Recently, I used OpenStreetMap, a digital tool for mapping, as part of my assignment for one of my Digital Humanities modules. I chose to map Rathcormac, a village in North Cork which I personally know. I found the experience enjoyable, beneficial and enlightening. In order to increase my readers’ understanding of this experience, I will explore it under the following points: the process I undertook; the implications of what I contributed; what I learned from the experience and how I feel that I might be able to apply the spatial or the crowdsourced initiatives in my own work, be it now or in the future.
First, I created an account on OpenStreetMap and began editing Rathcormac with IDEditor – an ergonomic and easy-to-use mapping tool. It allows the user to overcome any technical difficulties he may have with digital cartography and delve into the mapping straightaway. The tool provides the user with satellite imagery of the area and all that one is required to do is, literally, mark out roads, houses, buildings, etc. from the satellite photographs.
An interesting point to note is that the satellite imagery dates from 2013 and, naturally, Rathcormac’s landscape has undergone a few changes since then. The most prominent example is the new primary school, which, according to the imagery, is still a field. However, due to my personal knowledge of the area, I was able to mark in the current location and outline of this previously unmapped and unphotographed (not even by Google Maps!) feature. I also corrected a few deficiencies (see my OSM history here) that I found on the map. I fixed over 40 awry nodes on the River Bride, as well as the road by the car boot sale field.
Once I was finished and looked back on my completed task, I was surprised at how quick and facile the whole process had been. Undoubtedly, accessible mapping tools and open source software have considerably contributed to the expansion of digital cartography. They have rendered it an almost universal activity – all that is required is internet connection on an electronic device. However, as I reflected on my contribution to this field, I also realised the negative consequences of such accessible mapping software. A mistake on the map, be it intentional or not, could have possibly disastrous repercussions in the real world – for instance, an incorrectly mapped road could result in a car accident. Although open source software is undeniably an ingenious initiative, one must always keep in mind that the material can be edited by pretty much anyone.
Be that as it may, I have learned that free and uncopyrighted maps available online have numerous valuable uses. For example, uMap is an open source online tool that allows one to create maps with OSM layers and then embed them in one’s site. The tool is simple and straightforward to use – an account is not even required. Maps are imported from OSM and the user can easily begin mapping in points, lines and polygons to represent features such as planned cycling routes or walkways. Geostructured data can be batch imported, a license chosen and various features adjusted and personalised. The completed map can then be easily embedded and shared (uMap, 2016).
Not only is uMap uncomplicated and accessible, but it also has a great deal of potential. A planned cycling route is useful, but uMap is also capable of geovisualising numerous other types of data – political, social, historical, thermal, etc. Some of the more expressive maps made using this tool include a Syrian conflict map, a heatmap of the trees in Bordeaux and a map of the uMaps (uMap – OpenStreetMap Wiki, 2016).
I believe that crowdsourced initiatives, such as OpenStreetMap, are an important counter-force to the destruction of online privacy – a mass-business conducted by Google, Facebook, etc… Since 1998, Google has gone from being a modest search engine to “an omnipresent force, spanning search, email, video, productivity, smartphones, laptops, glasses, navigation and more”(Sawers, 2014) and now makes large profits from selling our harvested data. OpenStreetMap, on the other hand, “respects communities and respects people” (Wroclawski, 2014). Moreover, with Google Maps, we are no longer in the position to decide how our area looks, since Google chooses which businesses to display. Serge Wroclawski, an OpenStreetMapper, argues, :
“…as a society, no one company should have a monopoly on place (…) Place is a shared resource, and when you give all that power to a single entity, you are giving them the power not only to tell you about your location, but to shape it.”(ibid)
By being free, uncopyrighted and open source, OpenStreetMap reclaims our ownership to place, ever since Google decided that this can be treated as a commodity. The advantage of using crowdsourcing in a project like this shines through because in the particular case of OSM, crowdsourcing eliminates usage restrictions. Google charges companies for using their maps; OSM allows anyone to “copy, distribute, transmit and adapt our data, as long as you credit OpenStreetMap and its contributors”(OpenStreetMap, 2016). Unsurprisingly, OSM is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to Google Maps (Waypoint, 2012).
The idea of using and contributing to crowdsourced software in the future sounds appealing and very Web2.0 to me. As a Digital Humanities student, I hope that I will benefit from crowdsourced initiatives and learn how to effectively apply them to my studies (and beyond). Crowdsourcing is indubitably something that involves many features of the dynamic, user-generated Web 2.0 that we know today. We have in OpenStreetMap a model example.
OpenStreetMap. (2016). Copright and License. Available at: https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016].
OpenStreetMap Wiki, (2016). uMap. Available at: http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/UMap [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016].
Sawers, P. (2016). The Rise of OpenStreetMap. Available at: http://thenextweb.com/insider/2014/02/28/openstreetmap/#gref [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016].
uMap. (2016). Available at: http://umap.openstreetmap.fr/en/ [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016]
Waypoint, (2012). The Rise of OpenStreetMap. Available at: http://waypointsg.com/the-rise-of-openstreetmap/ [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016].
Wroclawski, S. (2014). Why the World Needs OpenStreetMap. Available at: http://blog.emacsen.net/blog/2014/01/04/why-the-world-needs-openstreetmap/ [Accessed 8 Mar. 2016].