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Using OpenStreetMap for your research: leveraging a massive global geographic database that emphasizes local knowledge

Published by Alison Moore

This blog post was written by Sarah (Tong) Zhang, SFU Library Geography, GIS, and Maps Librarian.

What is OSM? 

The OpenStreetMap (OSM) project is the most popular map of the world created by volunteers, frequently cited as a prime example of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). Launched in 2004, it has grown to over 8 million registered users in 2022. You may never have heard of OSM, but chances are you have interacted with it since many websites and apps including Facebook, Craigslist, Foursquare, and Strava use OSM’s basemap as a reference map on which to overlay their information or use OSM’s data for routing analysis and other purposes.

OSM has played a significant role in many humanitarian and environmental disaster situations. A well-known example is when a major earthquake struck Haiti in 2010: volunteers produced a massive amount of data on OSM by tracing satellite imagery. The accurate map data helped tremendously with crisis alleviation.

What makes OSM different from other map data providers like Google?

OSM data is crowdsourced

OSM has been described as the Wikipedia equivalent of the world map. It means OSM works in a similar matter to Wikipedia, in which virtually all features are open to editing by any member of the user community. People host “mapping parties” where they meet up at social events, using GPS tools and cameras to contribute data to OSM.  More often though, virtual “Mapathons” take place, where people meet virtually and do remote mapping on OSM.  The “remote mapping” process is much easier than you may think it would be - all you need to do is trace aerial photographs in browser-based editors and then add descriptive attributes or tags. 

OSM data is open data 

Although OSM is frequently used as basemap, the primary output of the project is the underlying data!  Most importantly, unlike Google and other commercial map data providers, OSM data is completely open and available under an OpenDatabase License. This means anyone can copy, download, and modify OSM data free of charge and without restrictions. 

OSM data is managed by the community

OSM organizes its data through a community-based tagging system, which is flexible and able to store any type of features that are meaningful to communities.  Notably, these features might not be monetarily lucrative and therefore excluded from proprietary commercial maps[i].  An example is Wheelmap, which pulls data from OSM about whether places are wheelchair accessible. In other words, OSM data can be used to make thematic maps for social good.

Using OSM Data for academic research

Although OSM data has its challenges such as lack of systematic quality checks, it holds many benefits, particularly for the areas where official data is missing or where OSM provides a richer and more socially valuable set of features. It is perhaps for this reason that academic researchers have also been utilizing OSM data.  Here are a few examples:

OpenStreetMap data for alcohol research: Reliability assessment and quality indicators

The design of road conditions mapping system by utilizing openstreetmap spatial data 

Using OpenStreetMap as a Data Source for Attractiveness in Travel Demand Models 

If you wish to explore a local example, check out this project: OSM Can-BICS: Mapping bicycle facilities across Canada, undertaken by a group of SFU researchers at CHATR lab (Cities, Health & Active Transportation Research Lab). Aiming to create and enrich national bicycle infrastructure data, the researchers employed a methodology of creating a national bikeway classification that focuses on comfort and safety and applying the classification to OSM data.  They have even organized two mapathons to collect community feedback on the dataset and gather local knowledge.

Want to learn more?

If you are interested in exploring how you can use OSM data for your research, the first step will be to learn about OSM’s tagging system and play around with querying the database to see what data of interest is there. We will be hosting the workshop Unlock the potential of Volunteered Geographic Information: Exploring and downloading OpenStreetMap data on October 28, 2022, during the International Open Access week. 

I hope to see you there!



[1] Sterling Quinn, John A. “OpenStreetMap and its use as open data.” Geog 585: Open Web Mapping.


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