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Google Maps and OpenStreetMap: The coexistence of two unequal siblings

In 2015, Aleks Buczkowski gave an overview of OpenStreetMap vs. Google Maps on this blog – and he suggested trying OpenStreetMap (OSM). Now, almost 10 years later, I think it would be a good idea to look more closely at the differences between them. This will help us understand why both can coexist and neither can or will replace the other – at least that is my guess for the next years.

As of 2024, if you were to ask a random person in many Western parts of the world for directions, they would most likely use Google Maps on their smartphone to assist you. In comparison to Google Maps, OSM can be seen as a niche phenomenon in the geospatial space. However, today OSM is used in more applications than ever before.

Although in a wider sense, both Google Maps and OSM can be described as platforms and the end use may be similar for some users, Google Maps differs from OSM. 

In this article, I will: 

1) Compare Google Maps with OSM in three areas: background and origin, socio-technical configuration, and data usage. 

2) Explore the relationship between Google Maps and OSM, explaining why they both coexist.

Background and Origin

Both OSM and Google Maps share a similar ideology and origin. OSM was founded in 2004 embedded in the time of Web 2.0. It was created in response to the dissatisfaction with access to state-owned maps. Google Maps, however, is part of the company Google which, as a survivor of the dot-com bubble, became a quickly rising star in the technology sector in the early 2000s. 

Both OSM and Google share techno-enthusiasm beginnings that originated in the 1990s and early 2000s. This belief in the emancipatory potential of the information society and new technologies was referred to as Californian ideology by Barbrook and Cameron (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996) as it was prototypically developed in California during that time. 

OSM mostly relies on volunteers to contribute to the project. While Google Maps has offered and continues to offer a limited opportunity for volunteer participation, its origins lie in Google’s acquisition of several geospatial companies in 2004 to help create a map for location searches on Google Search. 

Before this acquisition, Google had no activities in the geospatial field (Kilday, 2018). The acquired companies provided the necessary expertise to process geospatial data, as well as data from administrative agencies. Later, more data was acquired and Google Maps began collecting data in-house. 

In 2005, Google launched its mapping product, which quickly became successful and expanded both spatially and functionally. Google particularly benefited from integrating Google Maps on smartphones. 

Google Maps and OpenStreetMap: The coexistence of two unequal siblings

OSM and Google Maps Website 2024

Socio-technical Configuration

OSM is first and foremost a mapping community, then second a geospatial database, and, third, something that can be turned into a map. However, creating the actual map is “outsourced” to the user: the user can do as they please as long as they follow the few guidelines and attribute the data to the license. 

In contrast, Google Maps is a map product that is part of the Google universe. The project offers several services: While OSM can compete with Google Maps as a geographic database, it falls short in areas such as search, reviews, and aerial/satellite imagery (Beddow, 2022). However, OSM is also not designed to provide these services as their self-conception is rather based on being a mapping community.

Data Usage

OSM geospatial data is openly accessible, but there is not one API through which OSM data can be accessed. That is why individuals as well as commercial companies that want to use OSM data have to either process OSM themselves or build pipelines to process OSM data so that they are fit for their use. Recent examples of that are the Daylight Map Distribution or Mapbox data. The user has the freedom to decide how to utilize the data, whether it be for further processing, displaying in various styles, or using only certain parts. As long as the user complies with the license, any of these options are permissible. 

In contrast, Google provides several APIs for easily accessing Google Maps data. Initially, there was no API for Google Maps, and the data was freely available for use, resulting in the creation of so-called “mash-ups” (Ahlert, 2022). Currently, Google charges a fee for extensive use of the API, creating a structural dependency for numerous businesses of varying sizes that require access to Google Maps data (McQuire, 2019).

We can see that there are certain similarities between OSM and the tech-capitalist Google Maps platform. The term tech-capitalism  (or technocapitalism) refers to changes in capitalism associated with the emerging power of new technology corporations. Like platforms that are closely formed by this tech-capitalism, OSM also includes similar elements such as a digital infrastructure (Plantin & Powell, 2016). OSM is also based on an online platform that enables a group of people, the community, to collaborate together via online interfaces. 

