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Photos: "Citizen cartographers" mapping the planet

How OpenStreetMap is taking on Google and Ordnance Survey...
By Andy McCue, Contributor on
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1 of 6 Andy McCue/ZDNET

How OpenStreetMap is taking on Google and Ordnance Survey...

OpenStreetMap started two years ago and is aiming to take on the likes of Google Maps and Ordnance Survey (OS) by creating a free open source wiki-style map of the planet.

OpenStreetMap relies on volunteers to collect the mapping data and holds regular 'mapping parties' at weekends to blitz a particular area. Here are a few of them getting ready to head out on foot, bikes and by car on a mapping weekend in the Surrey Hills at the end of last month.

Founder Steve Coast (pictured far left in a blue shirt) started OpenStreetMap in response to the legal and technical restrictions on the use of other maps such as Google and OS.

He said: "This data is freely available. Google buys commercially restricted data. It can't make that available for free."

Photo credit: Libby Miller

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The "citizen cartographers" use GPS devices to record their movements as they drive, cycle or walk along all the roads in the selected area. OpenStreetMap relies on volunteers to collect and upload the GPS data that creates the maps. There are currently more than 3,600 contributors doing around 50 uploads per day.

Coast said: "You go round with your commodity £50 GPS and you come home and you upload that trace and you can tag it with where you have been, like Manchester or London."

Photo credit: Libby Miller

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Here on the Surrey Hills mapping weekend the volunteers gather back at the pub after a hard day on the streets collecting the GPS data. The GPS tracks are all being uploaded onto OpenStreetMap, which uses the same wiki software as Wikipedia to allow users to continually edit and update the data.

OpenStreetMap claims it will have the UK mapped by the middle of 2008 "if not sooner" and it is also making inroads into Europe where parts of cities such as Copenhagen have been mapped.

Coast said: "The idea is to do the whole planet. There will be a free map of the planet available. It's going to happen."

Photo credit: Libby Miller

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Here's what the raw GPS traces start to look like when they are first uploaded on OpenStreetMap.

Once the raw GPS data is uploaded it can also be edited wiki-style by other users, who can add things like street names.

Coast said: "Allowing people to edit it over the web is just the obvious thing to do."

Photo credit: Libby Miller

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Enough data has now been gathered that some of the maps are starting to get graphically on a par with the likes of Google Maps and Ordnance survey. Here's an OpenStreetMap map of the village of Oakham in Rutland.

Coast said: "We can produce something that looks cartographically good. It's a multi-stage process where you could have driven down a country lane, uploaded that [GPS data] and forgotten about it and then someone else can come and actually turn it into vectors and then someone else can come along and type in the name of it. Then it can be automatically rendered."

Image credit: OpenStreetMap

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OpenStreetMap has also started attracting interest from commercial users, and London-based estate agency Nestoria has started using the free mapping data for its online property search service in the Isle of Wight.

Access to postcode data for OpenStreetMap, however, is a more contentious issue as the Royal Mail owns the rights to the UK's postcode database. But Coast is also involved in a project called Free The Postcode that would provide the information for free.

He said: "We don't have to get every single one of the 1.9 million postcodes in the UK but if we can get to [a density of] 50 or 100 metres or something like that it becomes useful to a lot of people."

Image credit: OpenStreetMap

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