Introducing Students to OpenStreetMap? Start Here

OpenStreetMap as an ideal teaching tool to introduce to students that compliments humanities, social & environmental science subjects while providing valuable service learning opportunities. The open platform encourages collaborative learning and supports project-based learning by integrating mapping with real-world concerns (e.g. humanitarian mapping). Navigating the ecosystem of tools and resources available to use in OpenStreetMap, however, can be intimidating. Use this guide as an overview on how to start using OpenStreetMap in your classroom, after-school club, and other educational settings. From this page and the resources linked through TeachOSM, you will gain a better understanding of

  • What OpenStreetMap is and how the data is used

  • The benefits your students will gain by learning through and with OpenStreetMap

  • The different approaches for integrating OpenStreetMap into curriculum and classroom activities

  • How you and your students can contribute to OpenStreetMap 

  • How to become part of a network of teachers leveraging OpenStreetMap for their classroom

Jump to a section below:

  1. What is OpenStreetMap and how is it used?

  2. Why should I introduce students to OpenStreetMap?

  3. How can I get students engaged with OpenStreetMap?

  4. What resources should I use to get started?

What is OpenStreetMap and how is it used?

OpenStreetMap is a free and open web map of the world. It empowers anyone, anywhere in the world to not only add detailed information to a common resource but to freely use this data for any purpose. The platform supports a level of granularity not common to maps produced by official agencies and corporations. Because of that, OpenStreetMap is an ideal platform for teaching the fundamentals of geography, such as place, space, and location, as well as alongside many other subjects like government, environmental studies, and history.

As an online database developed by over 1.5 million contributors (largely on a volunteer basis) and over 7 million registered users, OpenStreetMap is often referred to as the “Wikipedia of maps”. This community collaborates to build a free and open map of the world that contains data and information important to those that use the map. All that is needed to contribute to OSM is an internet connection and email address.

Due to the low barrier for contribution, OpenStreetMap 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.

OpenStreetMap is used by people and organizations around the world such as:

International Development & Humanitarian Aid
Organizations like the Red Cross, United Nations, and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders use OpenStreetMap to help the most vulnerable people around the world.

  • Read how Médecins Sans Frontières used OpenStreetMap data, crowdsourced from global volunteers, to vaccinate children in Chad here.
  • Read how OpenStreetMap data was used to save lives in Peru during the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Tech & Social Media Companies
What does Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Snapchat & Pokemon Go all have in common? They all use OpenStreetMap for their core technologies and services. As such, they all have a common stake in making sure that OpenStreetMap remains a high quality map on a global scale for their customers.

Journalism & News Providers
The Washington, New York Times, and even National Geographic are just a few of the many media companies that rely on OpenStreetMap data to tell compelling and timely stories.

Governments & Nonprofits
Data can be expensive, and even more expensive to maintain when confined to private or paid services. Governments and nonprofit organizations around the world from the City of Portland’s public transit service, TriMet, to the Indonesian national disaster management agency rely on the free and open data of OpenStreetMap to provide services to their citizens.

By using OpenStreetMap in your classroom, you can transform your students from map users into map creators and immediately see their contributions used around the world by these users and more.

Why should I introduce students to OpenStreetMap?

“The first time I learned about OpenStreetMapping was when I took AP Human Geography and we were learning about the Syrian refugee crisis. The other students and I really wanted to help in some way and that’s when our teacher introduced us to OpenStreetMap. We ended up doing some mapping in class and it was really cool to see how what we were learning in class could be applied and used to help other people in the world.” - AP Human Geography Student, 2021

Using OpenStreetMap allows students to not just learn geography but to “do” geography. By actively contributing to a global project with real-life impact, students are gaining experiential learning while engaging new technologies and developing deep connections to places and contexts around the world. Driven by volunteers, OpenStreetMap is a tailor-made citizen science project that incorporates scientific principles, e.g. observation, alongside civic engagement.

By integrating mapping into the classroom, students…

  • Develop location awareness & spatial reasoning

  • Gain a deeper understanding of the power of maps

  • Become more actively involved in the solution process

  • Become personally aware and socially responsible

  • Learn about how they can have a positive impact on others

Integrate with Almost Any Topic

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 from middle school through university.

Service Learning & Project-based Learning

As a global project, students can have a real-life impact on people’s lives around the world and around your neighborhood. Students are not just tracing boxes or lines over imagery for practice but creating data that can directly help people around the globe. And as an open mapping project with countless use cases, OpenStreetMap is ideal for student-led inquiries where students choose what to map based on what interests them.

Global Citizenship

Through the visual interaction of working with imagery, students can gain connections to places around the world. Knowing what a street in Kampala looks like or how maps are being used by students in the Philippines, students build empathy and curiosity about people and places around the globe. And with students around the world all learning through OpenStreetMap, opportunities exist to connect and learn from each other directly. 

How can I get students engaged with OpenStreetMap?

