Community Involvement in OpenStreetMap

Mark Altaweel


OpenStreetMap (OSM) is the world’s largest volunteer geographic information project. In many ways, OSM demonstrates the power of crowdsourcing geographic data to a user community that is global and where data that creates the map many people use for navigation can benefit everyone. It also ensures that such map data are free and accessible, helping to democratize people’s needs for geographic data.

Corporate Participation in OpenStreetMap

While we tend to think the community involved in OSM is made up of mainly individuals, there is an increasing participation by large firms in the development of OSM. Companies such as Uber, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple are just some of the companies that have hired people to review and edit data on OSM. This often includes reviewing data captured through the use of artificial intelligence from satellite data and confirming specific observations such as roads.

It is also likely that companies are beginning to see benefits from using OSM to help with their customers’ experiences. This, however, raises some potentially important points. A key goal of OSM was to have an open and engaging environment for users and data creators alike.

However, for many companies, they often hold their own private data, including data derived from different satellite or remote sensing imagery. Companies might engage in OSM where it suits them, such as listing data that customers might find of use or to help direct customers to businesses that could benefit them, but private data is not often not shared to the community, even if they can help wider OSM participants. In other words, this raises important points of what community responsibility entails and what might be expected from relevant stakeholders.[1]

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Map showing the global footprint of corporate contributions to OpenStreetMap. From Anderson, Sarkar, & Palen, 2019.
Map showing the global footprint of corporate contributions to OpenStreetMap. From Anderson, Sarkar, & Palen, 2019.

What Motivates People to Participate with OpenStreetMap?

Interestingly, where studies have been done on what motivates people to participate on OSM, the most common factors found include community interests, learning, local knowledge that one finds relevant in sharing with others, and career motivations, with career being the least mentioned in motivating someone. In other words, these motivations appear to suggest most individual OSM users have a given ethos that considers shared knowledge of wider benefit and that knowledge should be made freely available.[2] This effectively espouses the open source philosophy.

However, this may not fit well with corporate participation, which could mean that increasing corporate participation in OSM could begin to also skew map data, particularly where data are better suited to benefit firms. This could be evident in regions around the world where we see relatively less data, such as in Asia and Africa.

New frameworks are being developed in areas where there are major data gaps and needs, such as in humanitarian and health assistance, which could potentially show greater promise in broadening community participation that benefits wider users. This shows a better route to create more beneficial data might mean to find relevant factors that motivate people, in this case health and humanitarian assistance, and making that motivation something that users can respond to more easily through the use of accessible technologies.[3]

One research project showed that Pokémon GO, when it shifted to using OSM in its augmented reality game, not only benefited from this shift but it also encouraged players of the game to participate in OSM. This type of community,Pokémon GO, encouraged wider engagement with the OSM community. This resulted in benefiting OSM by increasing users who were motivated to improve the overall map for all users.

In effect, it represented an additional motivator given to encourage or widen the base of the crowdsourced data.[4] The results demonstrate how different community-based activities, where both are motivated by the need for better geographic data, could be merged so that they both benefit.

The effect of Pokémon GO on volunteer contributions to OpenStreetMap in South Korea.  Figure: Johnson, 2019
The effect of Pokémon GO on volunteer contributions to OpenStreetMap in South Korea. Figure: Johnson, 2019

The OSM community is a great example of how wide-scale participation has brought mutually beneficial results for community participants. More recent participants now include large private companies, who may not always have the same motivations as other participants. Nevertheless, by merging user communities, such as the example of Pokémon GO shows, then participation may widen those who contribute on OSM, giving greater community benefit. This might be something to consider to help with large data gaps still evident in Africa and Asia in particular.

How to learn OpenStreetMap

The LearnOSM site offers free tutorials and step-by-step instructions in both English and Indonesian for learning about and contributing to OpenStreetMap, the crowd sourced GIS data and mapping application.  

The site has a “Beginner’s Guide” section that takes the novice through how to navigate through the OpenStreetMap interface, create a user account, add data, and perform more advanced tasks.  The Beginner’s Guide can be accessed chapter by chapter on the web site or downloaded as a PDF document.

There is also a “How To” section which has one entry: 

The Basics of Quantum GIS which includes instruction on where to access and download OpenStreetMap data.  This entry provides extensive instructions on using QGIS and is a useful guide for those looking to explore this free and open source GIS application.

Visit: LearnOSM


[1]    For more on OSM participants and the share of different entities and individuals involved, including what that entails, see:  Anderson, J., Sarkar, D., Palen, L., 2019. Corporate Editors in the Evolving Landscape of OpenStreetMap. IJGI 8, 232.

[2]    For more on motivation for participation on OSM, see:  Budhathoki, N.R., Haythornthwaite, C., 2013. Motivation for Open Collaboration: Crowd and Community Models and the Case of OpenStreetMap. American Behavioral Scientist 57, 548–575.

[3]    For more on a possible framework to encourage greater participation in low participation areas, see:  Porto de Albuquerque, J., Yeboah, G., Pitidis, V., Ulbrich, P., 2019. Towards a Participatory Methodology for Community Data Generation to Analyse Urban Health Inequalities: A Multi-Country Case Study. Presented at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

[4]    For more on how Pokémon GO influenced OSM, see:  Johnson, B. A., 2019. How an augmented reality game (Pokémon GO) affected volunteer contributions to OpenStreetMap. Proceedings of the International Cartographic Association, 2, 2019. 29th International Cartographic Conference (ICC 2019), 15–20 July 2019, Tokyo, Japan.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.