When it comes to ambitious open projects, Open Street Map ranks with the best. The goal: to map the world, offering free geographical data to whoever needs it.

The resulting map, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence, relies on volunteers to either hit the streets with their GPS or help out with correctly naming the streets once they're captured. Currently 5 000 contributors are actively freeing map data from corporate and government clutches, with folks like Grant Slater a South African living in London encouraging more to help out.

"I believe I was the first to add parts of South Africa to Open Street Map (N2 and my childhood neighbourhood in PE) in October 2006. We now have growing set of contributors in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria," says Slater, who recently appealed to the Cape Town Linux User Group (CLUG) to help out with the project.

The project started humbly, says founder Steve Coast. "Believe it or not, just because I wanted a map of my local area. It seemed like a fairly trivial thing to take a GPS and make my own, little did I know where it would lead."

One of the biggest drivers for the project is to "free" maps usually paid for through taxes from commercial interests. "Geographical data (geo data) is not free in many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and much of Europe," states the project's FAQ. "Generally these places have given the task of mapping to various government agencies who in return get to make money by selling the data back to you and me."

While it might seem to fly in the face of existing commercial map makers' interests, at least one mapping company has seen the value of the project, and is openly supporting it. "There is a software developer that has some financial sponsorship from MultiMap (a UK map provider) which supports the work he does on developing the core software that runs the project," says project treasurer, Etienne Cherdlu.

"MultiMap's motivation is because currently they pay very large licence costs to Ordnance Survey and other map data providers," says Cherdlu. "In the long term they stand to benefit from the availability of free map data either directly or indirectly because it will drive down the cost of Ordnance Survey licences."

The project is also supported by Yahoo, which lets Open Street Map use its imagery. "It took some time to work out with their legal side and so on, but now you can draw on top of their imagery!" says founder Coast.

The use of Yahoo's imagery opens the project to people who don't have a GPS, allowing them to draw directly on top of the images. And physically mapping roads isn't the only contribution you can make. "There's lots to be involved in whether its mapping, software development, map party organising and our standards process. It's all on the Wiki, and getting on the mailing list is also a great way to contribute," says Coast.

To make it even easier, budding cartographers can create their maps through a number of tools, including an online applet and a Java-based desktop application called JOSM.

If you're keen to contribute, there's a South African Wiki, as well as a mailing list for South African contributors.

By Jason Norwood-Young
19 February, 2007

View the article in it's original form at Tectonic