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  • R.M. Salomon, Arizona State University

Why OSM? Or, why not?

For the common folk, questions may arise as to why people who depend on maps use varying platforms to explore geographic locations. Why use Google Maps, for instance, when looking for the best sushi restaurant, the closest Uniqlo store? Why not use crowd-sourced OpenStreetMap? Or what about ArcGIS? There are no easy answers and correct answers to such questions. But it is interesting to note, all these geographical platforms mentioned enable the user to utilize geographic data for their purposes with accuracy. Yet there seem to be legit evidence pointing to an order as to which software to pick depending on the job at hand. Why such codification? It maybe rational to point out that although Google Maps, ArcGIS and OSM all use credible mapping software, the public seem to identify each with a surmised specialty of use.

Let’s take OpenStreetMap (OSM), for example. As a prominent example of volunteered geographic information, OSM has grown in utility among mappers and users wishing to have more control over the editability of maps without fear of infringing copy-righted materials. Mirroring the success of Wikipedia, OSM has become the banner for the growth of crowd-sourced usable information data. Any geographic data that is edited on OSM is owned by the editor and the global community. Google Maps in most instances can be used for free. But as a product of a global corporation, Google Maps is often an advertising company and it uses our geographic search results and location information for marketing purposes. Unlike OSM, edits using Google Maps’ Map Maker is pretty much owned by Google Corp. ArcGIS is also owned by a global corporation, ESRI. Although ArcGIS also deals with maps, it has its own utility prescription quite distinct from that of Google Maps and OSM.

ArcGIS, as part of the name implies, focuses on geographic data that can be used to map-out geographic trends and phenomena that are used for compiling, analyzing, sharing and managing information that has the potential for a wide range of application using geographic information. Users of ArcGIS are often cartographic professionals such as GIS analysts, Geographers, Planners and Engineers overseeing projects for the private sector, the government and the military. At left is an example this author has mapped about Euclidean distance measurement discerning between wildfire areas (red), and free-roaming herd areas (green) using ArcGIS software. Using ArcGIS often require subscription.

Open Street Map is free. Edits done on OSM is property of the mapper and the global community. OSM has a tight knit global mapping community. This has enabled OSM to closely monitor and if necessary, regularly update its system to protect it against vandalism. Vigilance is key in preventing vandalism in open-sourced platforms like Open Street Map. Growth of OSM among major organizations is attributed to its flexibility of use. OSM is styling ready, catering to any project specifications that are needed. Best of all, maps can be downloaded offline and is customizable to one’s chosen language, all for no charge. Although OSM has a variety of utility-in-its own right, the one that stands out is its feasibility when utilized to map geographic locations during humanitarian relief efforts. Whether the relief effort is an emergency crisis like Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, or just to establish resiliency versus vulnerability status of a geographic location against disasters, OSM is the platform of choice. Unlike ESRI and Google, users of OSM do not have to deal with corporate bureaucracy, making responses to humanitarian relief efforts quicker to mobilize with its legions of discretionary mappers worldwide.

Yet, the most widely used mapping platform for the common user is Google Maps. Yes, it is also mostly free. Subscriptions are not required. Just an app download will do. But like the Google search engine, geographic searches and user tendencies are recorded by the company for marketing purposes. Unlike OSM, Google is a business and obligated to sell maps. Google Maps and Google Map Maker targets the mass market as consumers. It is not surprising that when one needs directional assistance, inquisitive about best routes away from traffic, or just in search of the nearest convenience store, Google Maps come in handy. Most can attest to the user-friendly interface of OSM when compared to other mapping software like ArcGIS, for instance. Yet Google Maps is even friendlier. All users have-to do is enter desired location for directional assistance, or click the pre-fabricated buttons like: bars, restaurants, hotels, etc. and geographic information will be conveniently provided.

So, why bother using VGI OSM over ArcGIS or Google Maps with all these amenities offered by corporate owned mapping platforms? I’d say, why not? OSM is open. It is owned by the global community of mappers it represents. It is customizable while having the flexibility of use controlled by the mapper, not the global corporate elite. Lastly, it is easier to mobilize OSM mappers in response to emergency situations globally. No mapping software is perfect. Google Maps is convenient as a directional locator and if you’re in a touristy mode. If you’re a researcher, or an analyst, ArcGIS is your tool of choice. Yet, if you’re a mapper or a map user who value ownership of your contributions for the global mapping community, it is worth to give Open Street Map a spin.

Ramwil M. Salomon is a B.S. Geography senior at Arizona State University who recently participated in the Summer 2019 USAID YouthMappers GeoCenter Virtual internship program.

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