Open Street Map

In addition to eating my way through Neal Stephenson’s gigantic Baroque Cycle hyper-marathon, one of my ‘stay sane’ activities over the past eight months has been heavy involvement in the Open Street Map project.

Essentially OSM is a user-generated online slippy map, along the lines of Google Maps.  Features are added by users using licensed government spatial data, licensed aerial and satellite photography, local knowledge and personal GPS traces and surveys.  Started in 2004 OSM is apparently extremely popular service (and activity) in Europe and is responsible for creating some seriously detailed maps in that region that put Google to shame.  The power of OSM is best demonstrated in the rapid mapping of post-earthquake Haiti (check out some of maps from that area).  It is still quite fringe in North America with only about 400 or so people in Canada actively uploading and manipulating maps.  There is a core Canadian group of about several dozen power users who have organized a list-serve, a public datasheet to coordinate uploads, organize local mapping efforts, format data into OSM format and lobby government organizations to release data into OSM.

I’ve been working almost exclusively with CANVEC data (digitized NRCAN topographical maps in OSM) format preparing and uploading the data for Northern British Columbia using JOSM, a basic java-based GIS program.  I’ve added my own GPS and satellite image traces for trails and buildings around Mackenzie. 

Mackenzie via Bing Maps

Map picture

Mackenzie via Google Maps
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Mackenzie via OSM

View Larger Map

Apparently OSM only operates off one server at present (in Germany), which could help explain why the slippy map doesn’t load as fast as Bing or Google.  That said, I believe the maps speak for themselves (zoom around each map for smaller scale interpretations of the detail).

I’ve completed CANVEC NTS sheet 093O and I’m currently mapping  093P which is situated in the Peace River region (Dawson Creek, Chetwynd, Tumbler Ridge).

One of the greatest strengths of OSM is it’s ability to offer quality online maps for sparsely populated areas, small towns and rural areas.  While Google and Bing serve up high quality, detailed maps (vegetation, addresses, buildings, trails etc.)  for major urban areas, regions outside that exclusive circle can consider themselves lucky if they receive a basic street network.  Local webGIS applications are usually only available in larger municipalities, leaving the smaller kids out of that game. 

An recent development of note is the MapQuest creation of a user-generated system based on OSM data @

Cool stuff.

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