You may have read my recent blog post The Digital Prepper, where I introduce the “Prepper” world of independence and self-reliance to the “Free Software” world of individual and community ownership of software and data. In that post I made a brief mention of something called OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is basically Wikipedia for maps: an open data set representing a map of the world which anybody can edit. It is incredibly versatile in that you can add any sort of data you want to it. It is up to the various applications (and there are many) to choose how and whether to represent that data (or you could make your own). Their main website is a basic example.
When using online maps day-to-day, most people rely on a service like Google Maps. For the privacy conscious, this is just more data about you that Google can collect. OpenStreetMap gives you a chance to break free. Most applications based on OpenStreetMap allow you to download entire regions at a time. If you download only one small portion of the map at a time as you travel, the service you’re using (even if it is based on OpenStreetMap) would have some idea that you’re located on that part of the map. Downloading a whole region ahead of time might avoid this problem (Note: I recently learned that Maps.me, a popular application based on OpenStreetMap, deliberately reports your location to their server, even if you download the map ahead of time. If you’re considering using an OpenStreetMap app, do some research if this issue is important to you.) If you still want to access OpenStreetMap privately on the web, and are very determined, you could even host your own OpenStreetMap website.
OpenStreetMap also allows you to use all of its underlying data in any way you want. Google Maps will give you its rendering of the data, and give you access to some of the underlying data. OpenStreetMap, by contrast, gives you access to all of its raw data. You could use it to create a physical map using a laser cutter. Or you could also use it for your world map in a game (it was good enough for Pokémon Go!). And much more.
Speaking of laser cutters, this Friday, our local friendly makerspace will be hosting me as I present a workshop about contributing to OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is nothing without the data. While there are some large public domain data sets that the project draws from, and while some corporations are even beginning to contribute data, there is still an important place for individuals to contribute information in their local area. Fix road layouts, add a new building or restaurant. Or, just add missing information that people could use, like closing time, wheelchair accessibility, or Wi-Fi availability. The workshop will begin with an overview of how the underlying data works, so it may also be of interest if you are looking to use OpenStreetMap data in a project.
Hope to see you there!