Friday 23 September 2011

State of the map 2011

This blog has been shamefully neglected for the whole summer, although I have been busy with some very interesting GIS related activities. I've just got back this week from a trip to Denver, where I have been attending two conferences; State of the Map 2011 (SOTM) and FOSS4G. I'll dedicate a post to each event, so let's start with SOTM, which is the annual meeting for people from around the world who contribute to, or who are interested in, Open Street Map (OSM).

The growth of the community-created OSM in just a few years has been extraordinary. The map has now developed to the point where it rivals, at least in many urban areas, all of the commercial alternatives that offer world wide cartography. In many regions it can justifiably be claimed to be better and more up to date than those alternatives. I was amazed last year when I took a close look for the first time at the map for my home city of Madrid.

Being a regular GPS user for walking in the mountains I decided that I should also start collecting routes for how I get to those mountains, with the intention of helping to fill in some of the gaps in the map. It hasn't happened yet, I have quite a good collection of GPS routes but I haven't yet gone through the learning curve for putting any of this data into OSM. Attending SOTM has certainly encouraged me to dedicate more time to this, “map your neighbourhood, I'll map mine” was one of the key messages I noted at the event.

With this being my first time at SOTM, I had little idea of what to expect. In the end I was struck by the tremendous variety of presentations that took place over the course of the three day meeting. Much greater variety than in most GIS events I have attended. It wasn't just about how to add data to the map, most of the presentations were about things that you can do with the data. There were talks about tools that you can use to get the most out of OSM, but also about what you can achieve by having access to freely available cartography. SOTM had a big enough attendance to support this breadth of presentations, but it was still small enough to not feel overwhelming.

The community based nature of OSM has meant that volunteer mappers around the world have been able to react to natural disasters, such as the earthquakes in Haiti or Japan, and quickly map the worst affected parts of these countries. Others have put together an amazingly cheap and accessible kit for taking aerial photography, well illustrated with the example of those who photographed the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on the Louisiana coastline. I also enjoyed a presentation on Walking Papers. Originally designed to enable people to map without having to have a GPS device, it has found other uses as a tool enabling people to describe their neighbourhood, or identify what they would like to change in it. Then there other talks that crossed over a little with FOSS4G as they described how open source GIS tools could be used to extract the full advantage from OSM data.

Finally there was the baseball! As part of registering for SOTM we were given tickets for the game between the Colorado Rockies and the Cincinatti Reds. Now I'm trying hard to be fair here, but I have memories of when we were told in Europe that soccer needed to be made more interesting to appeal to a US audience. After three hours of watching the Rockies miss the ball I had my doubts, and so did much of the crowd who seemed far more interested in appearing on TV than in what was happening on the pitch. At least I can sort of claim to understand the rules now but why not just make the bat a bit bigger? Or the ball a bit lighter? I can say these things now that I'm safely back in Spain.

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