Why Teach OpenStreetMap in the Classroom?

Mapping has applicability across many fields and communities of interest. Students of Public Policy, Public Health, International Affairs and Sociology, to name but a few, can use mapping to document, archive, plan and contribute to both local and international initiatives. The openness and flexibility of the OpenStreetMap platform make it especially well-suited for incorporating spatial learning in virtually any academic discipline or subject area.

Open Access

Open Source means accessibility for everyone, and updates and corrections are easily made online. The vast majority of mapping on the open platform comes from individuals or small groups of individuals, such as community groups.

The value of the OpenStreetMap platform was first demonstrated during the response to the Haitian earthquake in 2010. In the first month following the earthquake over 600 individuals traced roads and infrastructure to create what became the default base map for first responders and aid agencies working the country. What begun as a disaster response has become a stable community of contributors, a community that continues to develop the Haitian map for sustainable development and capacity building within the community.

Community Visibility

OSM has also become a popular avenue for marginalized communities to literally “put themselves on the map”. One excellent example is the Map Kibera initiative, a community project (using OSM) to map one of Africa’s largest slums, home to more than half a million people, in Nairobi, Kenya. Its street and building infrastructure (most of it informal and unplanned) cannot be found on any official maps, nor the other major mapping platforms (including Google Maps).

Visibility is an important step toward recognition for communities like Kibera, but perhaps more importantly, an open mapping platform allows the community to direct planning processes and social organization.

Why OpenStreetMap is a wonderful tool to teach Geography (to everyone):

  • Students gain direct experience of space, place, location and navigation.

  • Students experience Geography at a 1:1 scale. Nothing beats a street survey on foot, as the terrain is literally the map. Students learn through interacting with the landscape.

  • History-shaping events often happen at certain places for reasons of geography, which are often revealed during an active mapping project.

  • Mapping and Geography provides meaningful engagement for students of all ages that can broaden academic & career options. Students learn about mapping technology, about modeling their world and representing the world cartographically.

  • Contributing to OSM, through site surveys, editing and meeting other mappers helps form a sense of place. Through mapping, we establish positive relationships with other citizens in the community.

  • Mapping on OpenStreetMap provides opportunities to engage in ongoing community service projects and service learning engagements. Individuals can contribute to humanitarian relief efforts through Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), the US State Department’s MapGive initiative, and the MissingMaps project.