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Who Maps the World?

Too often, men. And money. But a team of OpenStreetMap users is working to draw new cartographic lines, making maps that more accurately—and equitably—reflect our space.
A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher during a geography class in Bekescsaba, Hungary, in 2007.
A young refugee from Kosovo stands in front of a map of Hungary with her teacher during a geography class in Bekescsaba, Hungary, in 2007.Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

“For most of human history, maps have been very exclusive,” said Marie Price, the first woman president of the American Geographical Society, appointed 165 years into its 167-year history. “Only a few people got to make maps, and they were carefully guarded, and they were not participatory.” That’s slowly changing, she said, thanks to democratizing projects like OpenStreetMap (OSM).

OSM is the self-proclaimed Wikipedia of maps: It’s a free and open-source sketch of the globe, created by a volunteer pool that essentially crowd-sources the map, tracing parts of the world that haven’t yet been logged. Armed with satellite images, GPS coordinates, local community insights and map “tasks,” volunteer cartographers identify roads, paths, and buildings in remote areas and their own backyards. Then, experienced editors verify each element. Chances are, you use an OSM-sourced map every day without realizing it: Foursquare, Craigslist, Pinterest, Etsy, and Uber all use it in their direction services.