Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 09:44 UK

US city to start giant 'mapathon'

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Image courtesy of Creative Commons
Atlanta is among the largest cities in the US

Atlanta, the capital of the US state of Georgia will soon be the world's most digitally mapped city, according to organisers of a massive "mapathon".

OpenStreetMap, or OSM, is behind the effort to produce a map more accurate than anything else on the market.

In addition, all the data will be given away free for others to use.

"We aim to map everything from bike paths to emergency phones and police precincts," said Frank Howell from the Office of Research and Policy Analysis.

The office is part of an umbrella group of Georgia's universities.

"In the Atlanta area, we have new buildings and streets being built all the time and this notion of sneakers on the ground going around mapping everything means you get up-to-date data.

"And what is neat about it is this information is free. It will be owned by the community - not by Google or other mapping services like Tele Atlas. These two things together really captured my imagination," Mr Howell explained, when asked why Atlanta wanted to get involved in the project.

Mapping details

The Atlanta mapathon will take place this weekend, with around 200 volunteers armed with global positioning devices mapping the city.

"The way to think about it is as a really big mapping party," said OSM founder Steve Coast.

Boston open street map downtown
OSM map showing Boston Common

"We will have about 15-20 mapping stations throughout Atlanta and start by noting all the freeways and motorways, then the main roads, smaller roads and eventually go right down to the footpaths, bars and restaurants."

Mr Coast said the success of the project was down to the passion and enthusiasm of the volunteers, who carry on working on the map once the weekend mapathon is completed.

"We have over 160,000 people around the world constantly updating the maps. In Germany, the people there have done so much work that they are mapping trees and overhead wires."

OSM is described as the "Wikipedia of maps".

"Unlike Wikipedia we don't have the same problems of providing this passive neutral point of view," Mr Coast told the BBC.

"With OpenStreetMap it is not a case of whether Jesus did or did not exist. The fact is there are either 25 exits off Highway 101 or there aren't."

Benefits

One of the big attractions for Atlanta getting involved is the fact the data gathered for OpenStreetMap is free and open for users to edit and mash up any way they like.

Boston Google map
A Google map showing Boston Common

"If you are an iPhone developer and you want to make a map of pizza joints in San Francisco or Atlanta, you basically have two choices," said Mr Coast.

"You can use Google maps but there are restrictions on what you can do with the data or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars to license the data from other organisations.

"With OpenStreetMap, it's basically plug and play. We want you to take that data for free and use it how you see fit," added Mr Coast.

For Atlanta, Mr Howell said that approach opened up all sorts of possibilities for the city that is home to global brands from Coca-Cola to CNN and AT&T.

"When you have a lot of bright minds like we have here, give them a new toy like OpenStreetMap and they will come up with new applications and winning innovations around that information," said Mr Howell.

In San Francisco and Oakland, OSM data is used to draw up crime maps. The White House leverages the information to show where stimulus money is being spent.

The former professor of geographic information systems said he thought Atlanta would be able to lay claim to the title of the most digitally mapped city by the new year.

"We understand the symbolism of achieving that aim and the currency it gives us as we try to persuade companies to set up here," Mr Howell said.

"We also think it will encourage other cities to follow our lead and improve that spirit of community as we all play a part to really put Atlanta on the map."



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