Teaching with OpenStreetMap – Bringing crowd-sourced mapping into the classroom

OpenStreetMap US
Attendees at the State of the Map US 2017 meeting in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo copyright Justin R. Miller CC BY 2.0)

I doubt that anyone who wanders into this page is unaware of OpenStreetMap, the crowd-source mapping platform detailing the world’s locations since 2005.  I’ve been using, studying, and most importantly, contributing to OpenStreetMap since 2010.

As a platform, it hosts a tremendous amount of vector-based data about the world that has largely been created by volunteers mapping their environment. In turn, these volunteers have created  a community that hosts mapathons to create map data locally, and at the national and regional scales, hosts the State of the Map conferences (like the recent 2017 meeting in Boulder, Colorado)  And while there may be issues of representation in online mapping communities1)Stephens, Monica. 2013. Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic information. GeoJournal 78: 981-996, there’s no doubt that OpenStreetMap provides incredibly rich data and a passionate community of contributors.

OpenStreetMap is also a great tool in the classroom. In this article, I want to explore some of the ways that I’ve used OpenStreetMap in the classroom and how it might be used.

Explore place-making throughout the world.

OpenStreetMap has a literal world of data. There is a gap in the amount and quality of data country-by-country and place-by-place2)Quinn, Sterling. 2015. Using small cities to understand the crowd behind OpenStreetMap. GeoJournal 1-19, but the contributors are tireless and continually updating the data on the map. Like pulling an atlas off the shelf, browsing the map provides an insight into the places on out planet.

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To start, simply go to https://www.openstreetmap.org and look around.  Start with your neighborhood and city, but then expand to unknown parts of the globe. Placenames may be in the local language, but it’s easy to find roads, towns, rivers, and lakes. Look further, and find paths, buildings, and other structures that inform the student how people gather and how cities are structured and built around the world. Using OpenStreetMap provides a consistent look-and-feel, and even the locations with limited data provide an insight into what is happening at these places.

Understand the process of natural and man-made disaster response.

Since the 2009 earthquake in Haiti3)Roche, S. et al. 2013. GeoWeb and crisis management: issues and perspectives of volunteered geographic information. GeoJournal 78:21-40, the OpenStreetMap platform has provided a fast and open place to update map data in a time of crisis.  A response group, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, works with aid agencies, remote imagery companies, and locals on the ground to prioritize mapping needs and organize mapathons to update or create map data in places that need it.

In a time of need, map data (and data quality) are critically important. Knowing where the need is and which transportation options are available gives first responders the ability to make life-and-death decisions in the field. In addition, the before and after data is stored in OpenStreetMap’s history data. In the classroom, you can explore the spatial aspects of disaster response, who is affected, and how areas cope and respond over time using this data.

Learn more here, here, and here.

Use OpenStreetMap to enhance (web) maps.

OpenStreetMap provides a set of map tiles – the ‘slippy’ background images behind web maps – that document the world at multiple scales. Their tiles are updated every few hours with new data. Using these tiles in map projects (such as ArcGIS Desktop, Pro or QGIS) or in web maps (such as in our web mapping class this fall) allows a rich, quick addition to any map endeavor.

Extract map data into GIS as a new data source.

All of the data in OpenStreetMap is open source, and therefore free to download, modify, and reuse. In a traditional Geographic Information Science (GIS) class, this increases the sources for many locations in the world. Even in a city such as Denver – which has an amazing Open Data Catalog – city data tends to be concerned with the tasks that a city does – buildings, streets, streams, assessing data, and the like. Finding data for all of the ATM’s in an area, for example, or jewelry stores (as a student in my introductory GIS class recently needed) won’t be available except through OpenStreetMap.

International data is even more difficult. Last year, I had a student working on a project looking at pollution points in Mongolia. Many countries charge high fees for their GIS data – if they even have it available. This was part of the original reason OpenStreetMap was created. Additionally, working with data in an unfamiliar language is problematic, but OpenStreetMap data includes attribute information in English or easily translated. Thus, OpenStreetMap provides a rich set of data not otherwise available.

Become data creators – contribute to the map.

For students new to mapping, creating data can be an empowering experience. Students can add their local expertise to create paths, buildings, and roads or to expand the attribute data – the non-spatial characteristics of a place like name and purpose – in their area. OpenStreetMap has a great set of instructions for how to begin adding data. A user doesn’t need to be an expert in mapping data to make a contribution (although more knowledge is always helpful).  Using the map editors also gives students the opportunity to learn more about how data is created – and understand the limitations of spatial data.

A mapathon is another option for contributing to OpenStreetMap. A mapathon is an event where new and experienced users come together to map data with a purpose. A mapathon provides a place to gain expertise from experienced mappers. If you want to visit a mapathon to learn more, Missing Maps keeps a list. You can also find Meetup groups for OpenStreetMap.

