“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 Craft mapping remains the heart of the project, potentially due to a passive Foundation board who’ve let outdated behaviors go unexamined.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.)