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Help the world in your spare time

This is a collection of activities I like to do in my spare time to contribute to efforts that make the world a better place for all. It’s easy to come across a big ongoing effort that you support in theory but don’t know how to begin to help.

The activities described here don’t require special skills or equipment. They also don’t require intense thinking, so in most cases you can listen to audiobooks, podcasts, music, etc. and relax as you do them. They are simple in the sense that you can spend as much or as little time on them as is convenient, and can take a break from them during busy periods without any problem. These activities will also benefit you directly in ways described below.

Let me know if you know of other activities I can add to this page, or suggestions about the listed activities.


OpenStreetMap is a “project that creates and distributes free geographic data for the world.” There are many specific ways you can contribute to the project.

To edit the map I use the JOSM editor, a standalone program that takes a bit more effort to learn than the iD web-based editor, but makes editing very efficient. The BuildingsTools plugin is great for adding buildings efficiently.

Add residential addresses around where you live

Many locations are severely lacking in residential addresses, which hinders OSM adoption for personal use because people type them in to get directions there. If your local area is missing residential addresses, you may want to first check if your local government has available data on address locations. If so, consider importing it to OSM. Otherwise, go for a walk:

  1. Look at the map and decide on a walking route.
  2. Some people use smartphone apps or GPS devices to help record addresses, but I just carry a pen and notebook.
  3. For each block, record where you start, and begin walking along the sidewalk or however people usually walk through that neighborhood, writing down addresses in a list as you pass by them (probably just for one side of the street at a time).
  4. Find a system that works for you, e.g. how to keep track of grouped or missing addresses, turns that you take, etc. The important thing is that you can transfer the addresses to the correct objects in the map when you get home.
  5. Back at a computer, update the map with these addresses, adding the houses/buildings themselves if they aren’t in the map yet. Use the HouseNumberTaggingTool JOSM plugin. Search around for best practices for things like duplex addresses, ranges, etc. I add both the house number and the street name, though I think the street name is optional since I’m just inferring it from its location anyway.

Map the countryside

Many rural areas around the world contain only major roads and outlines of small towns in OSM. Luckily, you can use the provided aerial imagery to fill in the map, regardless of where you reside. There is much to be mapped in these areas, and it’s fun to ‘traverse’ the countryside and learn what different places look like from above.

  1. Check out to see which areas are missing a lot of roads.
  2. Go to those places in the JOSM editor and trace things you see. Prioritize major roads connecting towns, followed by residential roads, notable buildings, farming canals, residential roads, lakes, etc. Check the OSM wiki for advice on tags, such as how to classify roads (aka ‘highways’) and for region-specific mapping advice.
  3. Be sure to periodically upload your changesets so they aren’t too large. (I’m not sure how large is too large. I usually upload a few hundred nodes/ways at a time.)

Map the suburbs

Houses are usually missing from OSM. If you’re looking for a really mindless task while you listen to podcasts, help add suburban houses. This will make the map more informative for things like estimating population density, and will make it easier for locals to fill in addresses.

I’ve experimented with using image processing techniques to automatically trace houses. I’m not aware of a tool that does this reliably, and manual review would be necessary anyway, so for now we’ll rely on our human eyes and sensibilities to trace them.

  1. Go to a suburban area in the JOSM editor with rows of similar-looking houses in the imagery that are not yet in the map. I like to do this for arid areas where trees don’t obstruct the houses, and for recently-developed areas where houses are very uniform.
  2. The BuildingsTools plugin makes tracing houses very quick, and the more regular the houses, the more features you can use to rapidly trace them. In the plugin settings make sure to set the default tag to “building=house”.
  3. Houses with varying dimensions require two clicks per house, but if one dimension of the houses is fairly uniform, you can fix that length in the plugin settings and do a single click-and-drag per house. If both dimensions of the houses are uniform, you can set the second dimension as the dragging increment so that even a quick rough drag produces the same shape each time.
  4. BuildingsTools also allows you to select a reference object (e.g. a road), and new buildings will snap to being perpendicular to it, which speeds up entry if the houses are along a straight road.
  5. I usually trace houses as rectangles, regardless of their actual shape, and just try to match the size and position. There are so many missing houses that for now we just need objects there. Later when they’re all filled in people can edit their shapes.

Validate traffic signs

OpenStreetCam is “a project to collect crowdsourced street-level photographs for improving OpenStreetMap operated by TeleNav”. Here are instructions for how you can help validate traffic sign detections to improve detection and make the map more accurate.

Free Software Directory

The Free Software Directory is “a catalog of free software that anyone can edit,” hosted by the Free Software Foundation. It is an extensive catalog, so there is much work in keeping it maintained and comprehensive. In addition to facilitating the use and spread of free software, you benefit from editing the directory by seeing many different ways that people organize, distribute, and update software, and by learning how to hunt down software you’re looking for. There is a weekly open meeting on IRC where you can talk with others and ask about the updating process.

Update/remove the oldest entries

To make the directory more useful, we want to minimize the number of broken software links by removing entries for software that is no longer available or, more commonly, by updating the links to the new (or archived) software location. You’ll need to create an account on the wiki (or, preferably, become a paying supporter of the FSF to get a member account).

  1. Search for entries that haven’t been reviewed in a long time. You could also work from the automated list of broken links, but for now I think the old entry search works best.
  2. Click on an entry at random, and more often than not it will need some kind of update.
  3. If the homepage link and/or software download link don’t take you where they should, or if there is a newer version than what is listed in the directory, click the “Edit with form” tab (must be logged in). There are three main scenarios here:
    • The entry should be marked for deletion if the software is totally unavailable, i.e. these are all true:
      1. The links are broken.
      2. You can’t find the software after searching the web, GitHub, and Sourceforge for the software name or developer’s name.
      3. After searching for an archive of the homepage at, you are unable to download the software from the archived page, meaning the software itself isn’t archived.
      4. You’ve emailed the developer/maintainer using contact info from the directory, and either the email was returned to sender, they don’t respond for a week or so, or they respond saying they abandoned the project.

      In this case, mark the entry for deletion as described here.

    • The entry should be updated with new links if, after trying the above steps in order, you find the software. If you’re updating with the archived links, switch the version status to “historical”. (Also, I think it’s a good idea to email the developer before using an archived link to make sure it isn’t being maintained elsewhere.)
    • The version should be updated if applicable. Update the “Version identifier” and “Version date” fields and delete the “Version comment” field contents.

    If you do any of these edits, make sure to enter your name for “Last review by” and set the “Last review date” to the current day to get credit and so people know the entry has been reviewed recently. Don’t change the “Submitted by” or “Submitted date” fields.

  4. I keep a table of entries I’ve worked on with the software name, status (updated/deleted), link to archived version if applicable, date I emailed the developer if applicable, and the developer’s response if applicable. This way I can, for example, see that I sent an email a week ago and got no response, and can edit the entry with the archived link I saved.
  5. You can see all recent changes to the directory, and you might be surprised at how prominently your edits appear in this sparse list!


Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” It seems that there are many tasks involving Wikipedia and other Wikimedia sites that could go on this page, but I’m still a novice editor, so please let me know if you have some to add.