[Osmf-talk] A Better Map

Steve Coast steve at asklater.com
Wed Oct 22 10:15:00 UTC 2014

Why are we here on these mailing lists? Why do we spend so much time making maps? I think ultimately because it’s fun. It’s a neat hobby and we’re making the world a slightly better place.

You need the right environment for things to be fun. Someone has to install the toys in the playground. Someone needs to pay for the slides and install the swings so that the kids can run around. Then someone else needs to fix them when they fail and make sure you don’t break your neck unexpectedly.

In the past I’ve tried hard to make OSM a fun playground, by doing things like taking all the warning labels off and letting people do whatever they like. Things like open tagging or letting anyone edit, which were crazy ideas in 2004. I’ve also at times been responsible for it not being fun. Partly because I was a kid learning the hard way and partly because sometimes you need to make decisions.

I agree that in some ways OSM isn’t a fun playground right now. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be again.

We had a lot of fun with our swings and our slides. But now there are a lot more people to join the fun from far away places and we’re older. Maybe we now prefer bumper cars and video games to the old swings and slides.

We should keep the swings and the slides. People new to the playground will still enjoy them. But we should also build a bumper car arena and maybe a video game arcade. Sometimes we might go back and play on the slide too. We need some new skills to build these new toys.

Together, we need a mission and then a couple of course corrections to make it happen.

I think addressing should be our mission. We built the worlds best display map already. We won. If you print out any OSM map of practically anywhere, it’s the best. But we can’t find anything on it without comprehensive and global addressing information. It’s the hidden data behind the map we now need to go after. All the other things we need to do are also good things. Diversity in all it’s forms, faster servers, better tools, easier documentation and more.

A clear mission provides a framework and guidance for achieving those things. “Map more stuff” got us very, very far. But now, we should focus on what’s stopping us replacing proprietary maps. And that is addressing.

How would we go achieve that?

There are two basic fixes. Make the board functional and give the board bandwidth.

The board is too big. It grew for good reasons but now it’s just hard to achieve anything. Seven people mean that if everyone speaks for five minutes in a conversation on some issue, you use over half an hour. In an hour-long meeting that means you can barely discuss two things. Ignoring all the other issues, just the pure mechanics shows you how hard it is to talk through something let alone achieve a consensus. The board needs to be 3 people. 5 at maximum.

Being on the board is a difficult job, especially as a volunteer. Most people aren’t used to such roles. They may think like I did that they need to please everybody all the time. They aren’t able to attend meetings because they have a day job and other life commitments. The board needs to meet in person regularly with a facilitator and also have guidance about what it means to be on a board. We can’t expect volunteers to naturally figure all this stuff out by themselves and then also devote the time to also achieve goals.

The board needs paid staff. There are a variety of things those paid staff can do which the board can decide. It’s clear that there are things that volunteers don’t have fun doing and therefore they don’t happen at all, but are still very important for a functioning organization. Having paid staff isn’t about deprecating volunteer involvement, it’s about plugging the gaps. It’s not a perfect solution but the alternative is to rely on companies to do many of these things, and that really isn’t perfect either.

In terms of the mechanics,

1. Change the mission statement of OSM to be something like “The world’s best addressable map”
2. The board figures out how to voluntarily shrink to 3-5 people, and, meets in person 2-4 times a year
3. Consulting with the community on exact roles and remit, hire 1-3 people [*]

Together, we could do this in 6-12 months and finish addressing in 1-3 years. At that point we wouldn’t have just made the world slightly better, we would have put a big dent in the universe. Nobody would use a closed map ever again, and it would be people like you that made it happen.

So why don’t we go do that?


A digression.

In Peter Thiel’s book “Zero-to-One” he catalogs the fate of HP’s board. HP used to be a very innovative place and then it wasn’t any more. Thiel posits that there were two board factions at a critical time. On the one hand there were people who wanted to chart out things to build and then go build them. On the other hand there was a group who felt the board wasn’t competent to do that, and they should focus on making sure all the rules were being followed. The latter apparently won.

What happened next is that HP's board blew up over wiretapping in search of someone leaking things to the press. HP collapsed in value making sure all the rules were followed while people who build new things did very well, like Apple.

Let’s not be HP. Let’s be Apple.


[*] - I could speak at length on funding, but I don’t think finding money will be a hard problem.

More information about the osmf-talk mailing list