xii. US Census Bureau – Building an OSM Community of Practice Within Government

Interaction type

Government → Public

Trigger Event

Internal Champion


General Mapping


United States Census Bureau


United States Census Bureau

Data sets in use



Mapping events and outreach within the Bureau



To build a group of mappers and supporters of OpenStreetMap within the US Census Bureau

Side effects

Contact Point

Steven Johnson

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

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 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 OpenStreetMap community within the Census Bureau, advocates began to 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.  The progress, as compared to the Google Map of the area, is shown below.  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. This work has continued, and conversations about incorporating open mapping into their educational program and to complement or support 2020 Census activities are ongoing.

Suitland Federal Center: OpenStreetMap vs Google Maps (2014)

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 4.23.30 PM Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 4.23.46 PM

Advocates face a number of challenges in promoting adoption of OSM within the Census. Many within the Census Bureau who have traditional GIS backgrounds have difficulty accepting OSM’s open source model of data production.  In government datasets, 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 as well as the master address file but can’t because the Census would need to release this as public domain, which is disallowed by the current ODBL 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

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