Inspired by the crowd-sourcing success of Wikipedia, Open Street Map (OSM) was set up in 2004, in response to the limited online map data for many parts of the world. It is thought that over a million people are now signed up and contributing to OSM's world map.
“We brought urban village leaders together with university students, and asked them 'where is the important infrastructure in your village?' And we started mapping.”
Users can trace new routes for the map, using portable GPS (Global Positioning System) devices that can upload the data to OSM. More recently, users have been doing mapping work from their homes by looking at satellite imagery of particular areas to use as a template for updating the routes in OSM from their computers.
Kate Chapman, director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, an initiative that applies the principles of open source to humanitarian response and economic development, told the convention that her organisation's work using OSM had helped Indonesians prepare for the floods that hit Jakarta earlier this year by pinpointing the location of floods and information centres.
"The one thing you know about Jakarta, is it's full of people," she said. "The other thing it has a lot of is flooding… We brought urban village leaders together with university students, and sat down with them and asked them 'where is the important infrastructure in your village?' And we started mapping."
"What inspired the work we do today was the 2010 earthquake in Haiti," Chapman tells SciDev.Net. "The earthquake happened and the OSM community started spontaneously mapping. And soon it became the most accurate road map of the capital, Port-au-Prince."
The maps, which included the locations of displaced people, health facilities and basic infrastructure, were used by search and rescue teams, as well as the UN and World Bank.
Harry Wood, from the Open Street Map Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that supports the OSM project, says OSM is a useful tool for aid agencies during disasters, for a number of reasons.
"They can go to OSM as an easy-to-access data source, which can be updated minute by minute," he tells SciDev.Net. "It's high-level detail, capturing road networks in particular, so it gets used as a base map by these organisations. They then lay markers on top of OSM for temporary situational updates, for example if there's a relief centre which has been set up, or death toll statistics for the area."
More recently, OSM mappers have been responding to June's floods in Uttarakhand, northern India, where 5,700 people are presumed dead. Many are working remotely using satellite data to update OSM on roads and villages in those areas, which can show whether they are still accessible for trucks delivering aid.
But Chapman says OSM needs to become more user-friendly to fulfil its potential.
"It started out being very technical," she tells SciDev.Net. "So you had to really want to get involved. There are also language barriers in the documentation and software. However, the situation is improving, and over time I think it will be possible for more and more people to get involved."
Link to Open Street Map