Similar to social media platforms or neighborhood support platforms (Michel & Schröder-Bergen, 2022), OSM also includes local affective dimensions such as the ground truth ethos or the focus on localness. But unlike the tech-capitalist platforms, which already have this in their name, the project is decidedly anti-commercial and this aspiration can also be felt among many participants. Thus, the commercial idea is nowhere to be found in OSM. OSM is based around a non-profit foundation while tech-capitalist platforms as part of companies only function in the long term if they generate a profit.

However, certain techno-solutionist attitudes of active members are similar: both tech-capitalist platform members and core members of OSM tend to be technologically optimistic, i.e. they assume that objective knowledge can be produced with technology and data analysis. This can be found in both the ecosystem of OSM and the service platform Google Maps. For OSM, the underlying premise is that the technology and practice of collaborative mapping can empower individuals and communities to shape their spatial environment. For Google Maps, the platform’s extensive accessibility and convenience can be leveraged by billions of users worldwide.

Google Maps and OpenStreetMap: The coexistence of two unequal siblings

Google Maps for Consumer Navigation and Exploration (CC0 Public Domain)

Both OSM and Google Maps are of significant importance to individuals, organizations and commercial actors in a variety of fields, including navigation, analysis and business operations. OSM places a strong emphasis on openness and community collaboration, offering a wide range of use cases for geospatial analysis, transportation, public services, and humanitarian mapping. In contrast, Google Maps provides a convenient platform for consumer navigation and travel planning, as well as integration with other Google services such as for local businesses and delivery services.

Google Maps and OpenStreetMap: The coexistence of two unequal siblings

OSM Mapping Party after the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti (Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

OSM Mapping Party after the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti (Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In summary, Google Maps is more accessible and therefore more widely used. Since Google Maps is not primarily participatory, but rather a product of a platform company, there is less control over the content. As part of a profit-oriented company, Google Maps follows a different logic to a community project such as OSM (Whitehead & Collier, 2023)

However, because Alphabet, Google’s parent company, does not provide separate revenue figures for Google Maps, it can only be estimated whether Alphabet is making money with Google Maps. Assessments of Google Maps’ financial performance vary. While Morgan Stanley’s financial advisors consider it an “under-monetized asset” (Nowak 2017), Skift, a travel industry news site, suggests that Alphabet is likely to be “making considerable money” from it (Schaal, 2019)

OSM provides an alternative source of geospatial data and can compete with Google Maps in terms of data quality in many parts of the world. This is recognized by many companies that choose not to pay for access to Google’s API. 

Google Maps and OSM do not interact directly, but from OSM’s perspective, there may be indirect challenges for OSM. Google Maps is the top dog that everyone knows about. The more Google Maps is used, the more “niche” OSM may become and the more difficult it may be to recruit new members. This problem may grow as more players enter the geospatial space, such as the Overture Maps Foundation, initiated by major technology and logistics companies.

However, both Google Maps and OSM have brought the ubiquity of digital map data into the 21st century: Google Maps as an everyday super-platform application and OSM as a counter-movement to government and economic data collection by a community contributing to a digital commons. Both exemplify the transformation of the use of digital geospatial data in our daily lives. And because of their different use cases and goals, both have a raison d’être.


