🗺️ How I made the best map of William & Mary

Published on August 3, 2022

This week, I take the final exam of my undergraduate degree. Wish me luck!

To celebrate, I'd like to tell you about a side-project I took on this spring.

The state of W&M's map

Here is a real screenshot I took of Google Maps today, in August 2022:

Screenshot of Google Maps on campus with critical annotations

These are just a few examples that caught my eye. Google Maps is littered with nonexistent points of interest (POIs), long-demolished buildings, and messy shapes. It doesn't represent our campus well at all, and confuses current students as well as visitors.

The official campus map is cool, and Facilities keeps it up-to-date as buildings change each year. But, it is not a good map for navigating campus: it takes a while to decode building numbers, there is little info for pedestrians, and the PDF format is inaccessible for many.

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a platform that integrates my mapping work with millions of others', and allows anyone to build upon it, kind of like Wikipedia. I decided to help clean up and build upon OSM data around the William & Mary campus. The rest of this article is about how I did that!

What I did

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I did to improve the map:

A majority of the edits I made were more technical, taking previously overlapping and haphazard shapes and piecing them together into clearer map elements. I've touched just about every path on campus, adjusting relative positions to better match GPS data, satellite imagery, and local GIS data.

Perhaps most importantly, I advocated for William & Mary and the City of Williamsburg to release their data. More on that in a bit!

A few weeks in to this project I walked into the Center for Geospatial Analysis, and asked to borrow a GPS receiver. They hooked me up with a very fancy Eos Arrow 100, which allowed me to create my own high-resolution GPS traces of trails around campus. I set up my phone to use the receiver's location as a "mock location" at the system level so that all apps would use its precise reading without any fuss. SMASH became a favorite app of mine for recording tracks and marking POIs as I marched around campus. Many of the traces I recorded are now available for future mappers on OpenStreetMap.

Picture of me wearing the Eos Arrow GPS receiver

Where am I?!

The friends I made along the way

The most rewarding part of this project was getting to engage with community members in and around campus that I otherwise would have never met.

One night while poking around old changesets, I discovered that Tom MacWright helped import much of the original data for campus while he studied here. Tom has since become a well-known geospatial developer, having helped build Mapbox and many of the tools I used in this project. He was pleased to hear that the campus mapped had improved since his time here.

The kind folks at the Center for Geospatial Analysis were so supportive of this project, letting me use their computers to work on my edits and putting me in touch with the right people. If you find yourself in Swem Library, I recommend stopping by the CGA!

I got in touch with the University Space Manager, who shared my enthusiasm for mapping campus and helped put me in touch with the City (see below). I am so grateful for his support, and I hope that Facilities will consider freely licensing more of William & Mary's GIS assets in the future.

As my project started to spill over into the City of Williamsburg, I got in touch with the city engineer to request that their geospatial data be released into the public domain. He was so supportive of my project, and helped confirm for me that I could import City data into OpenStreetMap without any licensing issues. I documented this on the OSM wiki, so future contributers will have an easier time updating roads and building footprints.

My friend Claire Hogan shared drone footage she shot around campus, which was immensely helpful when mapping Reveley Garden. Thanks Claire!

Then vs. Now

Here is an interactive comparison of OpenStreetMap around William & Mary's campus in January (left) vs. August (right). Virtually every change seen here was mine. Zoom all the way in around Swem Library and Sunken Gardens to see all the details!

How to use the map

If you're on your computer, this map is immediately available at https://openstreetmap.org.

If you're on mobile, I recommend Organic Maps. It's a well-maintained OSM app that includes navigation features and allows you to save maps offline.

There are countless other OSM apps, so if you're interested, I recommend poking around!

William & Mary could adopt this as their "official" map, and I hope they will. The univerity's official app could feature a slick OSM interface, helping students to find their way around campus and discover its hidden treasures. We could hire students to thoroughly tag wheelchair accessibility across campus, so that visitors could use Wheelmap and similar services to navigate more effectively. I would love to see Intro to GIS course assignments involving improvements to OSM data on campus.

What's next?

I'm proud of this work, and I'm confident OSM is now the highest-quality public map of campus. That said, there is so much left to be done. Perhaps you'd be interested in carrying the torch?

The easiest way for you to conntribute to the map, if you so desire, is to download the app StreetComplete. It's a fun way to improve the map without any background knowledge about the inner workings of OpenStreetMap. Be careful though, next thing you know you'll be up all night adding benches to a park on the other side of the globe!

Here is a to-do list that has been bouncing around in my head:

I have added many of these as notes to OpenStreetMap. If you'd like to discuss how to accomplish any of them, please reach out!


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