walking papers for Brasilia.

Further reading

For more details on how to contribute to OpenStreetMap, check out Learn OSM -- it's a great resource with step-by-step guides for the most common OpenStreetMap tasks. Also feel free to send us questions directly via @mapbox.

January 20 2012


How to Create a Minimalist Map Design With OpenStreetMap

Mapping can be as much about choosing what data not to include as to include, so you can best focus your audience on the story you are telling. Oftentimes with data visualization projects, the story isn't about the streets or businesses or parks, but rather about the data you're trying to layer on the map.

To help people visualize data like this, I've started to design a new minimal base map for OpenStreetMap. What's great about OpenStreetMap is that the data is all open. This means I can take the data and design a totally custom experience. Once finished, the map will serve as another option to the traditional OpenStreetMap baselayer.

I'm designing the new map in the open-source map design studio TileMill, which Development Seed has written before about here. The map can be used as a light, very subtle background to add data on top of for use either with our MapBox hosting platform's map builder or on its own. It still provides the necessary geographic context for a map, but moves the focus to the data added on top of the map -- and not details that are irrelevant to its story.

Here's an early look at the features and design aspects I've been working on for the map.

A look at Portland, Ore., on the new OpenStreetMap Mininal basemap Portland, Ore., on the new OpenStreetMap minimal base map.

Behind the design decisions

I used the open-source OSM Bright template that you can load into TileMill as a starting point for the design and removed all color, choosing to limit the palette to light grays. For simplicity, most land use and land cover area types have been dropped. However, wooded areas and parks remain, indicated with subtle textures instead of color. The fact that OpenStreetMap's data is open gives me full control of choosing exactly what I want to show up on the map.

The style now includes more types of roads. Tracks have been added, as have pedestrian routes, bike paths, and bridleways, which are shown as dotted lines. Roads without general public access (for example, private roads) are shown faded out. The rendering of overlaying tunnels, streets and bridges has also greatly improved, with most overlapping lines separated and stacked in the proper order.

Example Boston bridges
Overlapping bridges in Boston.

Coming soon: OSM Bright

Many of the adjustments that I've made for this minimal style are things that can be pulled back into the OSM Bright template project. I'll be working on doing this in the near future as I wrap up work on the minimal design. Keep an eye on GitHub for these improvements as well as our blog for information about when the minimal design will become available for use.

MapBox for design

If you're interested in making your own custom maps, try using TileMill to style your data and pull in extracts from OpenStreetMap. Documentation is available on MapBox.com/Help. We are close to launching TileMill on Windows, so that in the coming weeks anyone using Windows, Mac or Ubuntu operating systems will be able to easily design custom web maps. You can see a preview and sign up for updates on MapBox.com/Windows, and we'll post details here on Idea Lab once it's available.

For more information on these tools and on hosting plans to share them online, check out MapBox.

January 21 2011


Turning the iPad into an Open, Offline Mapping Platform

We've talked here before about TileMill, an open source tool for creating your own custom map tiles (the individual pieces that make up a full map of a city, country, and so on). But what sorts of things can you do with these map tiles? One area we wanted to explore was using them on Apple's latest touch-based device, the iPad. Providing a touch interface for maps is a serious usability win and the long battery life, huge available storage, and opportunistic network connectivity combine to make a really attractive mobile mapping platform.

The result? The MapBox iPad app. This app allows you to use custom maps on the iPad (and in an open format), as well as use OpenStreetMap (OSM) map tiles, overlay custom data in Google Earth's popular KML format as well as GeoRSS, save and share map snapshots, and much more.

To create the app the first thing we had to figure out was an alternative to Apple's standard MapKit toolset, which only uses online Google Maps. This was accomplished with the open source route-me library. Once this was decided, we created a file format called MBTiles to easily exchange potentially millions of tile images so they could be used offline.

We then layered on data visualizations, creating an open source library called Simple KML in order to parse and display the KML and KMZ file formats, something that hasn't really been done much on the iPhone or iPad outside of Google's own app.

MapBox for iPad

To round out the initial release, we added the ability to save the current view -- coordinates, zoom level, and data overlays -- as a document for later, as well as the ability to email a picture of the current map straight from the app.

As a whole, we've been really happy with the iPad as an open mapping platform. We've used some tools, made some new ones available, and combined them all in new ways.

Do you have any ideas for open mapping on the iPad? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter, where you can follow our progress at @MapBox.

