Miskatonic University Press

Updating OpenStreetMap on my daily walks

covid19 geo walking

I’m a regular user of OpenStreetMap. The Wikipedia entry explains all about it and the many ways it’s used, but my short explanation to people who don’t know it is that it’s like the Wikipedia version of Google Maps: anyone can edit it, and all the information is freely and openly available for anyone to reuse. (Which then leads to the same questions about reliability, of course.)

Here’s the OSM view of York University in Toronto:

OpenStreetMap view of York University
OpenStreetMap view of York University

It’s easy to create an OSM account, but it’s nontrivial to edit maps. I imagine major changes would be very complex, but the everyday user is never going to add a new highway or identify a new subdivision’s worth of individual buildings from an aerial photograph. However, it’s not hard to edit basic information with a bit of practice. You can click to add a point of interest (POI) and define it as a business of a certain type with a given name and address, and also include the web site URL, opening hours and more. It’s even easier to modify an existing POI. I found it all a bit tricky when I first got started, but now basic edits are very easy and yesterday I even removed part of an alley that no longer exists.

On my phone I use OsmAnd (installed from F-Droid). It’s great. One of my favourite features is that maps are downloadable for offline use, so when travelling I can grab the detailed maps of the city where I’ll be and I can use them without incurring any data fees. Another is recording my tracks, which I’ll write up in another post.

OsmAnd is also an OpenStreetMap editor. If you’re out and about and you look at the OSM map and notice that something is missing, you can long-press on the map, add a point of interest and upload the edit to OSM! You can upload right away or later at home.

When I was out yesterday I noticed that most of the businesses around the intersection of St. Clair Avenue West and Christie St. were not identified on the map. This needs fixing. I took some photos (so I could see the names and street numbers, and tell which businesses are in which buildings) and when I came home I made some first edits. They’re in changeset 83218893.

Screenshot of an OSM changeset
Screenshot of an OSM changeset

The changes haven’t all shown up in the live map yet—Mezzetta and Cocoa Latte aren’t showing—but I expect they will later today. (OsmAnd users should turn on live updates for maps if they want to keep up to date with current edits, otherwise you have to wait a while for updates to come all in one revised map.)

The businesses on St. Clair West had a hard time in the late oughts when the dedicated right of way for the 512 St. Clair streetcar was put in—construction went on for years—and they’re having a hard time now. Accurate information in OpenStreetMap is one way to help, and it’s now part of my daily walk routine.

If you’re not an OSM user, try installing OsmAnd and using it instead of the default mapping app when you’re walking around. If there’s something missing, maybe now’s a good time to try adding in a little bit of geographic information. If you’ve ever been curious about maps and GIS, it’s a great way to start.