DIY cartography: Hands on with MapBox’s new open-source ‘iD’ editor in OpenStreetMap


Maps are nothing new; humans have been recording the layout of the world around them for close to 8,000 years. What started out as cave paintings developed into hand-drawn maps on parchment, which eventually turned into machine-printed atlases, and, most recently, into GPS guidance. While mapmaking has been primarily the job of cartography experts and companies like Rand McNally and Garmin, technology has allowed for an awesome shift, giving the power to document one’s surroundings back to the people. 

OpenStreetMap is an open-source community mapping project that uses a combination of satellite images and human input to survey and document the world. One of OpenStreetMap’s biggest contributors is the startup company MapBox, which just released a new map editor for OpenStreetMap called iD. While the capability to edit and correct information in OpenStreetMap has always been present, it just got a whole lot easier thanks to MapBox’s iD editor. It runs completely on Javascript and it’s easy to get started editing and documenting the world around you. 

Getting started


To use OpenStreetMap, set up an account or log in using your OpenID, Google, Yahoo, or WordPress credentials. Once you’re logged in, it’s time to start editing. The previous map editing tool, Potlatch P2, is still active, but it’s not nearly as user friendly. Ensure you’re using the iD editor by clicking on the arrow next to “Edit” near the top of browser window and clicking on “Edit with iD.”

There are very few limits with iD and OpenStreetMap, but, much like Wikipedia, any changes you make will be visible to everyone once you click “Save.” In other words, don’t make alleys into streets named after yourself. Not only will it confuse people who use OpenStreetMap for navigation, but it also has the potential to turn your alley into a busy thoroughfare. If you make a mistake, there are handy undo and redo buttons along the top of the screen.


MapBox also tells us that there is a small team of editors who continuously review changes taking special note of new user signups, the number of changes, and other signs of errant edits or vandalism. The editors are able to easily revert the changes and will message and/or temporarily block a user if necessary. 

Map it up!

There are three basic building blocks available: mark a point of interest, draw a line, or define an area. What’s the difference between an area such as a building and a point of interest at the address? If the building only houses one thing, like a church, school, or house, then you’ll want to add the relevant information for the building. If it’s a building such a strip mall that has several businesses but is one continuous edifice, make each store a point of interest and add the information for that point.

Marking a point of interest is one of the most common scenarios. For example, while the name of a business might be listed, it’s likely that much of the information for the business is missing. Clicking on the point will allow you to add information such as the full address, website, phone number, and more. It’s also possible to label what type of business it is. The iD editor gives you a few basic options, but entering the type in the search box in the right column above the business details will bring up more business types. To change the type of business or building, simply click on the arrow to the left of the feature type.


The next creation option is drawing a line. Sounds pretty easy, right? This kind of line is created using pivot points to indicate where a road, pedestrian path, canal, or highway is located. Because much of an area’s topography is already included thanks to satellite images that OpenStreetMap has already added, most major roads, highways, and rivers are in place. However, there are plenty of opportunities to edit newer streets such as those in sub-divisions and streets that dead-end at a set of train tracks, only to reappear a block later. When creating lines, remember to bring the line all the way to an intersection with another line so that the map remains accurate when giving directions.

To edit roads or create a new one, click on “Line.” As you move the cursor around the map, you’ll notice nodes appear at intersections or wherever a road isn’t perfectly straight. Click on a node to begin drawing a new line or click and hold to move the current line. Double click on the last node in your line when you want to end it. It took us a few minutes to get the hang of creating the nodes and drawing non-straight lines. It’s very similar to tracing along the outside of an image that you wish to cut from a picture in Photoshop or other photo editors. Once you’ve created the path, iD will prompt you to enter information about it just like it did with editing a point of interest. 


The final building block in iD and OpenStreetMap is creating or editing an area, which is, logically enough, done by clicking on “Area.” Areas include elements such as buildings, houses, parks, lakes, or even zoos. The node moving method used with drawing roads is again used with areas to create the most accurate depiction of a location. Sometimes it’s an edit as minimal as clicking on an outline to include a front porch, or it can involve rotating a building to more accurately reflect its position in a parking lot. 

