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Get mapping for CycleStreets and OpenStreetMap!

David Earl - who undertook the incredible feat of cycling every street in Cambridge and the surrounding villages - explains how you can help improve CycleStreets by getting involved in mapping for OpenStreetMap, whose data is used by our routing engine. David is also a fellow member of Cambridge Cycling Campaign, of which CycleStreets is a spin-off project.

New! Cycle mapping for cycle routing with OpenStreetMap - community mapping guide

You've probably noticed that CycleStreets works better in some places than others. That's often because the maps it works from are less than complete. You can help make them better.

An OpenStreetMap of part of eastern Cambridge. (License: CC-By-SA.)
Example map

CycleStreets uses OpenStreetMap for its maps. OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a grand project to map the world, making the results available for free. In a nutshell it is doing for maps what Wikipedia does for knowledge.

Map data is collected by volunteers. And it turns out that a bike is the perfect tool for gathering it. Anyone can contribute to OSM, so we'd like your help.

Why don't we just use Google maps? They are just pictures of the street pattern. To work out routes we need a connected model of the streets. Why not Ordnance Survey? Until 2010 it was prohibitively expensive. Even though a lot of OS data has now been made free, like Google maps it also doesn't have a lot of the detail that's important to cyclists and cycle routes. Nevertheless OS is a new source of some data for OSM in the UK.

But there's no real substitute for getting out there and gathering the data on the ground.

What you'll need

If you're in a sparsely mapped area, you'll need a GPS receiver, one that can be connected to a computer to get the record of where you've been. There are GPS receiver recommendations on the OSM website. You may even already have one: smart phones often have one built in.

Street mapping in progress
Street mapping in progress

Then you need something to take notes of street names and features. A pen and paper will do. Some people use a camera (don't forget you can also put pictures onto CycleStreets if you do this, which will be used to illustrate routes). A digital voice recorder is especially good on a bike because you don't have to stop and start.

So out you go and record what you see. If you can survey an area systematically so much the better. We collect data of all kinds but for best cycle routing the really important things are the types of road, any cycle facilities, any restrictions like one way streets and no right turns, and exceptions for cyclists. Local knowledge of short cuts accessible by bike are often not recorded on conventional maps.

For a more comprehensive map, include shops, post offices, post boxes, schools and colleges, churches, green spaces and playgrounds as well. Some people are even collecting house numbers now, though this is probably easier on foot.

Where a skeleton of roads already exists, we need to augment it with missing streets and particularly the extra information on cycle facilities and restrictions. You don't necessarily need a GPS to do this. You can reference it to the existing map. An excellent tool called Walking Papers helps doing this.

You can also now use Ordnance Survey Open Data backgrounds to trace missing streets, and in larger urban areas we have satellite pictures available as well.

Simple corrections to the map can be notified very easily through the OpenStreetMaps website, by adding a correction to the Notes layer. Someone else will make the change for you.

Editing your data

Once you've got your data there's a number of tools to let you add it to the map. This usually takes about the same time as collecting it in the first place, at least for urban areas. There is a map editor on our website which is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. There are also offline editors, JOSM and Merkaator for example.

The most important thing in editing the map is to make sure all your streets join up. It isn't enough that they just look like they join - the route calculations can't then move from one street to another.

The OSM website has a step-by-step beginner's guide. There are mailing lists, blogs, chat forums and so on where lots of real people will be very willing to help you. Part of the joy of a project like this is the community of like minded people behind it. Many of them are also cyclists.

Finally you have the satisfaction of seeing your work appear on the various maps, usually within a few minutes. CycleStreets will use it within a day or two.

OSM being used during the Haiti humanitarian efforts
Haiti mapping


OpenStreetMap is starting to find a place in the wider world. Microsoft's Bing now includes an OSM map and Flickr has used OSM where conventional map coverage lets them down.

Perhaps OSM's proudest achievements are in humanitarian efforts. Mapping Gaza for example, and the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, a settlement of a million people where ordinary map companies just don't go. And it saves lives too: a huge push in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake brought together donated satellite pictures and OSM to build a map of the affected areas which was augmented with emergency information and severances as they happened. People like you helped the relief effort from their front rooms.

CycleStreets isn't in the same category of course but maps are ubiquitous and the power of lots of people makes it possible to build and use them in ways that haven't been seen before - in our case, by cyclists, for cyclists.

Feel free to reproduce this article in printed newsletters, or link to this page online.

We welcome your feedback, especially to report bugs or give us route feedback.

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