25    Nov 20091 comment

Making maps: A volunteer army covers the world

Did you know that armies of volunteer mapmakers are out there - all around the world - adding data to existing maps, fixing errors on those which exist, and creating digital maps of places for which no maps are available.

A picture is worth a thousand words and a map of a place closely associated with nostalgia and family history uncovers long-forgotten memories. Those memories reveal that we don't even know what we've forgotten until a map or photo jogs those brain cells. I applaud all those mapmakers!

I learned about the new term geo-volunteerism from a recent New York Times technology article that focused on how these individuals are really making a difference.

Have you ever experienced a problem while relying on a GPS device? Perhaps the city maps are not updated in a timely fashion or perhaps the responsible company relies on a big digital map provider who doesn't have a resident army on the ground.

When visiting a genealogy society in northern California in 2007, the group's president picked me up from the train and we drove to his home. As we neared his neighborhood, he pointed to his GPS device and said to watch it. The disembodied voice kept insisting the driver turn left at the next intersection, but my friend was in the right lane. I looked left and saw a large building. If we turned left, we'd drive in the front door. He turned right into his own street. This was a few years ago, and I hope that the city's maps have now been updated by some of these mapping volunteers.

With thousands of geo-volunteers around the world, local maps are getting quick fixes. People who live in the area know almost immediately when a new road has opened, when a new building has changed traffic patterns, or when a new housing complex hasn't been added to existing maps and GPS devices. They know about these things because they cover their own cities and neighborhoods every day.

The article demonstrates that Google and other websites now understand that local residents can fix problems more quickly than professional digital map providers.

Two websites were mentioned in the article - OpenStreetMap and Wikimapia - and I decided to see what they might have for places I have lived. The non-profit OpenStreetMap has some 180,000 contributors who have made free maps available to everyone. Its maps are used in IPhones and even on a White House website. Wikimapia's volunteers create maps that are layered on top of Google's.

Parkchester I checked an online resource for locations where my family had lived in New York. In the Bronx, we lived in Parkchester, a large, multi-building development built by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and now operated as a condominium. This map (right) shows our apartment building (well, the general location), as the interior streets of the development are not on this map.

OpenStreetMap showed my elementary school (PS 106) and junior high school (JHS 127, now Castle Hill Middle School). Just looking at this map brought back so many forgotten childhood memories. I remembered the stores we shopped at, the way I walked to school, the Italian bakery where we bought chocolate ices in the warm months and fantastic cannoli (pastry shells encasing a sweet ricotta cheese filling) year-round. When I checked Wikimapia for the same area, all the residential buildings were shown, but not the individual addresses.

Brooklyn NY

Here's my old neighborhood (left) in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

On a whim, I checked the site for maps of Teheran, Iran, where we lived for nearly a decade prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Although most street names have been changed since then, and nearly all the many expressways and tunnels did not exist during our time, I was lucky as our main street was named after Mahatma Ghandi and therefore had not changed.

TeheranI was able to see the street we once knew as Television Avenue, which changed to Ghandi near the top (now the entire street from top to bottom is called Ghandi).

I switched to WikiMapia to if anything would be different, and it was. It (below left) showed all the small streets and the arrow points to our old street.


Using GPS devices and simple software, volunteers create new digital maps that have never existed and, on existing maps, fix mistakes and add data.

Cellphone users rely on maps to get where they want to go and reliable data is essential. These local volunteers are supplying it.

According to the story, Google is dropping traditional providers and using these volunteers to create maps of 140 countries, which are more complete than those from professional providers.

Try out both Wikimapia andOpenStreetMap and see what you can add to your family history! If you find interesting maps, share them with us.

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Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks for article. Everytime like to read you.
    Thank you

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