The lie of the land

It’s ambitious and time-consuming work to produce free maps of the whole of South Africa, but that is exactly what the OpenStreetMap (OSM) team is doing. Relying on a team of volunteers willing to hit the highways, streets and tracks of the country with their GPSes in their spare time, the OpenStreetMap SA team has now mapped more than 120,000 km of the country’s roads. The resulting maps are licenced under a Creative Commons licence so that anyone can use the information.

Started just over five years ago the global OpenStreetMap project now has more than 200,000 volunteers that are working on mapping the whole of the world. The project has limited funding and relies on teams of volunteers to map roads in their area or appealing to their own interest. 

Grant Slater, a South African currently living in London, is one of the leaders of the South African effort and an OSM system administrator.

Slater says that a good portion of the national major road network in South Africa has already been mapped. “Enough has been mapped to route regular drivers between any of the larger centres in the country,” he says.

The majority of the mapping to date has been done in Cape Town with Johannesburg and Pretoria a little ways behind, says Slater. Bloemfontein also has a growing set of data and outside of the major centres places such as Nelspruit, George, Kimberly, Vryheid and Worcester have also been mapped in some detail, often by lone mappers.

Slater says that to date there are around 600 volunteers who have edited at least a small portion of the South African map. The bulk of the registered users are in Cape Town with around 300 contributors and Johannesburg with about half that. Not all of these are active contributors to the project and the core team is around 40 people, he says.

While most of the mapping project is focused on getting residential roads mapped there is also space for special interests in the project, he says. This might include local hiking trails, cycle routes or 4×4 trails. One of these in Cape Town is a growing list of cycle trails. Another is a list of the World Cup 2010 soccer stadiums

Slater says that in Cape Town the majority of the road network is complete and some members of the community are now adding details such as bars and restaurants, UCT campus buildings, and walking trails. “I’m currently focused on adding public transport information at the moment. Bus routes, trains, taxi ranks and so on. My goal is to get enough data together to allow myself or someone else to build a decent ‘journey planner’ for South Africa.”

Slater says that anyone can get involved in the project. One of the easiest ways to do this, he says, is for users to check the existing street maps and check to see if their street is correctly named. If it isn’t they can edit the maps to include relevant details.

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The lie of the land