OpenStreetMap: One of the World’s Largest Collaborative Geospatial Projects

Mark Altaweel


  • OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free, open community mapping effort that has existed since 2004
  • OSM has become more widely used and has begun mapping very remote regions
  • Contributors to OSM include not only individuals but also major corporations, where editing tools have also been created by these corporations.
  • OSM is likely to remain one of the most important free and open mapping data of the world.

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is perhaps one of the largest geospatial collaborative projects in the world, where over 1.5 million contributors have helped to edit over 1 billion features.[1] The project effectively tries to map the world using a crowdsourcing, collaborative method.  In this MapScaping Podcast episodeJennings Anderson, who researches OSM, discusses the benefits of the project.

Benefits of OpenStreetMap

The benefit of OSM is it is a free, open project that allows anyone to contribute data to help map the world. The project started in 2004 as a creation by Steve Coast, who studied computer science at University College London.

OpenStreetMap relies on contributions from thousands of volunteers to contribute and edit GIS data. Screenshot taken 10-Feb-2021.
OpenStreetMap relies on contributions from thousands of volunteers to contribute and edit GIS data. Screenshot taken 10-Feb-2021.

The effort was inspired by Wikipedia, using a similar community-centric contribution approach where users can simply edit, add, or submit changes to contribute to a region in the world. Since then, the project has not only grown but has also become essential to a variety of efforts, including humanitarian workers, private companies, and a wider geospatial community.

One of the best benefits of OSM is it provides data for areas of the world where map data may not be serviced by companies such as Google that provide map data.[2]

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In OSM, there are three types of elements, which includes nodes, that is points, where these comprise over 6 billion points on the map currently. Additionally, ways are lines that represent linear features such as roads. The third main type of element is a relation, which can act as a collection of nodes, ways, or even other relations defined in a membership or relationship in a given grouping. The iD editor in OSM has been the main way in which users have edited contributions in OSM.

While anyone can contribute data, there is also a data working group that can resolve disputes or judge on the quality of information contributed; however, perhaps unlike Wikipedia, there has been generally less conflict on contributions and the quality of given contributions. Mistakes are often corrected within hours, showing that the community can demonstrate vigilance and editing. 

Mapping Disputed Geospatial Data

Nevertheless, there are sometimes disputes that do arise, such as mapping disputed international borders. This can be an issue that gets escalated to the data working group. However, similar to other mapping platforms, it is possible to view the map differently depending what country you might be viewing the data, showing different borders depending on what is claimed.

OpenStreetMap maintains a wiki page of disputed territories.  Screenshot taken 12-April-2021.
OpenStreetMap maintains a wiki page of disputed territories. Screenshot taken 12-April-2021.

There is an active mailing list and Wiki that is also used to discuss disputes, including borders not agreed upon. One benefit of OSM is the data are not only free but using an Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL) data license you can do whatever you want with the data, so there is an incentive to use and adapt the data to different purposes, which is perhaps why we are now seeing major companies such as Microsoft, Uber, Lyfe, and Apple contribute to OSM. 

Why are Corporations Contributing to OpenStreetMap?

In fact, since at least 2018, editing data show a lot of the editing on OSM is done by corporations. While this could worry some given the open and free nature of OSM, the reality is corporations are incentivised to collaborate since collaboration helps their tools to become more popular.

Graph showing number of paid OpenStreetMap editors over time.  Graph: Jennings Anderson, used with permission from "A 2021 Update on Paid Editing in OpenStreetMap", March 30, 2021.
Graph showing number of paid OpenStreetMap editors over time. Graph: Jennings Anderson, used with permission from “A 2021 Update on Paid Editing in OpenStreetMap“, March 30, 2021.

For instance, Facebook created a rapid editor (RapiD) using artificial intelligence that can automatically create streets and features on OSM. One can view OSM using Facebook and edit using its own tools. There is still a human interface to check changes made, where the AI is used to aid rather than make decisions on what to add. The tool was used by Facebook to help map areas in Thailand, but this was also a good example where the wider community contributed to this effort after Facebook had submitted some initial data, with the community filling in important details missing from the initial submission.

Amazon has also contributed in areas that facilitate its logistical operations, where the data they have contributed include driveways to houses that were often not present before. While clearly the data benefit Amazon, this also has wider community benefits in getting a more accurate perspective of houses.

Additionally, Yahoo and Bing contributed satellite imagery data to OSM. Some groups, such as Digital Egypt, is focusing on specific regions, where this group has been contributing information on building addresses, a country where such data are hard to come by.

Diversity and OpenStreetMap

There has been discussion on the lack of diversity in the mapping project. For instance, representation on the board has been one dispute. While there is still a lack of gender and ethnic diversity, the users have become increasingly diversified as more countries and regions have gotten involved. Overall, the largest communities contributing are from Germany and the US. In general, the contributions are still mainly Euro-centric. However, increased diversity is perhaps demonstrate by conferences that focus on OSM, such as one in Africa that is focusing on mapping the continent. 

Even though there are varied efforts mapping the world, OSM will likely remain an important effort because it represents the main effort that is trying to map the world using community participation. The presence of a wide number of contributors gives people voice as to what to map and how they want to map it. This is something that cannot be said in all available map data, which is why we are likely to see OSM remain one of the most important mapping data available to us.


[1]    You can learn about OpenStreetMap and view it here:

[2]    For more on how OSM has ads projects and users have contributed, see:  Jokar Arsanjani, J., Zipf, A., Mooney, P., & Helbich, M. (Eds.). (2015). OpenStreetMap in GIScience: Experiences, Research, and Applications (1st ed. 2015.). Cham: Springer International Publishing : Imprint: Springer.


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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.