Just like all other teachers I have so many concepts, topics, and skills to cover over the year.  When first introduced to OSM I was not sure how I would incorporate it into my classroom.  When I realized the information students would be providing to the OSM community would be directly benefiting people around the world I realized I had to integrate it to show students how they can directly help others using their geographical skills right from their own computer.  I set a goal and decided to map one project in each of my Advance Placement Human Geography classes.  Students were assigned to set up an account for homework one night, and to complete the ten minute tutorial.  The next day I introduced the project they would be mapping and the students mapped buildings.  The day after the mapping students were asked to write a one page double spaced reflection on the project and mapping the area.  Students really enjoyed the process and felt like they were really contributing to a problem they had learned about in class.  - Celeste Reynolds, Mashpee High School AP Human Geography Teacher

OpenStreetMap can be introduced to students in the classroom integrated into existing lesson plans, through after-school clubs, or as an independent volunteer activity. The most important part is that students have the hands-on opportunity to practice. Students gain the most from using OpenStreetMap when they are mapping and engaging over a longer period of time, as opposed to a single lesson or mapping event.

Add OpenStreetMap into Your Subject Learning Toolkit

Learning and using OpenStreetMap doesn’t need to be a unit all on its own. From economic development to understanding population density, OpenStreetMap can be easily integrated into almost any social studies subject as a complimentary tool for hands-on learning. Once students have a basic understanding of using OpenStreetMap, spending even a single class period mapping can bring an experiential component to any lesson.

Examples of classroom topics and real-life mapping projects:

Agriculture & Rural Land use:

  • Mapping urban farms and  farmer’s markets to understand food scarcity
  • Map historic rural buildings and farms to promote rural economies

Migration & population movement:

  • Mapping border regions in Colombia to support Venezuelan refugees

Climate Change

  • Support firefighters in Colorado battling wildfires by mapping rural roads
  • Mapping buildings in the Caribbean to prepare for hurricane season

Environmental Studies

  • Mapping greenspaces in urban areas to understand equity 
  • Mapping solar & wind generation across the US

Public Health

  • Mapping villages in South Sudan to aid COVID vaccine distribution
  • Mapping buildings for on-the-ground malaria prevention in Botswana

Government & Politics

  • Mapping post offices & boxes ahead of the US elections

Service learning projects

Do some neighborhoods have better access to public parks than others? Are sidewalks in our city accessible to everyone?

Your students can answer and investigate questions like these through hands-on mapping projects in their local community. Even in some of the most heavily mapped places on earth, like New York City and London, community mapping can help identify gaps in services to the people that live there. The power of maps is that by knowing where things are, we can know where they are missing. Whether going outside to map in-person or contributing to projects remotely, students can contribute to (or even lead!) projects that help advocate for the needs of local residents.

Read here how students in DC supported a local business association and community development task force by mapping businesses in their neighborhood.

Understanding current events

When a disaster strikes or an ongoing crisis is occurring hundreds to thousands of miles away, it can be difficult for students to feel engaged. Students might be asking: “What does this have to do with me? Why do I need to learn this if I can’t do anything about it?”

Students feel empowered when they know that they can make a difference. Mapping through OpenStreetMap allows your students to contribute directly and help with response to many current events. At the same time, students can learn more about how and why crises occur where they do through the experience of mapping.

Once students have learned the basics of mapping, they can contribute to current and urgent needs through the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team’s Tasking Manager. At any given time, projects are available supporting responses around the globe from disaster response to public health interventions to refugee support.

Introduce through after-school clubs & student groups

Student groups and after-school clubs are a great way to introduce students to OpenStreetMap, especially if integrating OpenStreetMap into the classroom is not feasible or as a complementary opportunity for highly-interested students. Service-oriented clubs are particularly well-suited for learning and mapping in OpenStreetMap as students can work together on a mapping project that aids an organization or group elsewhere in the world.

Teachers can also introduce students through OSMTeenMaptivists. TeenMaptivists provides an opportunity for high school students to become introduced to OpenStreetMap community and learn how OSM is being used in the Real World to help people all around the world. Students can open a free OSM account and join in monthly MapAlongs, Mapathons, and hear from people who use OSM to solve real-world problems. High school students can learn how creating maps helps solve many problems people face all over the world.

What resources should I use to get started?

TeachOSM provides educators with lesson plans, virtual meetups and training workshops, and social networking to learn from other educators.

Attend Map-Alongs

TeachOSM hosts virtual Map-Along events twice a month. These FREE 1-hour meetups are a casual place for you to learn and practice mapping in OpenStreetMap. We highly recommend that you attend at least one or two of these events before diving into using OpenStreetMap in the classroom. This will give you hands-on experience mapping with the opportunity to learn from an experienced mapper. You can attend these events by joining the TeachOSM Meetup.

Earn Professional Development Hours: Attending 5+ Map-Alongs (or other TeachOSM events) makes you eligible to receive PDH certifications from TeachOSM.

Getting Started with OpenStreetMap Lesson Series

If you are interested in using OpenStreetMap and introducing students to the platform, start with TeachOSM’s “Getting Started with OpenStreetMap” lesson plans. These can be found in the “Projects” page of our website alongside other lesson plans, or can be found here in the order of completion:

After you’ve learned the basics through the Getting Started series, browse through the rest of the “Projects” portfolio for lessons and modules designed by TeachOSM and educators for teaching OpenStreetMap.

Get inspiration from other educators

Read the TeachOSM blog on this website to learn how other educators are using OpenStreetMap with students.

Stay informed about opportunities and new material

Sign up for the TeachOSM quarterly email newsletter here.

Are you ready to set up your own project on the TeachOSM Tasking Manager? Interested in having a mapping volunteer as a virtual guest or to support? Email us at