Review of OpenStreetMap (in 2021)

There has been more than one revolutionary event in the field of web maps since the beginning of the 21st century. One of those is the rise of google maps. The other is the success of the OpenStreetMap project. Google maps is built for end-user consumers. While OpenStreetMap is built for users, developers, and machines on the internet to take the full potential of the global covered geographic data. The difference comes from the fact that OpenStreetMap is an open geographic database.  

Google maps and OpenStreetMap are essentially 2 different products. although they all aim to provide people with better comprehension and understanding of this world. The functionalities of the OpenStreetMap are only limited to the possible applications created by developers. I will give reviews on the OpenStreetMap and its ecosystem with the same criteria from 3 aspects: data, functionalities, and interoperability & extensibility. 

  1. Data

OpenStreetMap devotes the collaborative efforts to feature data, A.K.A vector format of geographic data with coordinates on points, lines, and polygons. The data is all about coordinates. No imagery and terrain are provided. External data sources such as satellite imagery from Bing and Mapbox are imported as backgrounds for users to trace features on top of it. Due to the characteristics of an open database, everyone can download, process, publish, distribute the data. According to the statistics, Currently, there are more than 7 billion nodes, 800 million ways, and 9 million relations in the database. It is likely to be the largest geographic database in the world even comparing to Google maps’ vault of vector data. 

2. Functionalities 

Various applications have been developed around the OpenStreetMap database. It includes all kinds of maps, software, and services for drivers, cyclists, fishers, and hikers, etc. here is a short list I am aware of:

1. Online editing. This is where OpenStreetMap started. 

2. Interactive maps such as openstreetmap.org and OpenCycleMap.org and openrailwaymap.org. More on this page.

3. geo-name searching. The service is called “Nominatim” and is accessible on the main site.

  4. Route planning, “OSRM” and “Graphhopper” are available among others on the main site. 

5. map rendering with customized style. all kinds of map render engines can be used on the database, mapnik for instance. 

6. Database subsetting and tailoring. Developers can do what they want on the database under the ODBL. 

3. interoperability & extensibility

OpenStreetMap is more powerful in terms of interoperability & extensibility than Google Maps. The only limit is your imagination. In my opinion, the most promising application of OpenStreetMap data will be acting as building bricks for everyone to create a map of his/her own. The Geographic features in OpenStreetMap are like a vocabulary for people. People use words and phrases to write a post on the internet to express themselves, to communicate, to make fun of. People can also use features from the OpenStreetMap database to composite a map to express themselves, communicate, and make fun of. People can write, talk, make videos to express and communicate online easily these days, why not to craft a map to do that in the near future?

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