Monthly ArchiveMarch 2016

OpenStreetMaps – Humanitarian Projects and other Features


The latest assignment for our Digital Humanities Class required us to use the open access tool, OpenStreetMaps. The aim of this assignment was to take part in a globally run project and collect data for public use.

The tool, OpenStreetMaps, is a free to use map and mapping tool, which collects data through user input. The tool is similar to that of Wikipedia, depending solely on the interaction and volunteer work of users, in order to create the content for the service. Using satellite images from Bing, users are tasked with mapping roads as well as highlighting important features such as buildings or landmarks. For specific projects, the map of the region is divided up into equal sized squares. If a square contains too many features that you feel like you the project is overwhelming or that you simply need help, then the square can be split up into four smaller squares. And if one of these square still contains too many feature than they two can be divided up again. Using iD editor, the method used to map these area is simple place down nodes and give it a tag. For example, if marking a road then you could mark one node at the start of the road, and another at the end of the road. A line connecting the two is formed automatically. The software is designed to be as easily accessible as possible. When you think you have mapped everything there is to map in the square you simple say u have mapped everything, than it is up to someone else to come along and validate it. A spokesperson for the software admitted like all wiki-like projects there can never be a guarantee of complete accuracy due to vandalism by users, however they claim that overall their maps are no less accurate than that of goggle maps.

Admittedly there are other free services available to use maps, such as Google Maps. However, OpenStreetMaps intend to be updated on a regular basis, in case of drastic change to the cartography of an area, due to natural disaster or human intervention. Also Open Street Maps allows users to add their own local knowledge to a map, such as paths hidden from view of a satellite, or important local buildings. Fundamentally the software allows for much more interaction and change, than that of Google. Also software such as Google maps are copyrighted. This means that OpenStreetMaps would have to pay to use their maps and satellite imagery. Furthermore in some countries, costs for regions to be mapped is taken out of the taxes. As I previously stated this is an Open Access tool. This tool is free for everyone to use.

When approaching this assignment, we were given two options:

  • To assist in a Humanitarian Project task


  • Add one hundred new features to your local area.

My initial inclination was to help map my own are, believing that my own local knowledge would be more useful than just looking at satellite images, however when I found my hometown and started adding in features, I found that so much of the area had been mapped, and almost to completion that aside from the fact it would be difficult to add one hundred new features to the area, but also my addition to the area would not be very beneficial to anyone. So following on from this I started upon task one. Following a link to the website for humanitarian OpenStreetMap Tasking  website, I was immediately bombarded with humanitarian projects. I quickly got to work. The projects at the time, which were of the highest priority, were projects to do with Fiji following Cyclone Winston. The natural disaster killed 40 people in total and destroyed many buildings. The aim of the humanitarian projects was to map parts of Fiji, so as to help

“support recovery efforts by improving the basemap in the affected areas.”

The new satellite images were blank and required complete remapping due to the disastrous effect of the cyclone and resulting landslides. Australia’s ABC News site has an article, here, which shows the full devastation of the disaster.

The squares as they assigned randomly, can contain a huge amount of features or none at all. At one stage I was validating a square to discover that all it contained was the sea with no features at all. There were also squares such as one I completed which only contained one visible road, the rest covered by forest. I added as much as I could to squares before moving on, leaving it up to others to validate them.

When I was doing these squares however, I noticed that the project was being completed very quickly due to joint effort, and sure enough within a few days most of the Fijian related projects were completed. And as these projects were of the highest priority, they were first ones to be seen and completed. So I decided to start a different project.

The next humanitarian project I looked into was #1568 – Peace Corps Zambia. According to the projects official description:

“The Peace Corps Public Health program in Zambia and the Manyaana health clinic are requesting assistance building a better base map of Manyaana. The health clinic will use the base map data to gain a clearer understanding of the needs of their catchment zone and to conduct basic public health analyses. In addition, the Forest Department will use the data while managing the 1,000 hectare forest reserve in the community”

While not an immediate priority, I wished to help another project with the intent of helping people in need. I found that this region was a lot more populous in terms of roads and buildings, given the more precise location, and the fact that a natural disaster had not destroyed half the buildings in the area. Accordingly, it took far longer to complete the squares. I had added in well over 300 features to a square, including a variety of roads and agricultural tracks, as well as  over a hundred buildings, including huts as per the instructions of the project. Given the vast amount of features in these squares, I ended up splitting my third square in the area, so I could have a better view of the complete region while mapping in order to see if any features were left out easier.  Even though the project is being worked on by several others, currently the project has yet to be complete. I wish to get back to it soon and join in with the others on this group project. If you wish to contribute to this project, I have included a link in the references to this project.

I hope that these maps will be used in order to aid those in need. I like to think that by contributing to these maps that organisations like the Peace Corps can get to those who need help. Overall I found the experience, to contribute to something bigger than myself, humbling. I felt compelled to keep adding in more and more data to the projects, in order to help others who either need to use the software for practical use, as well as those who want to map out the area in the future. While there were some squares I did not complete, I still felt I had helped someone else. I felt the urge to continue until the project was completed.

I have learned more about how helpful accurate maps can actually be. It’s one thing to know a region from living there, but if you are not familiar to a place, more accurate maps are extremely beneficial. It is disappointing how many people cannot get access to accurate maps, in cases of emergency, knowing where to go and how to get there quicker, people’s lives can be saved. It is a sobering thought.

OpenStreetMaps is prime example of a crowd sourcing effort that works, I could see how a similar crowd sourced initiative could be used for projects. For example it could be applied to college work, where people could collaborate on notes and work together to help create accessible and understandable notes in order to help other students and themselves

So if you feel like helping out others in need, I recommend spending a few hours on OpenStreetMaps. It can be fun, but you are also making a difference.

1st tile Captureopen maps




OpenStreetMaps Tasking Manager

OpenStreetMaps Tasking Manager, Project #1568 – Peace Corps Zambia – Manyaana

OpenStreetMaps FAQ