[Talk-in] My Experiments with Mapping

Shalabh shalabh.w at gmail.com
Fri Dec 11 13:29:59 GMT 2009

Amidst the very serious and sometimes interesting licensing discussions,
which I have only been silently following, I just thought of writing this
small piece on challenges in mapping. And oh yes, I am voting 'YES' to the
ODB License.

Now, this is not an official document, just a slightly exaggerated and 'pun
intended' kind of piece but mostly true account of a mapper's adventures.
And because OSM does not have a blog, it is here. On another note, I think
we should have an OSM blog. Mapping makes for very interesting travelling
and there is so much people who want to could share.

This is a little long, so bear with it but it should be worth it. :) Blog
posted on this link as well:
*My Experiments with Mapping

*My apologies go out to Mahatma Gandhi for shamelessly plagiarizing the
title of his autobiography, only in part though. However, if he were to read
this blog post, even he would agree that my Titanic struggle mapping some
parts of India was not too far off his struggle for getting India freedom.
And I have only just started.

For the sake of a short background, mapping caught my fancy when I went mad.
Mad as in quit a good well paying job with a large corporation (the likes of
which OSMers seem to hate so much), started travelling and as happens to all
men who go mad, started day dreaming. Day dreams about getting paid for
travelling!! Day dreams about getting paid for writing!! Ha!! Anyway, I
wanted to map some of the treks I went to and I bought this fancy gadget
called a GPS, a Garmin eTrex Vista Hcx, spending quite a significant portion
of my fortune, only to realize later that this freaking thing tells me my
position at any point with a certain degree of error and it even lies about
that. Talk about a bad start!!

The adventures or experiments, call them what you like, started with mapping
parts of New Delhi and Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, at times with a friend
who introduced me to OSM. On a hot afternoon, GPS in lap, hands on a
steering wheel, I would be passing some buildings on the way. Now, as most
of you would know, a mapper does not see buildings, parks, hotels, greens. All
he ever sees is 'POIs'. POIs everywhere, left, right, center, POIs floating
around in the air, each trying to catch his attention. And oh my! None of
them on OSM. What blasphemy! So, each POI was marked on the 'GPS in the
lap'. Since I only have 2 hands, I just remembered the names of the POIs and
kept repeating them till I could park the car and take them down in my

A tough initiation was followed by an even tougher experience. One fine day,
Nishant (the friend and OSM mentor) comes and says 'I have to go for an
interview......with a journalist'. And I was flummoxed. I mean, fine he is a
great computer guy, believes in open source, I can maybe credit him with
some intelligence and so on and so forth but who would want to interview
this unbathed, shabbily dressed, half obese specimen of human filth? Then he
tells me its some French journalist girl, who wants to interview an OSM
mapper in India. Do I need to tell anyone here that French and girl got me
going and I wanted to be the one interviewed but like we all make
compromises, I had to live with Nishant as part of the interview.

After we chatted a bit, she wanted to see how we mapped. Shalabh in the
driving seat, French girl next to him, Nishant relegated to the back seat
with the moronic GPS and we were off. Off to a residential area managed by
DLF, a building company whose tagline says 'Building India'. I will reserve
my comments on the tagline for later but we parked the car after sometime
and started walking along the lanes, the poor studious Nishant taking down
the POIs. We had walked maybe a few hundred metres when a motorbike
approaches us. The rider is wearing a blue jacket with the words DLF QRT
(Quick Response Team) written on the back. And then he starts mishandling
us. Dont worry, I meant verbal mishandling. Asking all sorts of questions.
What are you doing? Mapping. What mapping? We are making a map. Who asked
you to make a map? We are volunteers. Who asked you to volunteer? What is
that in your hand (pointing to the GPS)? What are you noting down in that
pad? Ok, now the questions got a little too much and I was aware at the back
of my mind that this was a residential area and somewhere there would be
some board saying 'No Trespassing' and we could very well be qualified as
trespassers. POIs notes were torn, handed over to Mr. QRT, a silently angry
Nishant was pulled away and we lost half an hour worth of POIs and tracks.

