Offline OSM

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free and open online map, constructed through crowd-sourced volunteer contributions. Anyone can add to it, anyone can edit it, and anyone can use the data. Marginalized communities worldwide can put themselves on the map. However, it does depend on contributing users having a stable internet connection, and this unfortunately limits its use in areas of low connectivity and precludes the participation of portions of the global population. Tools like OpenMapKit and Field Papers allow mappers to collect information in the field, but still require an internet connection at the end of the day. Here are two OSM-based platforms that aim to bridge this connectivity gap.


Portable OpenStreetMap (POSM) was developed by the American Red Cross in support of the Missing Maps initiative, whose goal is to provide improved geospatial data on vulnerable or marginalized areas so as to better aid humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. POSM combines the capabilities of several existing tools into a platform that can be deployed in areas without regular internet connectivity. In addition to regular OSM editing, POSM capabilities include access to OpenMapKit Server, for aggregating surveys, OpenDroneMap, for processing drone imagery, and Field Papers, among others. Using localized networks on a stripped-down portable server setup, mappers can collect, edit, and sync data with each other without the need for an external connection. This can be very useful when working in remote areas, making OSM even more open and accessible. Of course, editing outside the normal OSM environment can lead to issues with divergent data versions when attempting to sync back up with the main database. The POSM team addresses these issues here.



 POSM components. Source: http://hi.stamen.com/introducing-portable-openstreetmap-bff9b04c0e16


Mapeo is a project by Digital Democracy that also works to bridge gaps in OSM access. It was specifically designed for use by marginalized or vulnerable populations on the far side of the digital divide, such as indigenous communities. Like POSM, it is intended for use without an internet connection. Mapeo incorporates OSM’s iD Editor interface, and is based around a peer-to-peer database system called ‘osm-p2p’ that is not necessarily dependent on a centralized server. The idea is that the entire local map database can live on multiple devices simultaneously, and edits can be synchronized via local network or USB flash drive.


A unique and important feature of Mapeo is that it gives the mapmaker greater discretion, allowing them to decide which data to release to the larger OSM database, if any. Communities can collect map data, including potentially sensitive local knowledge, and then directly share it internally or with neighboring communities. This might be especially important for indigenous groups hoping to map out sacred lands and locations for preservation. Digital Democracy has been developing Mapeo with indigenous tribes in the Ecuadorian Amazon, who wish to use mapping to guard against the encroachment of natural resource extraction industries. The platform is still in the development phase, and developments can be tracked here.



Participatory mapping in Ecuador with Mapeo. Source: http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/openstreetmap-without-servers/


OpenStreetMap has democratized the mapping process, allowing anyone in the world to contribute to and edit its collective database. More places and people are being accounted for and acknowledged through its use. In the spirit of free and open technology, it is also important to extend this participatory mapping tool into areas of the world with less access to information technologies and internet connectivity, and to allow for differing degrees of information sharing.




Sam Guilford is an M.S. Candidate in Geography at The George Washington University. He is interested in conservation, environmental and humanitarian issues, and work that uses both sides of the brain.