File Under: Visual Design, Web Basics

OpenStreetMaps Project Takes Maps in a Different Direction

When the hyper-local news site EveryBlock first launched, one of the big things that caught our eye was the site’s custom map tiles — what, no Google Maps? When asked about those custom maps in numerous interviews, EveryBlock creator Adrian Holovaty took every opportunity to state his belief that Google Maps are pass.

While Holovaty is probably kidding to a certain extent, Google Maps are a fine example of the old adage: familiarity breeds contempt. Nearly every site on the web seems to have some Google (or Yahoo) map tiles. So, if you want your mashup to stand out these days, you might want to consider something a bit different.

Of course, completely rolling your own map tiles as Holovaty and the EveryBlock team did is probably well outside the scope of most mapping projects. Still, there are quite a few options out there beyond Google, the best being OpenStreetMap.

If you’ve never seen OpenStreetMap, take a look at the Best of OpenStreetMap website. Web forefather Tim-Berners Lee has called OSM a “grassroots remapping of the world.” Indeed, the project, which we’ve covered before, is fast becoming a “Wikipedia of maps” — a designation coined by software developer and blogger Simon Willison. OpenStreetMap’s database is user edited, user updated and in many cases, like in remote parts of Africa and Asia, far more accurate than commercial offerings from the likes of Google.

Such a project is critical as web-enabled mobile devices continue to make the web more accessible in the far corners of the Earth. Also, with the proliferation of hyper-local search and geo-aware applications on the web, current and accurate map data is becoming increasingly more important.

Unlike some crowdsourced projects that have fizzled, OSM has managed to attract a large following of enthusiastic contributors who constantly “trace” routes they take by car, bike or foot. Users tag points on their routes, and share the resulting places of personal interest on the maps with other users. Some of the bigger map providers also offer such geo-tagged metadata, like Google’s MyMaps.

Some of OSM’s contributors have added some truly unique data, such as dedicated maps for cyclists, or maps that highlight public transportation routes throughout Western Europe. There’s even an OpenStreetMap-powered iPhone app called Roadee.

To see how quickly the project has grown, check out this very cool video showing a year’s worth of edits to OpenStreetMap.org.

If you’re a developer and you want to switch your current application to use OpenStreetMap to take advantage of the user-generated maps and metadata, all you need to do is change a few lines of code. Thanks to the excellent Mapstraction JavaScript Library, it’s easy to write mapping applications that use any map tiles — be they OSM, Google or hand crafted.

If you’re just starting out building some sort of a mapping application, don’t think you’re limited to Google Maps. Check out OpenStreetMaps and make sure to try the Mapstraction Library in case you change your mind about mapping providers down the road.

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