Oh! and did I mention the interview was never published and we ended up
having to drop the French chic 2 hours away. :(

Scarred by this incident, I soon moved to HP, a Himalayan state in India.
Small population, clear skies, lots of conifer jungles and untouched beauty
etc etc. This is the place I was bent on trekking in. I looked at the OSM
map for HP and found....nothing! It was as if someone had forgotten to draw
lines in that part of the world. A couple of days later, watching TV, I
switched to this news channel called India TV (they call themselves one, I
call them a Filth channel). They had a full one hour show about GPS, telling
everyone how a GPS is a threat to national security, how terrorists can use
a GPS to navigate and find any place (Now, I know why Mr. QRT bothered me,
because I was threatening India's national security). The poor f*cks did not
know that a GPS needs maps and voila, we dont even have digital maps of
India. To hell with the terrorist and his GPS. Yeah, it was another matter
if the terrorists first turned mappers, contributed to OSM, got a full
fledged map of India on OSM and then went about their task. Make life easier
for themselves and serve the community. :)

So, you see a grim background is building up. Here is a man, who had a well
paying job a few months ago. He has quit his job, moved back to India. When
you ask him what is he doing nowadays, he does not have a clear answer
(because he is himself not clear). And then he goes around roaming in all
strange places at all strange times, a strange device in hand, which TV
channels say is a threat to national security. He also carries a notebook in
his hand and keeps making notes all the time, looks at all buildings with
great interest and then again notes down something. And he has also been
stopped once by Mr. QRT somewhere. Chequered record, I must say.

So, when I came to Himachal and heard this TVchannel sh*t, I started being
more careful. When I went to treks, I was almost apologetic about the GPS,
defending and downplaying it everytime someone would ask me what it is. Who
knows when would someone report me somewhere, I have even lost the receipts
of the GPS purchase. And then I go on this trek, walking between two
vertical faces of huge Himalayan rock, 25 metres apart. And my GPS says the
error is +-53 metres. Where do you suppose it showed me? Somewhere drilled
into the mountain rock? Perhaps. The error went upto 96 metres and then the
altimeter lost 100 metres while I was climbing. I thought, 'Did I face all
these challenges for this piece of crap?' I lost faith in the GPS that day.
It became an instrument of pleasure. Yes, you dirty minds, I know what you
are thinking.

I have been living in a small town called Sundernagar for the last 2 months
i.e. whenever I am not out trekking. 4 days ago, I decided to make
Sundernagar look better on OSM than on google. There was not much actually
to be done. Google had a dot for Sundernagar in the right place and OSM had
it in the wrong place. Zoom in and you see virgin territory on both maps. As
I said, someone forgot to draw the lines. So, I started these 3 hour walking
missions into Sundernagar. Its an old town, with its fair share of narrow
lanes and streets. And now, you had that strange man with his notebook and
strange device dressed in a heavy jacket walking the dark lanes of
Sundernagar. He would go down a lane right upto the farther end, look around
suspiciously, take out his notebook and a pen and write something down. He
would not stay long writing, the moment he would see someone, he would make
a move. Walk down a little more, past the curve and then stop to write
again. Sundernagar is small place, word gets around quick and I do look
different. Short, thick, with a GPS and notebook. The strange man walks 9 km
on first day. Worth noticing? Yes.

Second day, he is spotted coming out again as the sun sets, walking into the
town. This time, he takes slightly different routes, walks some other lanes
but still has that furtive look around him, seems to be avoiding attention,
avoiding looking people in the eye and smiling. He has a pad today but he is
not taking down any notes, its just thrust unceremoniously into his jacket
pocket. He, however seems to be continously fiddling with an oversize mobile
in his hand. Worth bothering?? No. This day the stranger walked 12 km.

Third day, same attire, same man, same strategy, different routes. No
attention attracted. Happy stranger back home, map of Sundernagar looking
thicker on OSM. Stranger walked 10 km today.

(I thought I had found the right recipe for avoiding attention. Pretend that
the GPS is a mobile phone and instead of writing on the pad, enter POI
details direct using the clumsy on screen keyboard. Simple, people think
this man is messaging his girlfriend and give you faint smiles.)

Fourth day, the strange man does not come out. He, who is looking less
strange now, comes out in a car. The car has a registration number which is
from out of this state and he follows a road to the other end of town. He
was seen there 2 days ago. Now he comes up with a great idea. He drives into
any road, goes on till the road goes out of town and then asks someone about
a locality which is on the other end. So, he pretends lost whenever he
finishes mapping a road. He does this thrice before, trying to turn back
from a narrow lane, he has the front tyre of his car stuck in a deep drain,
hanging in the middle of nowhere. So, he contemplates asking for help. Oh
my, he comes across a man he has asked directions from twice in the last 2
days, once on foot yesterday and once today, 15 minutes ago. :)

Middle aged uncle sees him and says 'You seem to get lost quite a bit.'
Yeah, right!! Scared that a different state registration number, the strange
device, bad record might land him into unnecessary trouble, the poor guy
gets into his car, puts it in the reverse gear and full throttle backs off.
Thankfully, the car comes out and the stranger disappears into the mist. He
has sort of completed mapping the major lanes of Sundernagar today and plans
to keep doing this. Should you read some news of a baby faced terrorist
having been arrested with a GPS, you would know who he is and I am sure you
will help him out of trouble.

And one day I hope, they will offer obeisance to my idols for the pioneering
work that I am doing. :)
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