As an open source advocate, I generally find it worth my time to donate time or money to Free (as in speech) projects and services. Anything that serves for the benefit of the common good is worthwhile in my eyes. Unfortunately, for the most part I can’t contribute programming skills to projects for the lack of free time on my part, but there is one project that requires low mental investment and delivers instant gratification to boot: OpenStreetmap. Basically, OpenStreetmap is a wikipedia of maps. Anyone can sign up for an account and edit a collective map that is instantly rolled out to millions of users. Since OpenStreetmap only uses information in the public domain, data from commercial mapping services like Navteq cannot be used. However, years ago the developers did a massive import from the TIGER dataset released by the U. S. Government. In many places it was outdated, in most others it was innacurately placed. Fortunately, Yahoo! released a set of satellite maps into the public domain that the OpenStreetmap developers quickly placed in their editing application
One can spend a near-infinite amount of time going through the locale and lining up the roads (ways) up with the satellite image, adding special use data, or tracing out uploaded GPS tracks to form brand new roads and subdivisions. As a result of the work I’ve put into the Alexandria/Pineville area, the local area (at least in parts) is far more accurate than Google Maps or Bing Maps.
Some recent additions I’ve made to the area include adding the taxiways, aprons, and gates to Alexandria International Airport reflecting the layout of the new terminal and tower. I’ve also added the golf resort at AEX. I’ve also done the same for Pineville Municipal airport at Buhlow Lake. Another thing that I’ve added is accurate railways for the area. Instead of stopping at a single mainline headed through Alexandria, I’ve actually traced in all 21 tracks from the rail yard in Alexandria, making the map more complete than Google’s or Bing’s portrayal of the railroad system. While a friend pointed out that this will only be a marvelous tool if he’s ever driving down the railroad tracks or if the train gets lost and needs GPS directions, I find it a source of pride to know that our Alexandria now has more complete crowdsourced maps than it once had.
I would highly encourage anyone who has even a small amount of spare time to get involved with the OpenStreetmap project. As illustrated above, the scope of OSM isn’t just on roadways, though that is the most practical application, but also points of interest, hiking trails, locations of public facilities such as fire and police departments, libraries, and schools. The list could go on indefinitely.
One side interest that my recent work with OSM has piqued, however, is that of local history. I was looking through the old Camp Livingston area at how little remains of the original encampment since it was deactivated in 1945. 65 years of neglect has erased most everything of the original roadways, even though 500,000 troops trained their over the facility’s commission. It’s almost something worth filming for an episode of Life After People. It’s interesting to note that one of the very first Japanese prisoners of war, one of the men inhabiting a midget submarine that went aground at Pearl Harbor, were kept at Camp Livingston, and that there was a P.O.W. cemetery at Camp Livingston; the headstones were moved to a different location long ago, but the bodies remain in the graves, unmarked.
I find it intriguing to look at aerial photography, such as that provided by Microsoft’s Bing Maps, to look over the area and survey such remnants. One thing that I found fascinating was the level of rail traffic that once came through Alexandria. The Missouri Pacific Railroad expanded into Alexandria in 1892. At some point, the path of the railway was changed through to a more indirect route into the city, roughly paralleling I49. However, the original path of the railway can still be seen. Most of it is overgrown with grass, though the path of the track is still uncovered by trees. The rails still appear visible in many areas. Other areas have seen the rails paved or redeveloped over. Some parts of the original Missouri-Pacific rails still remained in the old TIGER data. I’ve completed the missing segments of the railway from the Alexandria levee to west of Willow Glen where it would have joined with the still-used railway, and marked this area appropriately as abandoned rail. What other interesting historical elements could be added to the map?
The main point is that it’s fascinating to see towns reinvent themselves, even small ones such as Alexandria. In fact, I suspect it’s even more fascinating in said small towns, because small-scale reinvention often leaves behind visible evidence of the town’s history and the times and industries that it suffered through.
I find a sadly small amount of information about such things on the Internet. I’m sure that Alexandria Daily Town Talk has much of these events in its archive. It’s a shame that the paper, in its losing struggle to remain profitable in a New Media era, will likely never invest in digitizing its historical catalog. If such a thing were to become a volunteer effort, I would gladly spend time transcribing the microfilm copies of the newspaper, which actually goes back to about 20 years after the Civil War, for online consumption.