What Happens When Everyone Makes Maps?

OpenStreetMap and other free, online tools have allowed anyone to become a cartographer.

On a spring Sunday in a Soho penthouse, ten people have gathered for a digital mapping "Edit-A-Thon." Potted plants grow to the ceiling and soft cork carpets the floor. At a long wooden table, an energetic woman named Liz Barry is showing me how to map my neighborhood. "This is what you'll see when you look at OpenStreetMap," she says. 


Though visually similar to Google's, the map on the screen gives users unfettered access to its underlying data -- anyone can edit it. Barry lives in Williamsburg, and she's added many of the neighborhood's boutiques and restaurants herself. "Sometimes when I'm tired at the end of the day and can't work anymore, I just edit OpenStreetMap," she says. "Kind of a weird habit." Barry then shows me the map's "guts." I naively assume it will be something technical and daunting, but it's just an editable version of the same map, with tools that let you draw roads, identify landmarks, and even label your own house.

"OpenStreetMap is referred to as a ground-up ontology," she says. What she means is that OpenStreetMap has no established data dictionary; you can draw anything on the map and name it whatever you want. "Like oh, this point? Yes, this is a restaurant of type 'Italian'; it has a name of type 'my favorite Italian restaurant'," she explains. Before I know it, I'm mapping my favorite Park Slope bagel shop -- a strangely thrilling act that unites me with the website's one million users, who (unlike me) mostly work at technology companies.

Citizen cartography is a time-honored practice; both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors. Crowdsourcing isn't new, either; every year since 1900, aviary-obsessed individuals have collaborated with the Audubon Society for an annual Christmas Bird Count. In the spirit of these traditions, OpenStreetMap was founded in 2004 as a response to the Ordnance Survey, England's national mapping agency, whose maps were then so inaccurate that small towns and villages put up signs warning drivers not to follow its satellite navigation.

"SUVs were barreling through churchyards and going down little dirt roads through pastures," Barry says. Finally, a frustrated physics student named Steve Coast developed OpenStreetMap as a way to give cartography back to the public. Now, data is the website's "raison d'être," says Richard Weait, a Canada-based contributor. In countries like Germany, which are considered completely mapped, a common joke is that you can route yourself to the nearest penguin because zoo enthusiasts have probably mapped them. "So because you're putting it into the hands of people, they can gather what's important to them," another mapper says. "Not only can you say, 'How can I get to my nearest penguin?' but, 'How can I get to my nearest penguin in a wheelchair?'"

Because of its origin, the website is still riddled with U.K. verbiage, which can sometimes present confusion. As we work, an older man named MacKay Wolff comes across a term he hasn't heard before. "That's for walking directions," Barry says.

"Or horse directions," Eric says.

"Oh my god, what if there's a horse cab?"

"I feel like civilization would be a very different place if we were all back to riding horses again," says an artist named Ingrid.

"A smellier place."

"There'd be a lot less mental health issues, too, because I feel like there's something natural about the sound of a horse clopping," Wolff says.

"But how would you time directions for that? Like, what if there's a really lazy horse? I guess that's true with biking directions."

"I heard that all the streets in Boston are just cow paths paved over."

"I feel like that's not unusual," Barry says. "MacKay, do you feel like the sound of coconuts accurately yields mental health benefits on par with horse hooves?"

Soon, everyone goes quietly back to mapping.

* * *

"Traditional cartographers today might say some form of, 'Kids these days, they don't know the rules,'" says Erik B. Steiner, a former president of the North American Cartographic Information Society. "I hear that sometimes at conferences. People lament that there's this huge influx of people doing cartography who aren't cartographers." By "cartographer," they mean someone who is skilled in trade techniques like projection (transforming a globe into a flat map) or who knows how to interpret line weights. Instead, new cartographers are increasingly software engineers or developers using programming languages like JavaScript and Python. Steiner, himself a graduate of Penn State's prestigious cartography program, sees the plurality of technique as beneficial. Whether a map is good or bad shouldn't be based on the narrative of the individual making the map, he says, but rather on the map's ability to evoke, inspire and question.

It isn't that outsiders are coming in and revolutionizing mapping; rather, a new democratization in mapping has occurred. "With the tools being much cheaper and relatively easy to learn, you get people who don't have a professional interest in being a cartographer figuring out how to make maps they want to see," Steiner says. Mary Spence, president of the British Cartographic Society, admits traditional cartographers are a "dying breed," since a large part of their job is placing themselves in the users' shoes. "I'm looking at a map of Saudi Arabia in front of me," she explains over the phone. As a cartographer, Spence would ask herself, "What do they want to see on a map of Saudi Arabia? They want to see the terrain, where the hills are and the deserts. They probably want to see the big towns and the roads. They might even want to see where the oil fields are." Now, because of projects like OpenStreetMap, users in Saudi Arabia no longer need a cartographer because they are the mapmakers. 

"The thing I find interesting is that a lot of the most exciting work comes from people who aren't necessarily trained as cartographers," says Bill Rankin, a Yale University professor. Though he points to the architect Buckminster Fuller, whose 1943 Dymaxion World Map changed the way we understood the geography of World War II, Rankin -- who is also a trained architect -- might as well be describing himself.

A few years ago, he was giving a talk in Phoenix about a color-coded map he made of that city's racial segregation. In the audience were several county government officials. After the talk, they told Rankin that while segregation informed their work, as government employees they couldn't publicize the information themselves. "There was no way they could, on the official county website, say that the way to understand Phoenix is as a radically segregated city," he says. As a free agent, Rankin can use maps to make arguments the creators of the data can't always make themselves.

Rankin Phoenix map (Bill Rankin).

After the housing crisis, Rankin mapped housing foreclosures in New Haven between 2008 and 2012 using data from a nonprofit. He discovered that most of New Haven's foreclosures were happening to poor families of color -- unlike the national media narrative about middle-class families doing everything right and still losing their homes. The map was published in the New Haven Independent, and Rankin says it presented a clear case for directing economic resources to the affected neighborhoods.

"What I most care about is the sense of maps having arguments, not just being neutral descriptions of the world, but active participants in the discussion about that world," he says. 

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 Laura C. Mallonee is a New York-based writer. Her work has appeared on Artforum, the Paris Review, and Hyperallergic.

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