Because the satellite images that form the background of iD aren’t perfect, it’s possible to add an area that’s been looked over. Use the cursor to drop the first node at a corner of a location and outline the location with additional nodes as needed. When it’s complete, click on the first node again to release the cursor. After that, add information as necessary to the new spot you created. 



We had a lot of fun using iD to edit OpenStreetMap. Adding information about restaurants and businesses in our area is strangely addicting, and we found ourselves frequently humming “People in your Neighborhood.” It’s incredible to see a map change before your eyes and to realize that anyone can be a part of it. With this user-friendly editor, the information contained in the map is only going to grow and could even out-Google Google at its own game – all due to people’s knowledge of the world around them.

Give the iD editor a spin and let us know what you think.

Emerging Tech

Smarter cities need smarter addresses. And you just need 3 words

To make really smart transportation choices, more precise location data will have to be integrated with citywide transportation data. Here’s how one company is mapping the world by using just three words.

Apple confirms it’s collecting data on foot to improve its Maps app

Apple has been using cars and satellites to improve its Maps app, and it's now confirmed it's also using tech-laden pedestrians to collect data from the streets in a bid to provide better walking directions.

15 tips for keeping your vault-dwellers alive in ‘Fallout Shelter’

The wasteland can be an unfriendly place, if you don't know what you're doing. Here are 15 tips that will help your vault thrive in Fallout Shelter, including information on questing.

You can now message businesses straight through Google Maps

Google has been updating Maps with a ton of new features over the past few months, and now it's back with another one -- the ability for users to message businesses directly through the Maps app.

Playing ‘Battlefield V’ on an $800 Nvidia card is stunning. And disappointing

‘Battlefield V’ is the first game to use Nvidia’s ray tracing support, now available with the RTX 2080 and 2080 Ti graphics cards. The feature can, in an ideal scenario, make the game look better, but the performance hit may not be…
Smart Home

All the best Amazon Black Friday deals for 2018

Amazon may be an online-only retailer, but that doesn’t mean its Black Friday sales are anything to sniff at. In fact, due to its online status, Amazon has huge flexibility with the range of products and deals it can offer. Here's our…

HP takes $100 off of leather-clad Spectre Folio 13 bundle for Black Friday

HP is offering a discount to Black Friday shoppers for a bundle that includes its leather-wrapped answer to Apple's MacBook Air. HP is offering a $100 discount on the Spectre Folio 13 when bundled with a mouse and leather sleeve.

Save a heap with these Black Friday 2018 graphics card deals

The Black Friday 2018 sales period is finally here and it's brought with it a tonne of great component deals. We've been scouring websites and catalogs for days to find you the best graphics cards deals for Black Friday 2018.

The best Target Black Friday deals for 2018

The mega-retailer opens its doors to the most competitive shoppers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 22, and signs indicate that the retailer means business this year. We've sifted through all of the deals, from consumer electronics to small…

Still miss Windows 7? Here's how to make Windows 10 look more like it

There's no simple way of switching on a Windows 7 mode in Windows 10. Instead, you can install third-party software, manually tweak settings, and edit the registry. We provide instructions for using these tweaks and tools.

Cyber Monday 2018: When it takes place and where to find the best deals

Cyber Monday is still a ways off, but it's never too early to start planning ahead. With so many different deals to choose from during one of the biggest shopping holidays of the year, going in with a little know-how makes all the…

Ditch the passwords and buy Xbox games with just your face

Passwords are the past. The latest version of Windows 10 allows you to sign in with your Microsoft account on the web through Microsoft Edge using Windows Hello or a FIDO 2 Yubikey. 

Canceling Amazon Prime is easy, and you might get a refund

Don't be intimidated. Learning how to cancel Amazon Prime is easier than you might think. You might even get a partial or full refund on the cost, depending on how much you've used it. Check out our quick-hit guide for doing so.

Editing a PDF is easy when you have the right tools in hand

Editing PDF files can be a real pain, but there are a few tricks to make the process a bit easier. This guide will give you three easy methods for how to edit a PDF, two of which work without needing Adobe Acrobat.