The Format Project

Research on thriving formats of collaboration

Country of origin
London, UK
People affected
1,400,000 registered users worldwide
Founded in
Steve Coast


“There is really nothing you get out of it other than personal satisfaction.”

How would you describe OpenStreetMap in one sentence?

It is like Wikipedia for maps.

Can you tell about how OpenStreetMap started? What was your motivation to start mapping your neighborhood in Cambridge and London?

I had a Linux laptop and a GPS device and there was no way that I could connect the two to a map. At that time, you could download proprietary maps and see where you were on the top of that map. But these were pictures and you couldn't get access to the map data so that you could see what road you are on and do turn-by-turn navigation. So I figured if I have a GPS device I could start collecting data and then turn it into a map myself. And if I could build the tools to do that for me other people could map their areas and by joining together we could make the map of the world.

I did a lots of talks, managed user groups, mapping groups, geography groups, cartography groups and people started to get interested using the system.

What was and what is your role in OpenStreetMap (OSM)?

I started the project and wrote the software. As the project grew I gave away control to other people. Because if I was doing everything the project wouldn't scale.

OpenStreetMap is a crowdmapping project. Could you tell what is specific about it among other crowdmapping projects like Wikimapia?

Wikimapia isn't making a map, just making a loose dataset of point and lines. Openstreetmap is a true map of the world and it is truly open source. It is not derived from anything other than users' contributions.

Can you explain how OSM works?

If you go to and you zoom into an area and you click "edit" then an editing interface comes up that allows you to fix things on the map. You can add a road, you can change a road name, you can add a building or a point of interest. And that data is shared with everybody.

What are the key ingredients of the success? Why do you think crowdsourcing works for OpenStreetMap?

Why does it work? It works because when people see a map that is incomplete there is a human need to make it correct. Mapping is very fundamental. Everything… almost everything has a location.

But there are other ways to look at it why it works. One of them is that OSM is very addictive. Another thing is that it’s a bit like computer hacking but it gets you out in the real world. Which is fun.

If you had to select a single rule of thumb that is most crucial to its success, which one would you?

That's a good question. Probably the fact that it is open source has to be critical.

In your keynote talk at the 2007 State of the Map conference you mentioned how important it is for collaborative projects, like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap, to split up the workflow into tiny pieces. At that time, you told, this wasn’t really true with OSM. Same people were doing most of the work - GPS data collecting, vectorizing and tagging - in big lumps. How has that changed? What are the technical or practical details that specifically allow OSM to happen?

There was Yochai Benkler's idea about commons-based peer production. In order to grow something like Wikipedia, Linux or OpenStreetMap you need to have small interchangeable pieces. So that I can fix the spelling of the street name where I walk. The cost of integration has to be low. And it has to be easy to edit. That's a good and useful model to think about how open source projects work.

What makes people get engaged and involved in OSM? What motivates them to join as an editor?

People get involved for different reasons. There are some people who get involved because they just want to map their own area. Others enjoy cartography while others love writing the software. There are all kinds of different motivations to get involved in the project.

But they also have to keep coming back and that comes down to addictiveness.

What was the moment when you realized that OSM is reaching out to a global community?

Usually when I show Openstreetmap project to people I try to show a map that is relevant to them. So I ask them where they come from, and when they say 'I am from Paris’ I show them Paris. Once a particular guy said 'Well, show me Cuba'. And I said 'Look, we can go and zoom in on Cuba if you want but there is not going be very much there.' And then we zoomed in Havana, Cuba and the whole thing was mapped completely. Hospitals, roads and house numbers... it looked amazing. That was the last point where I was surprised by the project.

  • xmas day 2005 - 1000th user registered
  • 31st August 2006 - 3000 registered users
  • 7th August 2007 - 10,000 registered users
  • 25th December 2007 - 20,000 registered users
  • 19th February 2008 - 25,000 registered users
  • 17th March 2009 - 100,000 registered users
  • 5th January 2010 - 200,000 registered users
  • 29th November 2011 - 500,000 registered users
  • 29th August 2012 - 750,000 registered users
  • 6th January 2013 - 1,000,000 registered users

Do you think it would make sense to make a competitor for OSM?

Yes, I do. Because OSM has its shortcomings. The addresses are not being put into OSM in the same way as the roads for example. We need the addresses for turn-by-turn information, in order to make a navigable map that says 'turn left, turn right'. There are ways to get in that kind of data in but it is just not allowed by the community today. So there would be probably space and other ways to make another world map.

How does OSM as a network work?

It is almost completely self-organized.

What do you offer to your members?

There is really nothing you get out of it other than personal satisfaction. We don't pay anybody, we don't give you a T-shirt, it is completely open.

What is your experience of working with such a large community of volunteers?

It has its ups and downs but it is very fun. But it is also a lot of work.

Do you think crowdmapping as a concept, format or method can be adopted to other contexts?

OpenStreetMap is completely open. The more interesting question is what you can't imagine. That's where innovation comes from.

When the project started we could easily imagine people putting post boxes, cafés or restaurants on the map. But it is difficult to imagine people putting every single tree on the map like they do in Germany.

Do you know anything about the background of that?

I don't think it is an initiative. People just started doing it.

What have you learnt from being involved in OpenStreetMap for almost 10 years?

I don't really look back on this 10 years. I look into the future. I am looking to the point where OpenStreetMap is usable for turn-by-turn navigation. That's the big thing to me.

What is OpenStreetMap?

How it works

OpenStreetMap is a free, editable map of the whole world, available online on the website. The map also contains different types of data, like cycling routes or public transportation services, which can be displayed in different layers.

Any registered user can make improvements to the map by fixing issues or adding data for everyone. Contributors make use of their local knowledge about a specific neighborhood, for instance by tagging a restaurant, a playground or any point of interest. Others can help out by tracing roads and features they find in satellite imagery into the map.

OpenStreetMap is built on open source software, but more importantly the entire map data is open. This means anyone can use the map freely and also access the full map dataset to build (even commercial) services on top of it.

How it started

OpenStreetMap started in 2004 when Steve Coast experienced that there was a big lack of available map data. He started building his own map from the bottom up, by putting a laptop and a GPS device in his backpack and cycling around Cambridge and later in London.

Later he shared this map on and let other people start adding data, just like Wikipedia did. In the beginning, the map was drawn mainly by people converting GPS data of their walking, cycling and driving routes. Mapping parties were organized (the first one on the Isle of Wight) where a group for people came together for a day or two to map a place completely.

How it spread

Steve Coast managed user groups and was giving a lot of talks about his mapping project and people started to get interested. People got involved for different reasons, some just wanted to map their own area, others enjoyed cartography while others loved working on the software. Coast highlighted that OSM is also very addictive. “It’s a bit like computer hacking but it gets you out in the real world. Which is fun.”

In 2006, Yahoo (followed by Bing in 2010) allowed OpenStreetMap to use their aerial photography as a backdrop for map production. This allowed members with little or no local knowledge to trace over aerial maps. Several map databases, including TIGER for US and AND for The Netherlands, were donated to OpenStreetMap so they could be imported as a whole. Next to users’ contributions such imports significantly contribute to the map dataset.

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