Chances are, you’re not familiar with OpenStreetMap. The market saturation of Google Maps and Bing Maps is such that they’re the tools we turn to, sometimes without even thinking. Both these services have an incredibly beatiful and usable design aesthetic, which makes them easy to read. There’s no real reason why you’d need a third web mapping service – unless you really wanted one. If you like having alternatives, especially alternatives that are open source, crowd-editable, and not controlled by nearly monopolistic companies, then OpenStreetMap may be the project for you.
The best thing about OpenStreetMap, besides the ability to add your own map features via a wiki-like interface, is the wide variety of viewing options. As you may know, web mapping services work by serving image tiles to your browser. The visual aspects of the map are dependent on which set (‘deck’) of tiles you are loading. Google Maps, for instance, has map tiles, satellite tiles, and topography tiles. OpenStreetMap currently has five different tile decks to choose from, using the handy blue layer switcher in the upper right corner of the map. Each deck has some overlap in functionality, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. To illustrate the differences, I’ve included links to the main campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder, my alma mater.
This default deck features the same basic light gray and muted yellow as a Google map, but with a wider pastel pallete to color-code buildings and street types. The inclusion of sidewalks is a nice touch, but the map feels like maybe it needs a key. One major drawback of this deck is that the campus boundary isn’t as clear as in other decks.
The streets and street names in this deck pop a little bit more, but the strong purple background on the campus makes it feel too busy. In some cases, the placement of the street names makes the map harder to read, especially where a trail runs close to the street, or a highway has a local name. But in less dense areas, these tiles are very easy to read, and would look great on a small screen.
Although the functionality of this deck caters to the needs of cyclists, it also looks great as a car or pedestrian map. The bluish gray looks excellent as a base color, which makes the bike lanes and paths easy to find. This map still feels like it needs a key, though: it’s not easy to tell that the yellow areas represent auto parking lots (which are bicycle hazards).
Everything fades into the background except for the bus routes. It’s not easy to tell which buses follow which routes, but there is no question which streets have bus traffic. Some of the major intersections are labeled. which can be convenient for visiting riders. Personally, I would like to see the actual stop locations. Assuming that the tiles are constructed using open transit data (some of which uses the Google transit specification), that should be easy enough to add.
Recently, MapQuest opened up their tiles to OpenStreetMap, and the result looks fabulous. This deck may not be as informative as other decks, but it is simple enough that it doesn’t really need a key. I’ve been having trouble with the tiles loading slowly, but that’s my only complaint. A very usable map.
Google Map for comparison:
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