You probably don’t realize it, but you’re a direct beneficiary of OpenStreetMap. You may not be one of those who has contributed the 100 million edits to the community-driven mapping project, but if you’re a customer of Apple, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, or countless other organizations, you depend upon OpenStreetMap every day.

For example, I mostly interact with OpenStreetMap when using Strava, which builds on Mapbox’s OpenStreetMap-driven data. Back in 2014 I asked if OpenStreetMap could become the next Linux. Fast forward to 2021 and the number of contributors has more than doubled, even as the number of organizations depending on its open mapping data has skyrocketed.

So maybe that’s a “Yes”? But challenges remain.

OpenStreetMap by the numbers

First, let’s look at some numbers. In mid-2020 Accenture published a report that found the value of OpenStreetMap’s data topped $1.67 billion. (This is roughly how much the Linux kernel was valued at back in 2008.) That’s a lot of mapping data available for free. The reason? So many people and organizations give their time and talents to it:

  • As of August 2020, OpenStreetMap saw 4.5 million map changes (edits/changesets) per day;
  • Since its inception in 2004, people have contributed more than 100 million changesets (that’s an individual choosing to use their talents 100 million times to improve mapping data for all);
  • This equates to nearly 1 billion features globally in the past 16 years;
  • As of late December 2020, there were 721,270,948 “ways” (a linear feature on the ground, such as a road, wall, or river) within OpenStreetMap’s data;
  • Roughly 50,000 contributors participate in OpenStreetMap each month; and
  • Since the start of the project, over 1.5 million people have contributed.

One of those contributors, interestingly (at least, to me!) is my brother, Clark. He’s now a law professor, but over a decade ago he was active with the OpenStreetMap Foundation, providing legal assistance. Yes, even lawyers can be productive contributors!

OpenStreetMap is a colossal success story, one that keeps pressure on commercial mapping data providers like Google. (It’s worth noting, however, that OpenStreetMap isn’t a Google Maps competitor. OpenStreetMap offers mapping data, not a consumer-facing mapping product.) Not only does it force other providers to keep costs low, but it also puts pressure on others to cover areas of the world that they might otherwise skip. And yet OpenStreetMap still has plenty of hurdles to overcome, balanced by robust strengths.

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