Using small cities to understand the crowd behind OpenStreetMap
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As businesses and governments integrate OpenStreetMap (OSM) into their services in ways that require comprehensive coverage, there is a need to expand research outside of major urban areas and consider the strength of the map in smaller cities. A place-specific inquiry into the OSM contributor sets in small cities allows an intimate look at user motives, locations, and editing habits that are readily described in the OSM metadata and user profile pages, but often missed by aggregate studies of OSM data. Using quantitative and qualitative evidence from the OSM history of five small cities across North and South America, I show that OSM is not accumulating large local corpuses of editors outside of major urban areas. In these more remote places OSM remains largely at the mercy of an unpredictable mix of casual contributions, business interests, feature-specific “hobbyists”, bots, and importers, all passing through the map at different scales for different reasons. I present a typology of roles played by contributors as they expand and fix OSM in casual, systematic, and automated fashion. I argue that these roles are too complex to be conceptualized with the traditional “citizen as sensor” model of understanding volunteered geographic information. While some contributors are driven by pride of place, others are more interested in improving map quality or ensuring certain feature types are represented. Institutions considering the use of OSM data in their projects should be aware of these varied influences and their potential effects on the data.
KeywordsVolunteered geographic information OpenStreetMap Small cities Crowdsourcing Geoweb South America
The author would like to thank Alan MacEachren for his advice throughout the project and reading the early drafts, Greg Milbourne for assistance with data processing, Mark Graham for suggestions on the analysis methods and mapping, and those who contributed to the peer review of this manuscript.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
Human and animal rights statement
This research did not involve direct interaction with human subjects, and no IRB submission was made for the research. This research did not involve interactions with animals.
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