Are Mapbox and OpenStreetMap's personalised maps the future of cartography?

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People are creating their own maps and databases in a movement called open-source mapping, as Sarah Shearman discovers.

The magical Marauder's Map that can reveal people's locations, imagined by JK Rowling in her Harry Potter novels, is fast becoming reality as cartography undergoes radical changes that are altering people's sense of time and place. The explosion in smartphones means Google Maps, which comes pre-installed on Android devices (and is favoured by many Apple iOS users), has nearly replaced the trusty Ordnance Survey as the go-to map.

People are now glued to the screen in the palm of their hand, guided around their urban environment by a GPS cursor. And with individuals increasingly using these devices to share their locations, a new social layer is forming over maps.

It may seem as though the digital generation is at risk of growing up devoid of map-reading skills, and instances of spontaneity, serendipity or just getting lost are disappearing. But this technology means people are engaging with maps in new ways that enthusiasts say strengthens their sense of place and aids discovery.

"If I travel to a new city, I can look at maps people have created to see where I can go for a run, or find something to do that I wouldn't have known about otherwise," says Eric Gundersen, founder of Mapbox, a start-up that creates maps and data visualisations from data generated collaboratively. In a speech at SXSW Interactive festival this year, Foursquare co-founder and chief executive Dennis Crowley said social maps will mean the end of scraps of paper scribbled with names of bars and restaurants. His vision is to create a real-life Marauder's Map, where people will be able to locate their friends, based on where they have been "checking in" on the app.

Beyond using maps to enhance their social lives, people are creating their own maps and databases, in a movement called open-source mapping. In a similar way to Wikipedia, open-source maps are online databases built by volunteers, relying on community moderation as quality control. The largest of these is OpenStreetMap, founded in 2004 in the UK, around the same time Google launched its first online map. While most maps have legal or technical restrictions, the aim of OpenStreetMap is to make map data free, so it can be used in more creative, productive ways.

The number of people around the world collaborating on the project has swelled in recent years, with more than 1,000 volunteers updating the map every day, and one million registered users in total. This amounts to 21 million miles of data charted around the world. The growth of open-source mapping has also given rise to an explosion in other map-related online communities, meet-ups and start-ups (both MapBox and Foursquare's software is powered by OpenStreetMap).

While it has been suggested that OpenStreetMap is a significant disruptive force for proprietary map providers – like Wikipedia was to Encyclopedia Britannica – these priority services are also looking at ways to tap into this movement and explore how geographical data is shared online. After a public campaign three years ago, the Ordnance Survey opened up 11 sets of map data for the public to use for free. Now it is seeing significant uptake, with more than 800 people downloading data sets every week.

Ordnance Survey is also exploring community mapping to serve its database, which needs to be constantly updated as physical landscapes change. For example, the Government-owned agency is trialling a scheme to get local authorities to provide it with location data, since they will be most up-to-date.

Accuracy, however, remains a consideration. "For open-source mapping you are dependent on the goodwill of people and if it is a rainy day, people might not feel like going out. Our surveyors have to go out whenever," says Peter ter Haar at Ordnance Survey. Google is also looking to capitalise on this trend, with its recent purchase of collaborative traffic map-making app Waze, which it bought for a predicted $1.1bn (although the deal is being probed by the US antitrust regulator).

But the growing popularity of mapping runs deeper than technological advancement, says Andrew Hudson-Smith, director and reader in digital urban systems at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London. "It's a cultural movement that people want to be part of because it has no central role. There is a realisation that geography ties up all these systems. With location you can pull together everything in one place and that helps us make sense of how the world works." He explains that in a city, for example, it will be possible to overlay data, such as flight paths, traffic routes and local transportation to give people a view that charts live changes.

As more people turn to map-making to help them connect to their environment, the future of maps will continue to become more complex.

By 2020, it is predicted that 50 billion devices will be connected to the internet, meaning everyday objects will be located and mapped. Alongside this will be the upshot in adoption of wearable technology, such as smartwatches or Google Glass, which puts a voice-activated computer display and high-definition video camera at the user's eye level.

While maps can be viewed on the glass's lens, the technology could allow users to record their daily activity using an inbuilt camera, meaning connections and memories to a place will be logged. Google Glass is yet to reach consumers, but as it moves into the mainstream, this reality is not far off. Apps such as Nike+ and Move It! which use GPS to track the user's running or walking route and speed, are already doing this.

"I love the fact that we can replay time and walk through places with a rich history, such as London, and capture time that in a hundred years people will be able to replay," says Hudson-Smith.

But location sharing for many is too personal, creepy and, in certain circumstances, dangerous. And the recent news about the National Security Agency's widespread internet surveillance programme, shines light on concerns that we are blindly walking into a surveillance society. With the huge amount of data being produced by individuals everyday, this is an inescapable fact.

As the physical and digital worlds move ever closer, maps will become live entities. Magical maps may sound creepy, but for aficionados the opportunity to connect with their geographies in new ways will be vast.

How to make a map your own

MapBox

Uses OpenStreetMap to create map visualisations, with in-house designers and cartographers to improve the data quality.

MapTales

Allows users to overlay personal stories on maps.

CartoDB

Dubbed an Instagram service for maps, it uses OpenStreetMap data to let users create unique data visualisations

Soundcities

A database where the community can upload different sounds from cities around the world, overlay them on a map and access an online-sound archive.

Google Map Maker

A more basic tool, but allows users to overlay personal details over Google Maps and share them.

Waze

This traffic and navigation app, recently purchased by Google, is created by a community that contribute to a live online map showing traffic hotspots.

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