Living with dragons

In a society filled with Google Maps, MapQuest and other easy access map services, Gregory Marler de

Intense followers of the NMA awards may remember a nomination made last year for OpenStreetMap (OSM). The project, set up four years ago, involves creating a wiki-map of the world that can be modified by anyone who creates an account. Unlike other online and offline map providers, the resulting map is free to copy and use how you like, with no restrictions or fee except ensuring that you credit your changes and link back to OSM.

A free map data source like this is great for small organisations that can't afford the alternatives, but some people still question whether it's useful or required in their simple life. A couple of months after the 2007 NMA awards ceremony I was set to move up north to the beautiful city of Durham. Seeing that only the river and A1 motorway had been mapped in Durham for OSM, I decided to start an experiment.

The experiment was to live without using any maps unless I could copy, publish, and modify them without requiring explicit permission or paying. So to guide me to locations and addresses I could use: a 1948 map that was so old its copyright and usefulness had expired; and I could use OpenStreetMap, that might as well have marked the city 'Here be dragons' because no one had added the streets. To record the stresses and difficulties I experienced I set up a blog, Living with Dragons, so you can follow along and know how I'm doing.

Prior to moving to Durham and starting this experiment, I had spent slightly less than 48 hours there. Going anywhere outside the very centre would require guessing where to go or going with someone who knew. I was invited to houses of new friends but had to ask them to doodle directions from the nearest place I had previously been to.

Along with living without maps, I'm also dedicating some time to building OSM's coverage of Durham. This requires me to walk down every road and footpath I can possibly find, and by the end of it, I'll know Durham very well. But mapping an unknown area is harder than somewhere you're used to. I couldn't systematically divide up areas to map each week. Sometimes I'd map a small area but discover it to be the type of housing that is a warren of short roads and many footpaths/alleyways.

Since October I've mapped the city centre and the area to the east of it. I'm currently working to the North, and what's been done can be seen here. On June the 7th and 8th I'll be arranging a mapping party so you can come along on either or both of the days to learn what to do while helping me out.

Dragon drawing by Joyce Webb