OpenStreetMap community of practice, US Census Bureau

Interaction type Public →Government→Public
Trigger event Internal champion.
Domain Generic mapping.
Organization United States Census Bureau.
Actors United States Census Bureau.
Data sets OpenStreetMap (OSM).
Process Mapping events and outreach within the Bureau.
Feedback  –
Goal To build a group of mappers and supporters of OSM within the US Census Bureau.
Side effects  –
Contact point Steven Johnson, OpenStreetMap, US

 At the moment, the US Census Bureau has no formal interaction with OSM. However, a small number of internal champions have been working to build a community of mapping enthusiasts to create support for the incorporation of OSM into the Bureau’s work.

 One of the leading advocates for the use of volunteered geographic information within the US Census Bureau’s programs says that there a number of ways in which the platform could be useful. Data collection is expensive and OSM could offer a way for the Census to partner with citizens to help identify areas where change has occurred and, perhaps, collect basic location data about the neighborhoods where they live. OSM could also be used as a tool for helping Census professionals better understand issues that Census field representatives encounter in their work. For example, by participating in OSM, they would have to engage with ambiguity in tagging systems as well as better understand the geography of the areas to which they are assigned.

 In order to help grow the OSM community within the Census Bureau, advocates held mapping events during lunch hours every other week during June and July of 2013. Participants were given basic information about the OSM platform and community, taught how to map using OSM tools, and sent out in small teams to survey the area around the Suitland Federal Center, where the Census Bureau offices are located. In addition, advocates have given a number of internal presentations about OSM and its applicability to the Census’s mission and brought their colleagues to OSM conferences and meetups.

 OSM champions face a number of challenges in promoting adoption of OSM within the Census Bureau. Many who have traditional GIS backgrounds have difficulty accepting OSM’s open source model of data production. In government data sets, there is a notion that databases are authoritative. OSM offers no such assurances. The OSM community has no central point of contact to provide support. Thus, learning how to engage with the distributed OSM community would be an important part of any adoption. Finally, the census could potentially use OSM as a data source for TIGER/Line products, which describe fundamental features such as transportation networks, natural features and geographic boundaries, but are unable to do so because the Census would need to release this into the public domain, which is disallowed by the current license.

 Main lessons:

  • Building support within government organizations for VGI requires time and willingness to learn different models of creating, validating and using data.
  • Hands-on exposure to OSM tools is a useful way of helping individuals understand the platform and its potential value.