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Source: YouthMappers
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A Beginner’s Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

On February 6th 2023, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, followed by a 7.5 magnitude aftershock, struck southeast Turkiye and northwest Syria. This catastrophic event resulted in over 52,000 confirmed deaths, with millions of people affected. MapAction began their response in the early hours of February 6th, working remotely to update key maps and data. Coordinating with UN agencies and other emergency response partners, MapAction supported search and rescue operations, mapping collapsed sites, hospital locations, and transport hubs.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

MapAction Field Team members working in the UN Onsite Operations Coordination Centre in Gaziantep, Turkiye, Source: MapAction

In 2022, Malawi faced a severe cholera outbreak, with cases escalating dramatically by December. The Missing Maps team from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) initiated remote mapping support to aid the emergency response. They launched several mapping projects using tools like Mapswipe and HOT Tasking Manager to map buildings and residential areas.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

Map used for a field survey on water access safety in Lilongwe. Malawi 2023, Source: MSF

These two tragic events in the last two years show us the field of geohumanitarian service. The term geohumanitarian refers to the application of geospatial technologies and data for humanitarian purposes, ranging from disaster response and aid delivery to crisis mapping and communication.

Geohumanitarian mapping organizations play a vital role in disaster response and humanitarian aid efforts. Geohumantiarian efforts have increasingly gained significant attention, especially in the wake of natural disasters and humanitarian crises. They provide up-to-date geographic data and mapping services.

Mapping services consist of two key contributors: Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) ND  Professional Geographic Information (PGI). While VGI and PGI encompass a broad range of definitions, this article will focus on the participants who contribute towards geohumanitarian services.

Organizations such as MapAction provide professional mapping services. Unlike VGI, which relies on the contributions of ordinary citizens, PGI requires professional knowledge and expertise in GIS. These organizations employ skilled professionals who are trained to create highly accurate and detailed maps critical for disaster response and humanitarian aid.

VGI represents the other vital component of geohumanitarian mapping services. VGI leverages the power of community contributions, where ordinary citizens participate in creating and updating geographic data.

Lots of ‘Maps’ and Mappers, who are they?

When people first read news about geohumanitarian services, they often find themselves confused by the multitude of mappers and mapping groups involved. Who are these organizations, and what exactly are they doing?

This section aims to clarify the roles and contributions of various mapping organizations, especially for those new to this field. Let’s briefly introduce them one by one.

Organizations based on VGI: The Power of Crowdsourcing

OpenStreetMaps (OSM): The biggest crowdfunding mapping project

Before delving into the other mapping organizations, it’s essential to know OSM, an organization that existed even before the VGI concept was widely recognized. Most GIS students know OSM. Founded by Steve Coast in 2004, OSM is a collaborative project that creates and distributes free geographic data for the world. As of now, it boasts more than 10.2 million users.

A notable example of OSM’s impact was during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The OSM community quickly initiated a mapping project using current satellite images to provide crucial geospatial data to rescue workers and the affected population. Within days, the community had produced a detailed city map of Port-au-Prince, including bridges, infrastructure, and damaged buildings, which was updated hourly.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

OpenStreetMap Port au Prince Before and After the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, Source: Mikel Maron

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT): The first community-driven disaster mapping

The idea of using OSM for disaster response was first presented in 2005 at the European Commission. After several years of development and testing, the first activation of the Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) for humanitarian purposes occurred during the Gaza crisis in January 2009. They did this by creating a free and open map of Gaza by mobilizing volunteer mappers to digitize buildings, roads, and infrastructure from satellite imagery. This assisted humanitarian organizations with logistics and relief operations once they were allowed to deploy in Gaza. HOT’s mapping work in 2009 aimed to fill crucial data gaps from existing map sources such as the UN and the BBC.

Founded in 2010,  HOT was Incorporated as a U.S. nonprofit organization committed to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping. Another significant project for HOT was the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. Hours after the quake, HOT traced roads and buildings in Port-au-Prince from existing satellite imagery to create a basemap for responding organizations. This soon became the default basemap used by search and rescue teams.

Since its formation, HOT has grown significantly, mapping in over 60 countries and engaging in more than 100 projects. As of now, HOT has mobilized 468,000 mappers, facilitated 246.7 million map edits, and mapped 147.5 million buildings. Their core objective is to mobilize or support one million contributors to map an area home to one billion people by 2026.

