FOSS Mapping as Alternative Media: The Case of OpenStreetMap (Part 1)

Overlay of roads, labels, parks, and buildings in Haiti post earthquakeOn January 12 2010, after the catastrophic earthquake (magnitude 7.0 Mw) near Port au Prince that triggered a humanitarian crisis, hundreds of volunteers distributed across the globe worked together to create an updated and complete digital map of Haiti. Using computers, photographic imagery, and the tools from the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project, they were able to generate a detailed and updated map of Haiti in 48 hours. Thanks to this map, rescue teams on the field had access to precise geographic information of the areas that were destroyed, the state of buildings, the available roads, the water resources, and the location of refugee camps.

Between November and December of 2009, local young people from Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, Kenya, collaborated in the creation of a digital map of their local environment using computers, Global Position System (GPS) units, pencils, papers, scanners, and OSM tools. By January of 2010, Kibera, a part of Nairobi that had been ignored by the official and commercial cartography (e.g. it appears as a forest in government maps and Google imagery) was finally mapped and their geographical data was freely available online. Local business, ONGs, and citizens have used this map to raise awareness of social problems (e.g. violence, insecurity, lack of health services), and to support the visualization of local news and stories.

The digital maps of Haiti and Kibera, as well as their process of production, are outstanding examples of the kind of projects that OSM facilitates both locally and globally. Taking advantage of information and communication technologies such as GPS units, the World Wide Web, and computers, OSM allows citizen/amateur cartographers not only to collaborate in the mapping of neighborhoods, cities, towns, and countries, but also to share this geographical information without any proprietary restrictions. Because OSM combines the Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) mode of production of information with the participatory approach to cartography, it can be described as FOSS participatory mapping. Furthermore, because OSM relies in a mode of production based on voluntary cooperation between peers, on free distribution of information, on ad-hoc content, and on the active role of the audience/readers/users it can also be considered a form of alternative media.

OSM, therefore, provides a unique opportunity for understanding the intersection between free software philosophy, open source pragmatism, and alternative media theory. In a series of entries on this topic I will introduce the OpenStreetMap project, its history, features, practices, and its relationship with participatory cartography (Part 2). Then I will address the intersection of FOSS and alternative media theories. I will try to elaborate parallels between the idealism of Richard Stallman (Free Software) and Downing’s concept of radical alternative media, and between the pragmatism of Eric Raymond (Open Source) and Atton’s notion of alternative media (Part 3). After doing that, I want to provide a brief analysis of two exemplary OSM applied projects in Haiti and Kibbera (Part 4). In this last entry I will also offer some conclusions about the potential and risks of FOSS mapping, and a brief reflection on the intersection of FOSS and alternative media theories.

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