FOSS Mapping as Alternative Media: The Case of OpenStreetMap (Part 2)

In July of 2004, Steve Coast, a 24-year-old British computer scientist and entrepreneur, started OpenStreetMap (OSM) with the objective of creating a free editable map of the world. Tired of the problems data proprietary companies generate by the restricting geographical information (In the UK, as in other European countries, geographic information is very expensive and is not in the public domain), Coast designed a web-based platform that enabled the making of a collaborative, Wikipedia-like, map. Following the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) development methodology, OSM fosters the creation of a decentralized community of amateur mappers and computer programmers from around the globe that voluntary cooperate in the project by donating their work, time, and knowledge. Participants of OSM become users/producers that can not only read and have free access to geographic data, but also can edit the information, and contribute to the project with new data.

Eight years after OSM´s launch, the free editable map of the world is still far from being complete; however, a growing community of users/producers has actively cooperated in the mapping of thousand of towns, cities, and countries (OSM stats reports 638698 registered users on Sunday June 24, 2012.). The success of the OSM project, so far, demonstrates that the FOSS development methodology is very appropriate for the production of participatory maps in the global and late capitalist society. Furthermore, it reveals that the large-scale collaboration based on the principles of openness, peer production, and sharing, is possible and actually, very efficient for making maps.

OSM users/producers contribute to the OSM project in different ways. They collect, upload, create/edit, label geographic information, and they render and make applications out of it. Data can be collected in by using the old fashion analogue pencil and paper and walking around; by using digital GPS devices that record movements in space and generate traces of roads, streets, and avenues; or by using existing satellite imagery or maps (free of copyrights or especially donated to OSM). Uploading data requires computers with Internet connection. Creating and editing data requires the use of one of the OSM editors such as Potlatch (online Flash-based editor), JOSM (desktop Java-based editor), and Merkaartor (desktop GIT-based editor). Labeling and adding details to existing data is also done with the OSM editors and is completely open to all the users/producers (any tags can be assigned to the elements of the map, and any symbols can be created as soon as documentation is provided). Rendering the data refers to the actual visualization of the map. The OSM editors provide a ready-made option for rendering, printing, and embedding the OSM map in other websites. Users/producers familiar with computer programming and GIS can take advantage of the OSM free and raw data for making various things such as customized maps, geographical applications for mobile phones, or augmented reality games.

OSM is FOSS mapping.

In order to have a better understanding of how the OSM project works it is necessary to comprehend the FOSS mode of production. FOSS development methodology is a socio-technical mode of production of information goods that takes advantage of the global telecommunication infrastructure (networked digital environment), and the popularization of computer technology for enabling large-scale collaboration between geographically dispersed individuals. Hence, FOSS methodology is a mode of production that has emerged in the context of the information and networked society, and is closely related to the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Projects such as the Linux/GNU operating system, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia, and the content manage system Drupal, are successful preceding examples of this mode of production.

The main characteristics of the FOSS methodology are a unique labor relationship of peers/volunteers who work together without price-based rewards, a non-hierarchical and decentralized organizational structure, a collective/anonymous notion of authorship, the communal sharing of information goods (absence of private property), and a large-scale dispersed group of participants who efficiently use communication technologies (e.g. email, mailing lists, forums, bulletin boards, file repositories, and chats) .

Cooperative customs such as the sharing of information and knowledge, effective communication, gift giving, collaborative solution of problems, voluntarism, and low barriers of participation, reveal the importance of positive social relationships inside the FOSS mode of production. In order to productively cooperate with geographically dispersed strangers, to share information goods valuable to all, and to solve problems collectively, participants of FOSS projects establish social relationships among each other as volunteer peers. Peer to peer relationships enable a large group of otherwise unrelated participants to coordinate a common project basing their cooperation mainly in voluntarism and good will (social motivations) without relying on market pricing or managerial hierarchies. As Benkler and Nissembaum point out, “peer-production enterprises thrive on, and give opportunity for, relatively large scale and effective scope for volunteerism, or behavior motivated by, and oriented towards, positive social relations.” (403)

Legal relationships are also essential to the success of the FOSS methodology. They demonstrate that the production of information goods in a digital networked environment can work with a different set of copyrights that encourage sharing, copying, derivative works, redistribution, alteration, reuse, and, overall, facilitate the voluntary cooperation among many creative individuals. Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, pioneered such novel use of law and copyright in the 1980s. Stallman demonstrated that it was possible to use the force of copyright in an unusual and paradoxical way that was dubbed “Copyleft.” The GNU GPL allowed individuals to copy, distribute, and modify software. Furthermore, by guaranteeing that all modified versions of the software must be redistributed under the same kind of license, it protected the collective effort of anonymous users and developers and kept it from being privatized.

OSM uses two licenses. On the one hand, it uses the GNU GPL2 license for releasing the source code of its API (Application Programming Interface) and its core software, allowing users/peers/developers not only to test, debug, and improve the OSM platform but also to create new applications and software by reusing the code. On the other hand, OSM uses the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license for releasing the data produced by its community. This license is basically like the GNU GPL but applicable to cultural and knowledge goods such as music, writing, and video. Therefore, users/peers/developers can have access to the geographic data and make whatever they want as long as they mention OSM as the original creator and they keep the same kind of license.

The application of the FOSS development methodology to the production of maps (FOSS mapping) coincides with the emergence of critical approaches to cartography that vindicate more democratic forms of mapping. Because these alternative cartographies encourage the participation of members of local communities that are not professional mappers they have been called “participatory mapping.” As Jon Corbett explains, “participatory mapping is, in its broadest sense, the creation of maps by local communities – often with the involvement of supporting organizations including governments (at various levels), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), universities and other actors engaged in development and land-related planning.”(4) Participatory mapping legitimizes the knowledge of local communities, plays a key role in structuring human sustainable development, and is useful for advocating community spaces and territorial rights.

Although participatory mapping projects have usually relied on analogue methods for recording information such as sketch mapping, scale mapping, mental mapping, and transect walking, developments in digital technology have enabled new mapping practices that rely on the use of GPS devices, aerial photography, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). According to Shalini P. Vajjhala, the combination of analogue and digital participatory methods gives rise to “participatory digital mapping,” a methodology that “connects the sense of place captured by participatory maps with more objective GIS data.” (14) As he points out, although “participatory maps are largely subjective and focused on representing local perceptions and descriptive information,” GIS cartography is not, “GIS maps are designed to be objective depictions of reality and comprehensive sources of data, hence their visual complexity.” (7)

As FOSS mapping, OSM embraces digital participatory mapping because not only allows the recording and sharing of geographical information using digital and analogue participatory methods, but also functions as an alternative (non-commercial) GIS that stores and present free data. Furthermore, because OSM is based on the World Wide Web, it can also be characterized, as Muki Haklay et al. have argued, as web mapping. Digital participatory mapping and web mapping become, therefore, the alternative cartography methods that FOSS mapping fosters.


Benkler, Yokai, and Nissenbaum, Helen. Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue, 14(4) J.Political Philosophy 394-419. 2006.

Corbett, Jon. Good practices in participatory mapping. A review prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). 2009. Retrieved November 27, 2010

Vajjhala, Shalini P. Integrating GIS and Participatory Mapping in Community. Paper for the ESRI International User Conference, Sustainable Development and Humanitarian Affairs Track, San Diego, CA, July 2005.

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