December 13 2010


How OpenStreetMap Helps to Curb Haiti's Cholera Epidemic

In order to respond to the current cholera epidemic in Haiti, it's essential that citizens, aid groups and others are aware of the locations of functioning health and sanitation facilities. The challenge is that maps showing this information don't currently exist -- at least not in a comprehensive and up-to-date way.

Guensmork Alcin is attempting to change this. He is working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to expand OpenStreetMap, a free and open source map of the world that has one of the most detailed GIS data sets in existence on Haiti. Guensmork, known as Guens, is training local IOM staff and folks from the International Committee for the Red Cross and the World Food Programme responding to the epidemic on how to use hand-held GPS devices to collect data to add to maps on OpenStreetMap. He is one of 30 Haitians recently hired by IOM to work full-time contributing to OpenStreetMap to improve map details and grow the community around it.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

I first met Guens last March when I traveled to Haiti with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). In the days immediately following the January earthquake, hundreds of volunteers from all over the world used recently liberated satellite imagery to trace roads, building footprints, and other map features of Haiti into the OpenStreetMap database. The data they produced quickly became critical to the response and was used on the GPS devices of first responders and as a resource in planning the response by the UN cluster system. As part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, I was in Port au Prince to help UN and NGO staff understand how to use and participate in OpenStreetMap. We also wanted to find ways to engage with civil society members and NGOs with a long-term stake in Haiti -- and not just with the humanitarian workers that would cycle out after the initial stages of the response.

Guensmork Photo: Guensmork Alcin leading an OpenStreetMap training, courtesy of Todd Huffman

Guens became involved as a representative of the Cite Soleil Community Forum. He had seen aid workers survey Cite Soleil and believed that, with a little help in the form of a loaned GPS or two, the people of Haiti's most famous slum could collect this information -- vital to planning the distribution of aid -- themselves. Inspired by Mikel Maron's work mapping Kibera, Nairobi, we partnered with Community Forum to throw a a mapping party in Cite Soleil to bring folks together to learn about OpenStreetMap and find out how they could get involved and contribute to it by mapping their neighborhoods.

Importance of Accurate Information

Eight months later I returned to Haiti on the fifth trip undertaken by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. Since that first mapping party, we've worked with Guens and other Cite Soleil residents to map first their community and then other parts of the country. The team they've built is collecting data critical to the cholera response, building the local OpenStreetMap community, and ensuring that the best maps of the country are created by Haitians and are free to use by anyone who needs them.

As the cholera epidemic worsens, the work that Guens and his team are doing is only more important. Accurate information about the location and quality of water and sanitation infrastructure and health facilities is critical to efforts to combat the disease. With the continued support of IOM, this data will be public, regularly updated, and available for use by all aspects of the response.


Custom/simplified maps with OpenHeatMap and/or OpenStreetMap

I'm working on a project with OpenHeatMap, which overall seems like a great, simple well-executed project. It's meeting all my needs, except it relies on OpenStreetMap for its mapping, and I can't find a way to reduce the level of detail it presents. Ideally, I'd like it to simply show a very high-level view of one state, and keep out the clutter, but I can't find any way to do this on either OpenStreetMap or OpenHeatMap.

Any advice? OpenHeatMap allows you to set your map tile source, but I also couldn't find another source besides OSM.

October 29 2010


Mapnik: The Coolest Mapping Software You've Never Heard Of

On the MapBox website we describe TileMill — the project we’re working on with our 2010 Knight News Challenge grant — as “a toolkit for rendering map tiles”. To be more specific, it’s essentially a “glue layer.” TileMill is built on top of a cocktail of other open source mapping software projects, and its biggest value is streamlining other more complex tools into a clean and easier workflow. For users to take advantage of TileMill, it can be useful to understand some of the underlying parts. Perhaps the most important part of that cocktail is a lesser known open source project called Mapnik. In this post I’ll talk a little about what Mapnik is and the important role it plays in helping users style their maps, as well as how it relates to TileMill.

The goal of the TileMill project is to make it easy for anyone with some basic web design familiarity to design their own custom maps. In past posts on this site we’ve introduced readers to the general reasons why we think custom online maps are valuable and have shared a couple examples for when custom maps have been particularly helpful on websites. Mapnik makes all this possible by providing the core technology to apply styles to GIS data and then render maps based on those styles.

Here’s the basic idea with styling maps: raw GIS data in the form of shapefiles contains information about various “features” — for instance, place names, points (e.g. center of a city), lines (e.g. roads), or polygons (e.g. state or country borders). If you have the data in its raw form, you’re only part of the way toward turning it into a map. Next you need to decide how to style each element.