Build a community – host a mapathon.

Fall 2017 Mapathon at MSU Denver

In my web mapping class, we spent a few weeks discussing map data and OpenStreetMap. Then I surprised them – the students would be hosting a mapathon. In a class of 21 students, we created five teams to handle aspects of the mapathon:

  • Marketing and Communication Team – This team was responsible for getting the word out about the mapathon and answer questions that came up about the event. (2-3 people)
  • Documentation Team – This team was responsible for putting together handouts and guides that can be given to mappers on the day of the mapathon. (2-3 people)
  • Presentation Team – This team was responsible for putting together the presentation at the start of the mapathon and giving the presentation. (2-3 people)
  • Logistics Team – This team was responsible for “behind the scenes” management of the event including prepping the rooms, helping to get pizza, snacks and drinks, and making sure that things stay on time. (3-4 people)
  • Training Team – This team was responsible for helping guests and answering questions at the event. (5-6 people)

Each team had a team leader, and one student was elected Project Manager to work with the entire event, keep track of the to-do items, and make sure it went smoothly. As an instructor, it’s incredibly rewarding to see the students take charge and manage the event with only a minimum of input and direction. We had a strong turnout of guests including other students and the community, and the project generated new data for several areas hit by recent hurricanes.

Missing Maps provides everything you need for hosting your first mapathon.

Evaluate the map: explore issues of positional and attribute accuracy, uncertainty, completeness, and contributor motivation.

The Star Wars Trails in VermontThe image on the left shows several trail names in a National Forest area in Vermont. These trails are called “Han Solo”, “Tatooine”, and the “Millennium Falcon” – names familiar to even the most casual Star Wars fan. Are these really hiking trails in Vermont? Or has someone had fun vandalizing the map data? If you’ve never been there, how do you trust this data?

All map data has issues related to accuracy and uncertainty – key concepts in GIS.

  • Positional and Attribute Accuracy – how closely does the map data align to the items in the real world?
  • Completeness – how much of the map data is there or missing?
  • Temporal Accuracy – is the data still there? When did it exist?
  • Uncertainty – To what degree does user error, scale error, and other measurement issues cloud the accuracy of the data?
  • Contributor Motivation – why did this OpenStreetMap contributor add this data? What does this say about the data and the contributor?4)Budhathoki, N. 2010. Participants’ Motivations To Contribute Geographic Information in an Online Community. Dissertation.
  • Metadata – how well is the creation of the data annotated?

Because of the nature of OpenStreetMap and the unique contribution that each creator makes, data quality is a huge concern in OpenStreetMap5)Koukoletsos, T. et al. 2012. Assessing data completeness of VGI through an automated matching process procedure for linear data. Transactions in GIS 16(4): 477-4986)Mooney, P, Corcoran, P. 2012. The annotation process in OpenStreetMap. Transactions in GIS 16(4): 561-5797)Zielstra, D. and Zipf, A. 2010. A comparative study of proprietary geodata and Volunteered Geographic Information for Germany. 13th AGILE International Conference on Geographic Information Science 2010. Guimaraes, Portugal8)Haklay, M. et al. 2010. How many volunteers does it take to map an area well? The validity of Linus’ law to Volunteered Geographic Information. Cartographic Journal. 47(4):315-322. Because of this, it’s a natural place to examine the issues of data quality in the map and how they relate to trust and use of the map.

These are ways that I’ve used OpenStreetMap in the classroom. I’d love to hear your feedback – tell me how you’ve used OpenStreetMap in your class.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Stephens, Monica. 2013. Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic information. GeoJournal 78: 981-996
2. Quinn, Sterling. 2015. Using small cities to understand the crowd behind OpenStreetMap. GeoJournal 1-19
3. Roche, S. et al. 2013. GeoWeb and crisis management: issues and perspectives of volunteered geographic information. GeoJournal 78:21-40
4. Budhathoki, N. 2010. Participants’ Motivations To Contribute Geographic Information in an Online Community. Dissertation.
5. Koukoletsos, T. et al. 2012. Assessing data completeness of VGI through an automated matching process procedure for linear data. Transactions in GIS 16(4): 477-498
6. Mooney, P, Corcoran, P. 2012. The annotation process in OpenStreetMap. Transactions in GIS 16(4): 561-579
7. Zielstra, D. and Zipf, A. 2010. A comparative study of proprietary geodata and Volunteered Geographic Information for Germany. 13th AGILE International Conference on Geographic Information Science 2010. Guimaraes, Portugal
8. Haklay, M. et al. 2010. How many volunteers does it take to map an area well? The validity of Linus’ law to Volunteered Geographic Information. Cartographic Journal. 47(4):315-322

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