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  • Katie Hackett, University of Victoria

The Importance of Open Source in The Global Mapping Community

Open source software can generally be defined as software that anyone can freely access and modify the source code for [1]. Many popular software packages have source codes that may only be modified by the people which who created it, this can be defined as “closed source” or proprietary software. However, the term “open source” is often used colloquially to describe software that is accessible for free. The Open Source Initiative, an advocacy organization for open source software, provides additional open source guidelines. In addition to the accessibility of the source code and ability to modify, the guidelines include the licence of the software having free distribution, the license must allow modifications, not discriminate against any persons or groups, and must not restrict anyone from using it in any field [2].

What inherently comes along with the feature of open source in the geographic context, is a global mapping community. The drive for open source creates a platform for the sharing of ideas and solutions to global problems. An example of the community fostered by open source is the annual conference for Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4g). [3] This conference, focused on open source global software, is hosted in a different city each year with workshops relevant to time and place.

The 2018 conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania created a platform to talk about relevant topics in Africa such as women in technology, flood visualization in Tanzania and sustainable development in Africa. These conferences allow for a diverse group of students, professors and geospatial professionals to get together to present about different open source software for the geographic context. However, these conferences are not limited to only tech talk. The conferences allow for members of the global open source community to present on how open source helps their organization to find solutions to local or global issues. FOSS4g has had involvement with members from organizations such as the World Bank, YouthMappers, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

For those involved with YouthMappers, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOTOSM) Tasking Manager is a familiar tool. This tool allows for users to select which task to work on and which area within that task. The Tasking Manager tool was originally created for The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, however there are also country, continent or region-specific Tasking Managers such as Francophone Libre focusing on mapping areas of French speaking Africa, or for OSM Canada to collectively add First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities to the OpenStreetMap.

In addition to their more commonly known tasking feature, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team also host a wide range of tools related open source mapping and The OpenStreetMap. Such as guides on how to use the OpenStreetMap for free, Open Aerial Map, and Open Map Kit, for data collection. Their code and resources can be accessed through GitHub information on their website.

When there are large natural disasters or crises, it can feel as though the average person can’t do anything to help remotely. Collaborative mapping such as HOTOSM Tasking Manager or Missing Maps allow for anyone with access to a computer to be able to contribute and be a part of the global mapping community through these avenues while adding vulnerable people to the Open Street Map where data is limited. This creates a global community of people working together, creating and sharing data through an open source platform.

One of many notable organizations using the values of open source is the Open Data for Resilience Initiative. This organization is run by a combination of staff from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery of the World Bank [4]. They are using open source software along with geomatics to assist in disaster risk management. They have active participants within the OpenStreetMap community and OSGEO, the Open Source Geospatial Foundation and connection with The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team.

A significant benefit of using open source software is that it is freely available. This allows for NGOs or grassroots organizations to use GIS to solve spatial related problems without the cost of proprietary software. This is especially important for small organizations operating on small budgets. Some of the free and open source software for mapping include QGIS, a desktop geographic information system with its own website and a large community of help, OpenDa used for spatial analysis, as well as mobile applications such as Leaflet, Geopaparazzi, and Open Layers which uses OSM for its main map display.

Choosing open source software over proprietary allows geographers, web developers, and volunteers to add to a database of free and open information, which can be used to help developing regions create their own data infrastructure, detailed maps, track sustainable development and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. The importance of the open source in the global mapping community may have endless possibilities. The ability for open source to join people together, create platforms for collaborative mapping, and provide NGOs with sophisticated GIS tools for free, means there is no limit for what open source can foster in the geospatial context.

Katie Hackett is a third-year student at The University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Geography with a focus in Geomatics. Katie has studied at Camosun College in Victoria and The University of Palacký in Olomouc, Czech Republic. She has an interest in the power of collaborative mapping for making better, more useful maps.


[1] Dempsey, C., & Altaweel, M. (2018, January). Maps and GIS. Retrieved from

[2] The Open Source Definition [Web Page]. (n.d.) Retrieved from

[3] What is FOSS4g? [Web page] [n.d.) Retrieved from

[4] The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery: Global Program [Web page]. (n.d.) Review, retrieved from

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