OpenStreetMap is Having a Moment

The Billion Dollar Dataset Next Door

Special thanks to Jennings Anderson who looked over an early draft of this post and helped me refine it. Also, as usual, the views expressed herein do not represent those of my parents, my wife, my dentist, or my employer.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
If I write it here, I probably wrote it first on Twitter.

For the Uninitiated: What is OpenStreetMap?

I will admit that I used to think of OSM as little more than a virtuous hobby for over-educated Europeans living abroad — a cutesy internet collectivist experiment somewhere on the spectrum between eBird and Linux. It’s most commonly summarized with a variant of this analogy:

Cumulative registered users over time. Source:
  • A free web map hosted at
  • A loosely affiliated collection of free and open source tools for mapping the world
  • A real-time stream of instructions representing how to add, change, or remove cartographically projected geometries and associated metadata based on a prior state
  • …Google Maps, but openly licensed

What Jennings Told Me about OSM

For those paying attention, none of what I outline below will be news. However — outside of a relatively small cluster of weirdos who pay attention to trends in geospatial technology— almost no one seems to be paying attention.

Always check the attribution. Source: Bing Maps
Dr. Anderson’s talk at State of the Map 2019, “Corporate Editors in the Evolving Landscape of OpenStreetMap: A Close Investigation of the Impact to the Map & Community.”
Seriously, watch the entire talk, it’s amazing: Curious Cases of Corporations in OpenStreetMap

The Clash of Cultures Happening in OSM

I’m in no position to comment on most of the things I write about. But in this instance, I’m particularly unqualified — OSM has amassed a long-lived, fantastically diverse, and inherently fragmented community. I’ve never even commented in one of the forums.

What’s Motivating These Companies?

I wrote earlier this year about the concept of “Commoditizing Your Complement,” in my explanation of why Facebook acquired Mapillary and then gave away all the data they had just purchased for free.

Why Does it Matter?

Well, anytime the wealthiest institutions in history are quietly collaborating on something, I think it’s worth noting. I’m not sure there is a precedent for such a collaboration — if you know of a case where otherwise embittered mega-corporations worked with a global community of volunteers on a public dataset…let me know. I’d love to learn about it.

  • Proprietary data contributed to OSM may be expanded upon and/or maintained at no additional expense by the community

Comedic relief at Umbra. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm [at] gmail [dot] com

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