Maps are very important and serious stuff. Maps explain, and in many cases control, how the world is.

OpenStreetMap for young people: a cool game that (re)creates the real world /img/osm_example.png

Good maps are very difficult to draw. It is very unlikely that normal people (especially when they’re young) ever get a chance to create a good map, useful to their friends and larger community. This, at least was the case until some times ago. Today, working and playing together to build new maps that are really useful to everybody is much easier and much more fun than it used to be, thanks to a worldwide project called OpenStreetMap. If you have Internet access you probably already know the Website and service called Google Maps. At a first look, OpenStreetMap is something similar, but there are two huge differences between the two maps.

Free as in Freedom

The first difference is freedom. Google Maps is only free of charge. OpenStreetMap is free of charge and free to reuse in any way, for any purpose. This difference is substantial. When you use Google Maps, Google gives you a permission (the “license”) to look at their maps and print them without paying, and very little else.

You can’t make copies of Google Maps on your computer and use them when there’s no Internet access. You can’t fix errors or omissions in the maps when you find them. You can’t add new areas or new types of information. You can’t, in general, use them for many economic activities, that is as a tool to start and run your own business. And you can only use those maps as long as Google finds it convenient to put them online for free.

None of these limits exist with OpenStreetMap, because it comes with a free (as in Freedom, not price) license. That is a legal declaration, that gives formal permission to everybody to do all those things and more. The only limit to this freedom is that you must preserve it for others. By this I mean that as a general rule, if you take advantages of OpenStreetMap’s license to publish online a version with your improvements, everybody else will have the right to do the same with your version of that map. It’s the same principle applied in Wikipedia and in the Free Software world with programs like Linux, Firefox and OpenOffice.

A map that everybody can draw

The other huge difference between any map like Google Maps and OpenStreetMap is participation and community. Not only everybody can participate to the creation and maintenance of OpenStreetMap, but everybody is actively encouraged to do so! The license makes this legal. The technical architecture makes it easy, affordable and a lot of fun. I’ll show how to contribute in a moment, but first let me explain why participating to OpenStreetMap may also be one of the best ways today for every young person to help their community and leave this world a little better than they found it.

The value of maps

Maps are explanations of the world. For this reason, even if we never stop to think about it, maps are extremely important tools to work, study and help others. For the same reason, maps have always been and still are in many cases a tool of power and control. “Map or you will be mapped”, somebody said. In addition to all this, until very recently, drawing and publishing maps was a very expensive and time consuming activity.

The practical consequence of these limits was that only things that were relevant for the people with enough power and money to draw maps or buy them actually went in the map. This still happens today. Many parts of the world are mapped in a very incomplete, approximate and/or outdated way in Google Maps and other similar products: having no money nor access to the map source, the people living in those places have no way to represent their communities or find in the maps information that’s relevant for them.

This is a practical issue with very serious consequences, not just a matter of principle. Without complete, up to date maps, ambulances can’t find the quickest route between the hospital and the place were somebody needs assistance; when a disaster happens in a poor area (the Haiti earthquake is a perfect example) rescue teams can’t find the route, know where they are most needed or where the closest source of drinkable water is. At a different level, when maps only exist in the official, main language of some country, local history that was preserved in places names risks to disappear.

Oh, and there are generational problems too: if only adults draw maps, how will young people find and share information that’s only relevant for them, but due to its nature needs to be represented on a map?

These, and many similar others, are the problems that OpenStreetMap can solve. This is why contributing to OpenStreetMap is both fun and a great way to help your friends, families and all your local community.

How to contribute to OpenStreetMap

First, you must register on the website, otherwise you won’t be able to add your improvements to the maps. At this point, you’ll be able to help in a couple of ways. One is fixing errors: if a street name contains a typo, you can select it on the map and change its name. Another is to add something new to the map. You can do this manually, drawing the objects as explained on the website, or importing into OpenStreetMap the GPS tracks of some route you traveled with a GPS device.

Do not worry: you do not need to be good at drawing to create the maps. For example, in order to enter a street all you have to do is to create its starting point, a series of intermediate points and its end. A software tool in the website (renderer) will transform this sequence of segments in a beautiful road on the map, with the correct symbol (motorway, cart track, path and so on).

Following similar simple procedures you can draw all kinds of objects on the map: point-like objects (skateboard spots, wells, cinemas), lines (rivers, roads, power lines) or areas (football fields, parking lots, forests…). Basically, if something is interesting for you, it’s technically possible to add it to the map!

The only thing to remember is to never copy into the map content coming directly from Google Maps or other sources, unless their license explicitly allows for such reuses. This is essential! If you forget this, probably nothing will happen to you, but sooner or later the OpenStreetMap service will have to face legal challenges and risk to be shut down!