Following last week’s interview with Maggie Cawley, this week we continue the OSM in Education theme by chatting with Steven Johnson about the OSM Geo Week project.  

1. Who are you, what is your background in geo?

I started my geo career back in the paleo-gis days. I worked for local government to geo-enable basic municipal functions: zoning, land use planning, cadastral mapping, street centerlines, and address management. I eventually moved into a consulting role where I helped a variety of Federal agencies implement parts of their geospatial programs. In 2008, I became involved with the OpenStreetMap project and quickly recognized the significance of the project and the value of crowd-sourced geography. I also liked that it got me back to my roots collecting data in the field and putting it on a map. I like to say that mapping in OpenStreetMap is doing geography on a 1:1 scale, because when you’re actively mapping on the street or out in the field you pay much closer attention to your physical surroundings.

2. What is the OSM Geo Week project?

The OSM GeoWeek project is an effort to have large-scale, broad-based participation of the US OpenStreetMap community in Geography Awareness Week, which this year will be held 16 - 22 Nov.. In the past, it’s always been scattered individuals who have organized events largely on an ad hoc basis. This year, under the leadership of Justine Kendall, the US OpenStreetMappers have been collaborating with National Geographic Society and with Benson Wilder at the Humanitarian Intervention Unit at the US Department of State, the fine folks who brought us MapGive. And although I’ve made contributions, the OSM GeoWeek web site is largely the work of Mikel Maron, who is responsible for making the web site a focal point of the OSM GeoWeek. We’re all working to show that OpenStreetMap is the perfect platform for citizens to engage meaningfully with their geography.

National Geographic will be hosting an OpenStreetMap mapathon during the week, based on this year’s theme, “The Future of Food.“ In keeping with the food theme, our event will have both a domestic and an international focus. The domestic focus is on mapping farmers markets and the vendors supplying them so that we can give more visibility to community-supported, local agriculture. The second theme is international in scope, and we’ll be digitizing agricultural infrastructure and land uses. But we’re leaving it open to each local organizer to use the food theme as they see fit.

3. Who is the target audience? What do you hope to achieve?

In the very shortest run, we want to raise exposure for OpenStreetMap as a teaching tool on college and high school campuses. We want teachers and students alike to know that OpenStreetMap is a tool with a low barrier to entry that can help meet educational objectives. By holding many events around the country, we can raise visibility of OpenStreetMap and show that it is a tool that educators can use to help students understand place, space, and location.

In the longer run, we want geography and social science instructors know that there are alternatives to proprietary data and expensive commercial software that can be employed to meet their educational objectives. As I said earlier, when students engage with their own local geography on a 1:1 scale, they learn how to read the landscape, and they begin to understand their physical world in terms of geographic processes. OSM excels in this regard and we want to use this event to boost awareness of local geography.

4. To date we’ve seen a lot of different individual efforts around bringing OSM into the classroom. Do you collaborate with others around the world trying to use OSM in education? What are some of the most successful efforts to date?

One of the newest initiatives of the US OpenStreetMap community is TeachOSM, which is designed to give tools to geography and social sciences instructors who want to use OpenStreetMap primarily to teach fundamental concepts of geography, as well as consolidate some of those individual efforts in one place. Over the last few years, the OpenStreetMap has developed a growing body of work devoted to teaching motivated learners how to use OpenStreetMap. But only now have we considered how we can use OSM to teach geography, as opposed to teaching people how to use the OSM platform.

Why do we want to do this? Because we want to cultivate a steady pipeline of new mappers to sustain the OpenStreetMap project over the long haul. As ESRI has shown, the best way to do this is to get young students using your platform early so that when they come out of school they know the platform and have real skills that employers want. We also want to cultivate a more diverse population of OpenStreetMappers, so welcoming them to the project in their formative years helps them take a stake in the project, as well as their neighborhoods.

I’m happy to be collaborating closely with Nuala Cowan and Richard Hinton of George Washington University, who have done a great deal to develop a teaching module and grading rubric which can serve as a template for other educators who have course work to share. The TeachOSM website is rapidly taking shape and we also have a TeachOSM email list to facilitate communications with a small, but diverse group of educators and technicians.

One of the most successful events we’ve had to date is this summer’s Georgia Avenue mapping party. Andrew Wiseman was instrumental in bringing a local Washington, DC community development organization, MOMIES TLC, together with our local OSM group, MappingDC to train over 15 young adults in how to map in OpenStreetMap. The youth conducted store front surveys and Andrew persuaded them to add them to the map, so in the course of several meetings, the youth added over 260 new small businesses and institutions to the map. The challenge now is to not only turn this one time event into a self-sustaining process, but also replicate this type of event with other groups across the country.

5. OSM recently celebrated it’s 10th birthday, where do you think the project will be in 10 years time?

I’m not one given to this kind of speculation and whenever I do venture a prediction I’m usually spectacularly wrong. That said, in the next few years I see more commercial services being built on top of OpenStreetMap. Perhaps government agencies in the US will figure out a way they can make more use of OpenStreetMap, but before that can happen, they’ll have to figure out ways to overcome the public domain vs share-alike licensing. I’m encouraged by what National Park Service is doing in this regard, and to a lesser extent the inquiries made by the US Census Bureau and US Geological Survey to see how OSM fits in their information ecology.

Many thanks Steven and of course we wish you all good luck in inspiring young mappers. Agree with you we would all win if the conflict between share-alike and public domain could be solved. 

You can see all the Open Geo interviews here. If you are or know of someone we should interview, please get in touch, we’re always looking to promote people doing interesting things with open geo data.