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What Is Open Source Mapping?

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  • Written By: Benjamin Arie
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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Open source mapping is a technique that is used to produce open source or "crowd sourced" geographic maps. Traditional maps are produced by a single company or agency, and they often have a copyright that prevents duplication. Open source maps, by contrast, are created using contributions from many people and are free to use for any project. Open source mapping allows people to modify or copy the geographic data for any reason.

Crowd sourced maps are created in the same general way as other open source projects. Users are free to provide contributions to the product, and the quality of information improves over time. The data used for open source mapping comes from many sources, including consumer global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite images. Changes also can be made using firsthand knowledge, such as a city resident who sees a new street being constructed or an error in a map.

Open source mapping can be very useful for everyday navigation tasks, such as taking a car trip from one city to another. Traditional maps in both printed and digital form are often outdated and can lack important updates, including road detours and address changes. Open source mapping helps to keep navigational information up to date. New data provided by contributors are immediately included in open source maps, and there is no delay between when a map is updated and when it is published.

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In addition to everyday applications for this mapping, there also are several specialized uses of open source technology. Crowd sourced maps are particularly valuable in places and situations that are changing rapidly, such as disaster areas and war zones. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, humanitarian organizations used open source mapping to rapidly create accurate representations of the affected cities and provide updates for routes that were blocked by debris. In true open source fashion, these new maps were made freely available to any groups or individuals who needed them.

Many groups predict that in the future, open source mapping will become more automatic and integrated in everyday life. Some companies have developed technology that provides updates on the location and movement patterns of mobile phone users. Other companies have produced mobile applications that allow users to "check in" and provide their location voluntarily. The increased amount of data related to human movement patterns allows location information to move out of the hands of large companies and into the pockets of millions of everyday users.

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