Collaborative infrastructure for the smart city

- joost schouppe - OpenStreetMap Belgium

At OpenStreetMap Belgium, we want to be the first to map new things. That’s not just because we like doing that, but also to offer the best service to our data users. And it has an implication for local government too.

Embracing global platforms - but only if you can shape them

In the age of the smart city, the local government is at risk of losing control. As a local player by definition, they can only offer very local services. But who will use them? Do cities really expect citizens, visitors and companies to install an app for Ghent, and an app for Antwerp? Even regions are often too small to work on their own - if only because so many people go in and out of Brussels every day.

The only way that cities can hope to maintain relevance, is by embracing global platforms. Only these have the potential to scale enough to be able to offer cheap services, and so become popular enough to have a real impact on what happens in a city. But all the “cool new things” are deeply challenging. AirBnB distorts the housing market. Uber undercuts traditional taxi companies. In essence, these kinds of services deregulate industries by pretending not to be part of them. You can think of that what you want, but from the local government perspective, it means losing control.

Is there an alternative? We think there is. When Ghent introduced a new circulation plan, they tried to get all the map operators to incorporate their data. Some promised to do so, next year. Others said they would, and didn’t. And one of them just did it, on the day of the introduction, and made the data available for anyone who cares to use it. In fact, anyone can correct any mistake in the data itself, hence their efforts are guaranteed to reach the client. This alternative is called OpenStreetMap, and it’s an open map dataset of the entire world. It is the one mapping service that scales to the entire world, and can still be used by local governments to directly influence the user experience of city dwellers.

So how does it work?

When things change, OpenStreetMap volunteers take pride in being the first to map them. When Andrah Pradesh in India split into two states, OpenStreetMap was the first to map the new states. When something new happens around one of our mappers, they open up their map editor without a second thought. Just like we do when larger things change. We were the first to map the pedestrian zone in Brussels. We were ahead of the game when the circulation plan changed in Leuven, we were the first in Gent, we were the first to map the new A11. How else could Halle or Dendermonde even dream of getting their city mapped into a global database? This is all thanks to our dedicated contributors, who love to see their cities and their neighbourhoods correctly represented on the map. A whole ecosystem of routing engines, base maps, smartphone apps and data researchers consume that data, starting the second we upload it.

Over time, governments will develop tools to communicate these kinds of changes in a structured way. Maybe commercial players will then finally use this info faster. We will adapt. For now, we need you. If it’s just a small change, make a note – or learn to map it yourself. If you work in government and it’s a larger change, send an e-mail to with your plans. We’re a community of volunteers, so we can’t guarantee anything. But even without guarantees, we tend to beat the competition. For the love of our cities, and for the love of our data.

OpenStreetMap isn’t just a less user friendly competitor to Google Maps. We are an open infrastructure, which allows you to change the world through mapping. When a group of communities in West Flanders introduces a plan to keep heavy traffic out of city centers, we map it too. And the tools are available to help truckers navigate legally. It doesn’t even end there. We offer bike navigation, navigation over hiking networks, and can even offer wheelchair navigation. We can help you find the nearest ATM, or the nearest drinking water fountain. We can help you map your neighborhood as you see it. Or we can map crisis areas in Africa together, so doctors can find their patients.

Could our way of working be a model for the future? Can open collaboration power the smart city - with a global infrastructure powered by citizens, supported by governments and allowing companies to profit, without setting the limits nor the scope?

We think it might. But we’ll need your help.