OpenStreetMap: A Valuable Tool in the GIS Toolkit

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In May 2016, OVRDC sent one of our GIS personnel, Malcolm Meyer – Transportation Planning Coordinator – to the 2016 FOSS4GNA Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. The following are his takeaways from that conference.

At the 2016 FOSS4GNA Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, over 500 attendees from across the country and the world came to share their experiences and knowledge. If you are not familiar with FOSS4G, it stands for Free and Open Source Software for(4) GeoSpatial. The keynotes included Red Hat’s CTO Michael Tiemann, NASA’s Tamar Cohen and Jerry Johnston from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Sessions and workshops covered the gamut of open source geospatial solutions, from tutorials on QGIS , to running your own GeoServer instance to processing imagery from your own UAV or drone. For a complete list of the talks, visit the FOSS4GNA 2016 website.

One of the major themes at the conference was the importance of OpenStreetMap (OSM). With up to nine sessions per day, many other themes surfaced, such as open source as a business model/Software as a Service (SAAS) and the new web-mapping trend towards vector tiles.  However, it is OSM that ties these projects together and serves as the basemap for many of the web and mobile maps we use everyday. What follows is a look at the variety of ways the GIS community is utilizing OpenStreetMap, from disaster recovery to data analysis to bicycle and pedestrian online routing.

The Emergence of OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the whole world that is being built by volunteers largely from scratch and released with an open-content license.

OpenStreetMap (OSM) was founded by Steve Coast in 2004, with an initial focus on creating map data for the United Kingdom. Restrictions on use or availability of map information across much of the world and the advent of inexpensive portable GPS devices are two driving forces behind the establishment and growth of OSM. The OpenStreetMap Foundation was established in 2006 to encourage the growth, development and distribution of free geospatial data. Over 2 million users have registered on OSM, creating a robust and detailed free basemap of the world. However, rather than the map itself, the data generated from the OSM project is the primary output.

Today, organizations including the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT), the National GeoSpatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the National Park Service, and many others, depend upon OpenStreetMap (OSM) as a vital part of their daily activity.

Disaster Response

hot_logo In the US, OSM basemaps, as well as maps from other providers such as Bing and Google, are very detailed and up-to-date. However, in countries outside the US and western Europe, online map data is often lacking. However, it is in these areas that the power of the OpenStreetMap platform really shines. For HOT, the NGA and the Missing Maps project, the ability for thousands of users to quickly update OSM, as well as extract data from the OSM database, has become an invaluable resource for disaster recovery. Some examples include the large mapping effort both before and after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, as well as the more recent effort focused on mapping areas affected by the 2016 earthquake in Ecuador. The American Red Cross has even created a Portable OpenStreetMap toolkit that can run on a mini-computer, giving volunteers the ability to edit OSM data in remote areas where internet access is limited, and then upload those edits at a later date.

Adoption by the Intelligence (GEOINT) Community

One of the most interesting talks at the conference, and one of the more intriguing uses of OSM data, was the presentation by Digital Globe and the NGA on their open-source conflation engine Hootenanny. This tool allows for the combination, or ‘conflation’, of multiple data sources to create a more robust dataset. The example given in the talk combined the highly accurate but large-scale MultiNational GeoSpatial CoProduction Program (MGCP) geometry with OSM data. The resulting dataset, enhanced with attribute data, local roads and buildings from OSM, was used for disaster recovery in New Zealand (which has publicly released their MGCP data). To view the entire presentation click here.

Remote Protected Area Mapping


MOABI and Global Forest Watch utilize OSM in another way – to monitor remote areas of the Congo Basin for illegal logging. The OSM platform has enabled the Logging Roads project to map over 30,000 logging roads, the majority of which have been tagged with the approximate date of construction. This road data allows for improved governance of rainforest resources by showing road location, incursion into areas off-limit to roads, and change over time. Since the project is based on OSM, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can contribute to the Logging Roads project.

Creating the NPMap

One of the benefits of OpenStreetMap is the ability to completely customize the basemap. This can be done through a variety of online and desktop tools. The National Park Service (NPS) currently uses two of those tools heavily in their web map products. In this link, the basemap is a customized version of OSM via Mapbox, while the actual park data such as roads, boundaries and POIs, are authoritative data from the NPS. The NPS data has been customized in TileMill and also uploaded to Mapbox. The result is a web map with the look and feel of the traditional NPS paper maps that users can be confident represents actual park features, and not just some trail uploaded by an OSM volunteer. Some of the tools used in the creation of the NPS maps can be found on GitHub.

Valhalla: Bicycle and Pedestrian-Focused Routing

One of the key components of any web map, especially maps geared towards mobile devices, is routing. An open source web mapping routing plugin already exists – Leaflet Routing Machine . It can use a variety of data sources, including OSM data. However, Mapzen’s Valhalla takes this one step further by focusing on multi-modal transportation. This built-in pedestrian, bicycle and public transit routing opens up many more possibilities beyond vehicle driving directions. Valhalla is open source, but Mapzen has created a turn-by-turn API to use in various web mapping applications, based on Valhalla. You can view a great example of this API on the Mapzen blog.


So how will OVRDC take all of what was learned at FOSS4GNA and convert that into real-world solutions for our GIS team, the RTPO program and the organization as a whole? First, we are currently working on a sidewalk inventory project for the region as part of our RTPO program. Inspired by the great content and examples at FOSS4GNA 2016, we have decided to utilize the open source desktop mapping program QGIS as the digitizing software for the project, and QFIELD as the mobile GPS solution. Additionally, we closely examined the OSM sidewalk, road and crossing data, as well as the rich conversation around their collection on the OSM forums. We combined this schema with other examples of sidewalk data from throughout the country to come up with our template for sidewalk collection. Finally, we moved our development map server from a Windows machine (which now serves as the intern’s desktop) to an old XP machine which we converted over to Ubuntu – a modern, open source Linux desktop. This adoption of open source provides not only cost savings to OVRDC but also expands the knowledge and skills of our GIS staff, which in turn improves the overall quality of our data analysis and visualizations products.

Footnote: Other Interesting Links from the FOSS4G 2016 Conference