Mapnik in action, styling maps of Kabul, Afghanistan Mapnik in action, styling maps of Kabul, Afghanistan

The style of each feature (or lack thereof) is why maps of the same location might look different from others. At a simple level, you might want your primary roads to be red versus orange. Compare MapQuest to OpenStreetMap for instance, at the exact same zoom level — note the difference in the styles for the same features.

Boulder, CO on MapQuest Screenshot of Boulder, CO on MapQuest

Boulder, CO on OpenStreetMap Screenshot of Boulder, CO on OpenStreetMap

Setting aside conversations about which features you decide to show on a map and assuming your data is accurate (both are huge factors), how you choose to style certain features might be the next most important part of map design. Getting styling right is essential for your users and is central to map design. If you over style or under style features, it has a direct impact on the readability and effectiveness of your maps.

This is where Mapnik comes in — it provides the framework for styling map data and then rendering new maps based on those styles. Mapnik is an open source project that is heavily used by the team at Cloudmade, who are involved in styling OpenStreetMap, and it’s been used by MapQuest, who have even released their Mapnik map style files for the public. Our team uses it heavily too, and AJ Ashton and Tom MacWright from the MapBox team were recently in London at Cloudmade’s offices with a group of core contributors, including Mapnik’s creator Artem Pavlenko, for the first ever Mapnik code sprint.

But where professional mappers are able to leverage Mapnik in complex ways, it has its downsides for the average would-be map designer. For starters, it’s not easy for noobs to even install it, before anyone worries about using it. This is part of why we’re working on TileMill — we want to make it easier for people to take advantage of these powerful tools. TileMill puts a wrapper around Mapnik that makes it simple to set up and leverage the powerful map styling capacity that it provides.

If you’re interested in more details about Mapnik, check out the Mapnik website or a recent Q&A with Mapnik developer Dane Springmeyer about Mapnik performance on Development Seed’s blog.

October 20 2010


OpenStreetMap's Audacious Goal: Free, Open Map of the World

In our previous posts on TileMill, we’ve focused on how open data can be used to create custom mapsand tell unique stories. One question we run into a lot is, “Where does open data come from?”

One exciting source is a global mapping project called OpenStreetMap (OSM). Founded in 2004 with the goal of creating a free and open map of the world, OSM now boasts over 300,000 contributors and has comparable or better data for many countries than the popular proprietary or closed datasets. The premise is simple and powerful: Anyone can use the data, and anyone can help improve it.

OSM-based map of Port au Prince made with TileMill

With this huge amount of data, activity, and adoption, we’re excited about how TileMill is going to give more people ways to leverage OSM data to make their own maps. Users will be able to mash up OSM data on their own using TileMill and turn it into their very own custom map.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

To get a sense of the practicality of OSM, just look at the role it played in the response to the January 12 earthquake in Haiti. Reliable maps are critical to disaster response efforts and there simply wasn’t much data available for the affected areas. Within hours of the quake, the OSM community mobilized and hundreds of volunteers from all over the world began tracing available satellite imagery, importing available datasets, and coordinating with relief workers on the ground to ensure that new data was being created and distributed in ways that would best support their work.

Using OpenStreetMap as a platform and leveraging the existing, engaged community paid off — within days, volunteers had created the best available maps of Port au Prince and nearby cities. OSM data quickly appeared on the GPS devices of search and rescue teams, and in the planning tools of the international response community.

Members of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), of which I’m a member, have continued to support the use of OSM in Haiti through trainings with local NGOs, the Haitian government, and international responders. In November, I’ll be part of the fifth deployment of HOT team members to Haiti to support the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in their work to map the camps for people displaced by the earthquake, using OSM as a platform.

Through this effort by the OSM community, anyone looking to make a map of Haiti has a great database of roads, hospitals, and even collapsed buildings that they can use in their work. We see this kind of data sharing as important capacity-building to help people make useful custom maps. With TileMill, we’re working to create a practical toolset for working with this data.

Beyond Haiti

Moving beyond Haiti and thinking about maps of other places, what’s exciting about OpenStreetMap is the hundreds of community groups around the world getting together and using OSM to map their own cities and neighborhoods. If a map data doesn’t exist yet, there’s a chance that it could through the efforts of the OSM community. For instance, the image below is a picture of work the local OSM community did in Washington, DC, to make a very detailed map of the National Zoo.

Mapping the National Zoo in Washington, DC by ajturner

If you’re looking for open map data for your next project, a great place to start would be to reach out to the local OSM community in your area — there’s a good chance they can help you figure out how to get it.

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