Reflections on OpenStreetMap

The second Canadian OpenStreetMap (OSM) developer event held at Ryerson’s Geography department started today with a series of presentations and workshops introducing students and members of the broader community to OSM. Toronto OSM guru Richard Weait gave another one of his engaging OSM-or-nothing speeches, telling tales of trap streets and mappy hours. He also got attendants to edit the OSM data and submit a few new features based on their local knowledge of their neighbourhoods or the university campus. Geographic Analysis student, GIS consultant, and blogger Michael Markieta guided us through the querying of the OSM “planet file” from a PostGIS/PostgreSQL database and its mapping in the open-source Quantum GIS package (see photo).


As most of you will know, OSM is a global volunteer project to create a free geographic base dataset. OSM data have been shown to be more detailed and accurate than commercial data, at least in some areas of the world. There was some interesting discussion this afternoon about potential liability issues due to inconsistencies in OSM data used in professional applications. The concern that OSM contributors could be held liable for erroneous contributions was countered by noting that commercial data vendors provide their data “as is” in just the same way, and that their data are out-of-date most of the time. That certainly seems to be true for my car navigation system! Still, the possibility of downloading OSM data for a professional map at a moment where a misuser has modified or deleted information that has not been detected and reverted by the community makes me uneasy. Also, the thought that detail in OSM, e.g. in rural areas, may depend on whether or not there is an avid mapper living in the area, is unsatisfactory.

Further, the challenges resulting from free tagging of new features were brought up at today’s event. There are support sites such as and the map features list on the OSM wiki, but I cannot help but think that the OSM community is repeating mistakes that were addressed (at least to some degree) by research, development, and best-practice in GIS over the last couple of decades.

Whatever your position with regards to these issues, OSM is playing an increasingly important role in government and business. Our students need to know about it, and I think today’s workshops went a long way to achieve this awareness. Thank you to Mike Morrish and the Student Association of Geographic Analysis (SAGA) for their tremendous support in organizing this educational event and for sponsoring food and drinks today.

From a research perspective, OSM is a fabulous subject too. My interest in it was discussed in a section of an earlier post about volunteered geographic information (VGI) systems. The OSM developer weekend is focusing precisely on hardware, software, and provider/user issues that are not well explained by the VGI label, but captured within our concept of VGI systems to be presented at the 2013 AAG conference.

50 Years of Geographic Information Systems

Some 50 years ago, the Canadian government started the development of a computerized land inventory which would become the prototype of geographic information systems (GIS). Its early history is detailed in a blog post by leading GIS vendor ESRI at

In addition to the interesting links they provide at the end of their post, I really like the three-part documentary “Data for Decision” on the Canada GIS, which you can access via the GIS and Science blog at, or directly at (part 1).

Ryerson’s Department of Geography (formerly School of Applied Geography) has a long tradition of using GIS in research and in the classroom/lab, and thereby training a modern type of geographer and contributing to a new perspective on the study of social and earth systems.

Alumni sightings at Environics Analytics

A group of 4th-year Geographic Analysis students and a few faculty members went to the offices of Environics Analytics today to get a better idea of how “geography works”. Environics is a leading marketing and business intelligence firm, and has been a prime employer of outstanding graduates from our BA in Geographic Analysis and Master of Spatial Analysis programs. This afternoon, a number of graduates from the 1990s and 2000s provided the students with an overview of their careers and current jobs as well as an insight into the most useful knowledge and skills learned in school and on the job. Several speakers emphasized the ability of geographers to keep high-level issues and goals in perspective, and see connections between seemingly unconnected phenomena. Paraphrasing Mrs. Jan Kestle, Environics founder and president, there is nothing in the world that cannot be examined through the geographical lens, which in turn translates into job opportunities for engaged students. Jobs held by our grads at Environics span the sales, research, and software development groups, and include (senior) client advocate, sales consultant, research analyst, research associate, and senior developer. It was rewarding to see how a number of students I taught in the last 6-8 years have found their vocation in a trendsetting yet friendly work environment.

OpenStreetMap developer event

Ryerson’s Department of Geography, Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program, and Student Association of Geographic Analysis (SAGA) are hosting the first-ever Canadian, and second-ever North-American meeting of OpenStreetMap (OSM) developers, the Toronto Hack Weekend March 2012. We want our students and the community to be aware of this “Wikipedia for geographic data”, as keynote speaker Richard Weait of the Toronto OSM group put it.

The OSM data were contributed by over half a million volunteers world-wide, and are often more detailed, accurate, or up-to-date than those of commercial competitors such as Google Maps or Bing Maps.

Friday afternoon’s presentation and discussion session raised a number of interesting issues regarding the future development of OSM, including the thematic scope of the data being collected and the mechanics of rendering the comprehensive dataset (“planet file”) into maps (map images, or “map tiles”) of different contents and styles for different purposes. I think Ryerson-trained geographers and spatial analysts will make valuable contributions to OSM in the near future ;-)

A report on how the weekend proceeded can be found on Steve Singer’s Scanning Pages blog. Ryerson Geographic Analysis student Michael Markieta has also posted a summary on his fabulous Spatial Analysis blog.

Scholars GeoPortal

Today was the last meeting of the external advisory committee of Scholars GeoPortal. Scholars GeoPortal was developed by the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) with funding from the Government of Ontario. The project received the 2012 OLITA Award for Technological Innovation.

The portal officially launched on 1 March 2012. It facilitates access to geospatial data from Statistics Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, DMTI Spatial, and other data providers. Those are data that are heavily used by University students and researchers in geography, planning, civil engineering, and many other disciplines.

It was a privilege to work with data, map, and GIS librarians across Ontario and contribute to the development of the GeoPortal.