Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common joint disorder. The osteoarthritis initiative (OAI) is a multicentre, longitudinal, prospective observational cohort study of knee OA that aims to provide publicly accessible clinical datasets, images and biospecimens, to enable researchers to investigate factors that influence the onset and development of OA, and evaluate biomarkers that predict and track the course of the disease. In this Perspectives, we describe the rationale and design of the OAI and its cohort, discuss imaging protocols and summarize image analyses completed to date. We include descriptive analyses of publicly available longitudinal (2-year) data of changes in cartilage thickness in a core sample of 600 knees from 590 participants in the OAI progression subcohort. Furthermore, we describe published methodological and applied imaging research that has emerged from OAI pilot studies and OAI data releases, and how these studies might contribute to clinical development of biomarkers for assessing the efficacy of intervention trials.