OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads

“The OpenStreetMap Community is at a crossroads, with some important choices on where it might choose to head next,” wrote Michal Migurski last month. Identifying three types of map contributors—robot mappers using third party data, crisis mappers responding to a disaster like the Haiti earthquake, and so-called “local craft mappers” (i.e., the original OSM userbase that edits the map at the community level, using GPS tracks and local knowledge), Michal ruffled many feathers by saying that “[t]he first two represent an exciting future for OSM, while the third could doom it to irrelevance.” That’s largely because, in his view, the craft mappers’ passivity and complacency, and their entrenched position in the OSM hierarchy, are impeding the efforts of the other two groups.

I heard much frustration from crisis mappers about the craft-style focus of the international State Of The Map conference in Brussels later this year, while the hostility of the public OSM-Talk mailing list to newcomers of any kind has been a running joke for a decade. The robot mappers show up for conferences but engage in a limited way dictated by the demands of their jobs. Craft mapping remains the heart of the project, potentially due to a passive Foundation board who’ve let outdated behaviors go unexamined.

Naturally such pot-stirring did not go unnoticed (see the comments in Michal’s post).

It’s probably not helpful to pit one group of users against another. Each group is contributing to the map for their own purposes (some of which, it must be said, are commercial and self-interested), but they all have the same goal in mind: a good, usable map. It’s how they get there—and why they want to get there—that’s at issue.

Both craft and crisis mapping can fail to see the forest for the trees: both depend on the efforts of a motivated cadre of mappers, whether they’re local hobbyists trying to improve the map of their own community, or mappers trying to help disaster relief efforts. But relying on those efforts can lead to a map of wildly uneven quality. As I wrote in “All Online Maps Suck,” my 2013 piece on online map quality,

The problem with OSM is also its strength: it’s entirely dependent on the attention of volunteers. Where there are a lot of volunteers, the map is invariably excellent. But where there aren’t any volunteers, the map is empty.

Automated edits are the opposite of the above. When based on existing databases (CanVec in Canada, TIGER in the United States), they represent top-down mapping rather than from the bottom up, which goes against the original sensibilities of OSM. But they can cover a lot of ground that would otherwise go unmapped, or mapped in only the most cursory way.

The problem is when the different mapping methods come into conflict. It’s extremely easy to step on one another’s toes. Local mapping efforts can be discouraged by armchair mapping (which I have to confess I’ve done rather a lot of—even crisis mapping can privilege foreign computer users over on-the-ground mapping) and automated edits that can overwrite individuals’ work if not handled carefully.

Responding to Michal’s post, Tom Lee identifies another constituency that Michal missed: “passive users of OpenStreetMap data. Naturally I am thinking of Mapbox customers, but also people using MapQuest and Mapzen and Carto and Maps.me and countless other businesses.” Note the words customers and businesses—not just map users. Regardless of its original ethos, OSM data supports a lot of for-profit businesses. Tom puts his finger on it: there’s a dichotomy between mapping as a hobby and mapping as part of the job.

For end users, the politics of OpenStreetMap ought to be so much inside baseball. My own concern, as a heavy OSM contributor over the years (which is to say, a “local craft mapper”), has been less about how the map was made than whether the end result was a good map. I worried a lot that my edits would get someone else into trouble, or that the incomplete map would be put to use—by those “passive users” of OSM data—before it was ready, for political or economic reasons. The voracious hunger for open mapping data was what worried me—and it’s what’s driving the conflict in this case.

(Comments are open, because I expect I’m wrong in some of the particulars.)

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.

2 thoughts on “OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads”

  1. Mr Migurski has wilfully ignored the timeline and the arrows of causality. If it wasn’t for what the craft mappers did in the early days – not just mapping, to demonstrate that it’s gonna happen whether the agencies like it or not, but also lobbying – there would be no present-day open datasets to feed the robots, and the crises would be unmapped.

    Mr Migurski doesn’t offer any evidence whatsoever that the craft mappers, and the crisis mappers, and the *people* behind the robots are disjoint sets, nor does he demonstrate that there is any incompatibility between them.

    But there’ll be a heck of a lot of conflict between me and Mr Migurski if I ever meet him.

  2. Hi Jonathan, thank you for the insightful response! I agree that Tom found the crux of the issue, between mappers who do it for professional reasons and those who do it for personal / hobby ones. I’m grateful to Elder Lemon’s mention of the historical picture in the comments above, and I think that my post is compatible with his perspective. Many projects necessarily start out as craft. Some project successfully move past it.

    The audacity of OSM’s early participants to map the whole earth lay the foundation for what came after. Those of us who use OSM for our work today owe those early developers and mappers a debt of gratitude. However, we also use it *for our work*, and it sits further to the right on Simon Wardley’s evolution axis that I referenced late in the post. For robot/crisis purposes, OpenStreetMap must be an effective utility. The people behind these uses may not be disjoint sets, but the uses themselves often are: one set of uses focuses on building, construction, and novelty. The other treats it as a platform for higher-level activities like Red Cross’s crisis preparedness or Facebook’s desire to find its next billion users.

    I am equally grateful to the creators of other modern utilities like the internet or public transit, but in my normal day-to-day capacity as a user I need for them to just work.

    The craft-focused historical leadership of the OpenStreetMap Foundation is underserving OSM’s future potential in two key ways that I address in my post. The license is being inadequately defended/explained for new contexts, and the community’s various gathering places like Talk are being insufficiently managed for the benefit of new arrivals to the project. In essence, the project is welcoming only to those similar to the original creators: curious, passionate, tech-driven, motivated participants with a high tolerance for a vague legal framework and plenty of free time for years-long mailing list arguments. Years of diversity & inclusion efforts in the U.S. technology community have highlighted some of the ways that these characteristics are unevenly distributed.

    Thanks for opening the comments, and for bringing back The Map Room after such a lengthy hiatus!

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