When Mapping Gets You Arrested

Wired UK reports on how an OpenStreetMap contributor got arrested in Reading after “a paranoid guy called the police.” (Here’s the contributor’s own take.)

On-the-ground surveying with a GPS is a great way to contribute to OpenStreetMap, but it’s not hard to see how it might be construed as suspicious activity. The problem isn’t actually the GPS, which is inconspicuous enough unless you’re staring at it every five seconds, it’s the note-taking that goes along with it. Even here in Shawville, when we were surveying a couple of residential streets, one of Jennifer’s co-workers spotted us and later asked us what the hell we had been doing. We were writing down house numbers to add to the map — but stopping every few metres to write down the house number at each corner does look a bit odd. So does taking a photo of every street sign (to confirm road names independently of third-party mapping data). It helps to be as discreet and non-creepy as possible.

Fortunately, it’s a small town and we’re known, so we haven’t run into any serious trouble yet. If asked, I usually explain that I’m mapping the town for a website called OpenStreetMap, which is like Wikipedia for maps: everybody runs around with a GPS to create a map of the world. (At that point their eyes usually glaze over.)

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.