In 2023 during the Turkey & Syria Earthquake, HOT collaborated with the Turkish open mapping community Yer Çizenler, mobilizing nearly 7,000 contributors to map almost 1.5 million buildings and over 66,000 kilometers of road within two weeks.

Some of you might have encountered mapping organizations known as Open Mapping Hubs, each followed by a regional name. Don’t worry, these are regional hubs operated by the HOT. Together, HOT and partners such as Open  Mapping Hub Asia Pacific created multiple Tasking Manager projects covering the affected areas in Turkey and northern Syria to coordinate collaborative online mapping.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

Mapping in support for Turkey and Syria, Source: HOT

Mapping in support for Turkey and Syria, Source: HOT

YouthMappers: We don’t just build maps, We build mappers

Created in 2014 and officially launched in 2015, YouthMappers is an international consortium of university student mapping clubs made up of students, researchers, educators, and scholars. 

Founded by Texas Tech University, George Washington University, and West Virginia University, with Arizona State University as the lead administrative partner, YouthMappers is focused on mapping for humanitarian and development purposes.

The consortium has an international network of student-led chapters, such as YouthMappers at TU Munich. Currently, it has nearly 400 chapters across Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

YouthMappers’ mission is to cultivate a generation of young leaders to create resilient communities by mapping and using open geospatial data. 

They offer a variety of programs to foster leadership, research, and inclusivity among its members. The “Let Girls Map” campaign, launched in 2016, encourages female mappers to engage in mapping activities. 

The YouthMappers Research Fellowship is a 9-month program that uses open geospatial data to study the resilience of vulnerable populations. This provides training in open mapping techniques and youth leadership to enrich chapter activities and promote youth leadership on university campuses. 

Additionally, YouthMappers Regional Ambassadors support chapters with technical training and help expand the network by recruiting motivated students.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

Source: YouthMappers

Missing Maps: Collaborative projects for humanitarian aid

Missing Maps is a unique collaborative project, aimed at creating accessible map data for areas where humanitarian organizations operate. 

Founded in November 2014, Missing Maps was initiated by a coalition of the HOT, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the British Red Cross, and the American Red Cross. The project has since grown to include over 15 member organizations, ranging from NGOs to educational institutions and civil society groups.

So, if you see the logos of MSF and Red Cross organizations in various mapping projects, don’t be confused. These organizations have been supporting mapping initiatives for over a decade, contributing to the creation of detailed and accessible maps for humanitarian aid. At the same time, the open map data enables humanitarian groups like MSF and the Red Cross to navigate crisis areas, plan logistics, track disease spread, and deliver aid more effectively. The maps are used for disaster response, epidemic control (e.g. Ebola, cholera), risk reduction, and spatial planning by NGOs and health agencies.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

Members in Missing Maps, Source: Missing Maps

The primary goal of Missing Maps is to preemptively map vulnerable parts of the world, ensuring that detailed maps are available for first responders in the event of disasters, conflicts, or disease epidemics. Volunteers digitally trace satellite imagery to map roads, buildings, infrastructure, etc, in outdated or unmapped areas using the HOT Tasking Manager. Field teams then validate these areas and update the maps with local names and details by working with communities on the ground.

The project has successfully mapped large towns, cities, and rural areas in countries such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic. By utilizing the OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform, Missing Maps ensures that all collected data is freely available for anyone to use.

Since its inception, nearly 100,000 volunteers have contributed to Missing Maps, mapping over 45 million buildings and more than 1 million kilometers of roads, significantly enhancing the capacity for humanitarian response and community resilience.

A Beginner's Guide to GeoHumanitarian Mapping Organizations

Community mapping, Source: Kimon Letzner

UN Mappers: Support peace and security with open mapping

Compared to other mapping organizations, UN Mappers is a relatively young community. UN Mappers is a community of mapping enthusiasts dedicated to collecting, validating, and disseminating open geospatial data to support decision-making processes with more accurate location-based data. 

This initiative is part of the broader UN Maps project, which aims to enhance topographic and operational data in UN missions, thereby providing peacekeeping and humanitarian actors with better tools and information.

