OpenStreetMap as a tool for skill building

Aishworya Shrestha

Playlists: 'sotm2022' videos starting here / audio

This talk explores the effects of OpenStreetMapping on the mappers. These effects also infer that OSM mapping can be used as a tool for skill-building.

OpenStreetMap, the crowdsourced geospatial database, currently has over eight million registered members [1]. This makes it one of the largest VGI projects with proven multifaceted use cases e.g. post-disaster response, combating female genital mutilation, app development, and navigation. The database is wholly made and maintained by its contributors, making all decisions without a top-down governing authority. People in OSM contribute in multiple ways, extending databases, onboarding newcomers, building community, exchanging information, and providing public benefit. Within the OSM community, OSM mapping is regarded as a form of volunteering to create freely accessible geodata. However, recent studies suggest that the experience a mapper gains through the mapping process could be equally important as well [2-4]. Building on the existing body of knowledge, in this talk, we will share the findings our research on how mapping in OSM affects the mapper.

Being a quality OSM mapper requires training and practice. The act of OSM mapping requires transitioning from having an interest in mapping to creating an OSM account, learning how to use the application, developing an understanding of the technical and theoretical dimensions of mapping, and then applying these skills and knowledge to accurately convert satellite imagery into map data. Such a process engages mappers in multiple decision-making processes and continuously exposes them to buildings, topographies, and features of satellite imagery. We suggest that such experiences affect the mapper in multiple ways.

We studied a youth mapping internship called Digital Internship and Leadership (DIAL) Program conducted in three cohorts. We chose this internship program for its inclusiveness in terms of academia, gender, and the geographical locations that the participants came from. Participant mappers were called through an open invitation on social media. Recent high school graduates and undergraduate students participated in the mapping internship. They were from diverse academic backgrounds (geomatics engineering, architecture, crisis management, management, forestry, geomatics engineering, computer science and engineering, electronics engineering, management, public health, mechanical engineering). The internship aimed to reduce OSM data gaps in rural Nepal through the involvement of Nepali high school graduates. The program was designed and executed by Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL). We studied the self-assessed experiences of the participant mappers at two different points of time: (i) during the mapping program (ii) after two years for Cohorts II and III, and three years for Cohort I. Short-term effects were studied through grounded theory coding of reports and blogs documented during the internship period. For long-term impacts, an online survey administered to identify if the effects persisted.

Results show OSM mapping helps the mappers develop a number of vital skill sets and expand their knowledge in a variety of areas. Some of them are: deepening of civic engagement, development of social identity, expansion of geographic knowledge, spatial awareness, increase in happiness and satisfaction. They retain most of these skills even in the long run, irrespective of differences in gender, academic, or professional backgrounds. Surprisingly, 44.8% of the participants cited ‌they considered being a professional mapper or cartographer at some point in time because of their experience in DIAL. The same people report that OSM mapping increased their belief in their ability to help society.

Apart from these individual benefits, we also sense collective benefits. Collective benefits such as network development and an increased sense of civic responsibility hold potential to facilitate broader public good. These might also be applicable for youth mobilization, team building, and collective work.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact root cause of this development, however, the benefits of OSM mapping may be in part related to the continuous exposure to satellite imagery, continuous use of technology, the requirement of multiple layers of decision-making, humanitarian aspects of OSM, and the growing global OSM community encouraging conversations around it.

Our findings build upon the studies of the use of OSM in high schools, which was noted to increase creativity and spatial awareness among the students [5, 3, 2]. When compared to Minghini et al.’s (2016) study with ten-year-olds, the similarity in findings suggests ‌these developments might be similar across ages. These developments suggest new directions toward the use of OSM as a tool for youth skill building and youth community engagement and design newer incentive mechanisms for people to join and retain in OSM.

There is still a huge scope of investigation left in this area, ideally through a longitudinal study with a bigger and more diverse sample and comparisons between different program designs, to fully understand the wide array of effects of OSM mapping on the mappers, as well as the potential to deepen positive outcomes via associated youth learning and leadership programs. There are undoubtedly other categories of benefits of OSM mapping that are yet to be identified. Hence, it is worthwhile to reconsider the idea of participatory mapping and related programs, and their effects on the contributing mappers.