UN Mappers is open to everyone, inviting individuals worldwide to support peace and security through open mapping. The community ranges from UN personnel, such as GIS groups, UN offices, military, and police, to academia, local communities, NGOs, and remote volunteers. 

Through the UN Maps Learning Hub, UN Mappers offers a self-training platform where participants can learn the basics of OpenStreetMap (OSM), understand its main editors, and map significant geographic features encountered in UN Peacekeeping mission territories. Additionally, the “Voice of the Community” page highlights exceptional mappers for their achievements and contributions.

The UN Mappers of the month, Source: UN Mappers

The UN Mappers of the month, Source: UN Mappers

How can you contribute?

Now that we’ve covered the relationship between OSM, HOT, and Missing Maps. The next question is: how can you contribute?

There are several ways you can get involved. If you are a beginner, learning materials from organizations like HOT or UN Mappers can help you get started. One of the most engaging ways to contribute is by participating in a mapathon.

This is a coordinated maping event where volunteers come together to create or improve maps of a specific area. Either online (armchair mapping) or in-person (field mapping), you’ll be able to trace satellite imagery to map roads, buildings, land use, etc. using tools like HOT’s Tasking Manager. 

You can start by teaching yourself through self-paced guides like LearnOSM and UN Maps Learning Hub. However, participating in regularly organized Missing Maps mapathons, can be a more interactive and impactful way to get involved. Mapathons can be attended either in-person or virtually, and they often include a significant training element designed for beginners. These events are a great way to make a meaningful contribution to a specific humanitarian mapping project.

To find mapathons near you, check out the events section of the OSM Cal

If you’re attending a mapathon for the first time, it’s helpful to review resources like “Missing Maps Mapathons – before the event” to get prepared.

By joining these efforts, you can play a crucial role in creating detailed maps that support humanitarian aid and disaster response, helping communities around the world.

How Missing Maps work, Source: Missing Maps

How Missing Maps work, Source: Missing Maps

Organizations based on PGI: The Efforts from Experts

Now that we’ve covered volunteer mapping, or VGI, how can you contribute as a geospatial professional, through PGI efforts?

This section introduces some PGI agencies such as Copernicus Emergency Management Service and MapAction, exploring who they are and how they differ from VGI initiatives. Let’s start with MapAction.

MapAction: Expert-Led Disaster Response Mapping

MapAction has positioned itself as a crucial player in the realm of emergency response, having contributed to more than 130 major emergency responses worldwide. Over the past 18 years, MapAction has provided vital mapping, data, and information tools to disaster relief agencies, aiding in responses to 11 significant earthquakes, including those in Haiti, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nepal. The organization’s extensive experience has honed its ability to address the most urgent mapping and data needs of disaster response agencies.

The concept of MapAction was conceived by Rupert Douglas-Bate in 1994 while he worked as an emergency water engineer in Bosnia. He identified a critical gap in the availability of mapped analysis to support effective humanitarian aid planning and delivery. With the support of his father, Andrew, the charity was founded and initially registered as Aid for Aid. 

The organization’s first deployment was in 2003 to Lesotho in response to a food security emergency, and in 2004, it conducted its first rapid response mission following the Indian Ocean tsunami, deploying a team to Sri Lanka. The UK-registered charity was one of the first foreign NGOs to arrive in Sri Lanka, deploying an 11-person team of highly skilled professionals to Colombo within hours of the tsunami. 

MapAction’s team worked around the clock to collect detailed data and produce maps pinpointing hospitals, roads, affected families, casualties, missing persons, and more. Their maps enabled relief agencies to navigate areas, identify vulnerable people, and coordinate aid more effectively in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Since its inception, MapAction has grown significantly, currently consisting of around 25 staff members and 75 volunteers. The organization has adapted to modern challenges by leveraging remote volunteer efforts, thereby increasing productivity without significantly raising deployment costs. 

MapAction continuously innovates to enhance its services for disaster-affected populations. The organization’s InnovationLab brings together data scientists, software developers, geospatial experts, and data engineers to develop anticipatory humanitarian action solutions.

Impact of MapActions, Source: MapActions

Impact of MapActions, Source: MapActions

Copernicus Emergency Management Service – Mapping

The Copernicus Emergency Management Service (CEMS) leverages satellite imagery and other geospatial data to provide free mapping services in response to natural disasters, human-made emergency situations, and humanitarian crises around the globe. As part of the larger Copernicus program—an EU initiative focused on developing European information services based on satellite Earth observation and in-situ data—CEMS supports various disaster management actors by delivering crucial geospatial information that enhances decision-making processes.

CEMS operates two main mapping services. The first, Rapid Mapping, provides geospatial information within hours or days following an activation to support immediate emergency management activities. This service produces several standardized products, including reference maps that offer quick knowledge of the territory and assets before an emergency, first estimate products that deliver rapid, rough assessments of the most affected areas, delineation products that detail the event’s impact and geographical extent, and grading products that evaluate the severity and spatial distribution of damage.

The second service, Risk and Recovery Mapping, supports disaster management activities beyond the immediate response phase, focusing on prevention, preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and recovery. This service offers products such as reference maps depicting pre-disaster situations, pre-disaster situation maps that assist in risk reduction and preparedness, and post-disaster situation maps that provide detailed impact assessments to support recovery efforts.

CEMS services are utilized by regional, national, European, and international entities involved in emergency management. However, only Authorized Users can trigger these services. Associated Users, including local entities, international governmental organizations, and NGOs, must coordinate with Authorized Users to access the services. The general public can access information about activations through the CEMS web portal but cannot directly trigger the service.

Flood in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, Source: CEMS

Flood in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, Source: CEMS

The Future of Geohumanitarian Services: AI and LLM

Looking ahead, the future of geohumanitarian services is poised to be revolutionized by the integration of Artificial Intelligence Generated Content (AIGC) and Large Language Models (LLM). These advanced technologies hold the potential to significantly enhance the efficiency and accuracy of mapping and disaster response efforts, offering faster data processing capabilities and more precise information.

LLMs have the potential to significantly improve emergency response by reducing the time and effort volunteers need to invest in tasks such as geocoding. By automating these labor-intensive processes, LLMs enable volunteers to focus on more critical aspects of mapping and data analysis. This shift not only speeds up the workflow but also ensures that emergency responses can be more agile and effective.

AI can also address the problem of data inequality. Currently, OpenStreetMap data exhibits significant disparities among different countries, with some regions having extensive mapping coverage while others remain largely unmapped. Humanitarian organizations often prioritize countries with the most substantial data gaps. AI can help bridge these gaps by automating the mapping process in underrepresented areas, ensuring that crucial geographic data is available where it is needed most.

Moreover, the use of AI to improve the processing and analysis of sensor data from sources like GPS devices will radically change the open mapping field. AI has the potential to exponentially accelerate mapping speed and capacity. For example, during a 2020 pilot project, HOT used AI to extract 18 million building footprints from satellite imagery, nearly doubling the mapping capacity to 2,500-3,000 buildings per person per day, compared to the 1,000-1,500 buildings per day achievable without AI.

fAIr: An open AI-assisted mapping service that aims to improve the efficiency and accuracy of mapping efforts, Source: HOT

fAIr: An open AI-assisted mapping service that aims to improve the efficiency and accuracy of mapping efforts, Source: HOT

In conclusion, the future of geohumanitarian efforts will be significantly shaped by the adoption and integration of emerging technologies such as AI and LLM. 

These innovations will enhance the speed, accuracy, and scope of mapping efforts, enabling more effective disaster response and better support for vulnerable communities worldwide. As these technologies continue to evolve, they promise to redefine the strategies and tools used in geohumanitarian services, making a profound impact on the field and ultimately saving more lives.


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