[OSM-talk] Thoughts on OSM design, and looking forward and back
steve at asklater.com
Tue Feb 23 20:17:18 GMT 2010
I really liked something I read in The New New thing ( http://www.amazon.com/New-Thing-Silicon-Valley-Story/dp/0140296468/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_7 ) about Jim Clark ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_H._Clark ) when the author Michael Lewis would ask about the past of his companies and stuff he'd say "that's boring" and "That's the past. I really don't give a shit about the past". ( http://books.google.com/books?id=UJw3i9_ZqQkC&lpg=PP1&dq=the%20new%20new%20thing&pg=PA44#v=onepage&q=shit%20about%20the%20past&f=false )
I think we're locked in between three groups of thought on the OSM right now.
Right up front we have the school of thought that everything is perfect the way it is. That uservoice is some kind of inherently crappy system (see the uservoice ideas page at http://osm.uservoice.com/ ). That we shouldn't allow people to use tools which make fixing the map easier (see @chilly on twitter), that people are inherently stupid and there should be a barrier to entry to editing in OSM because it's complicated. This school of thought is essentially still living in 1991 and I'll call this school the Game Haters: everything is wrong, even talking about it is wrong.
In the middle we have a bunch of thought on how the site should or shouldn't be. Legitimate questions about putting the map or help up front, or using OSB or uservoice, or some new system, or something. But nobody can agree with anyone else, and anyone who actually does anything comes under attack because they'd never encompass everyone's idea of what the design or UI should be. Let's call this school the Player Haters: the game is there, we can play by the rules but don't like it when someone plays better
Lastly we have a school which is looking forward and willing to throw out ideas and try them. They don't instantly hate everything or dismiss it because they don't personally like it. There is room in this school to understand that there are other schools out there, that what works for them might not work for someone else.
At points like these, I think we have to decide though some debate where the project is going to go. If we want to just keep the tools hard to use and subject people to PL1 and trac, then that's a legitimate point of view. If we can stand some innovation like group 2, then that's cool too, or if we're able to just move on and keep innovating.
If we look back, we've actually mostly not given a shit about the past. We threw out segments, threw out entire codebases (like 0.1 0.2 and so on) in the search for something better. We in OpenStreetMap tend to innovate. That's not to say it's not messy, it's a horribly messy process from a 'consensus' and community point of view, because often their isn't any consensus on anything, ever.
It's that central freedom to not conform that is the most important, beautiful and gratifying thing in the project but sometimes like now with the design, it holds us back.
I don't want the entire design debate to be about uservoice, but it's a great example that exposes the extremes of thought. Going through the extremes:
* Some people *literally* don't want any feedback.
* Some want feedback, but in trac or hidden in some other horrible system
* Some want feedback that's easy, but just not on the front page
* Some want feedback that's easy and upfront but not too exposed
* Some want feedback that's easy and exposed to the most people (like having maplint or keepright or OSM switched on the front page by default)
Will we ever get a consensus through debate? I highly doubt it.
For the record - yet again - I'm not proposing uservoice as the final solution. I'm not proposing we use it for map bugs. But, it is a brilliant tool for many sites and it's provocative and brings up cool ideas of what we can do in the future with something similar.
It's worth also thinking about where the schools of thought communicate. Mostly the negative ones are on the lists, and the positive ones have been in uservoice and on opengeodatas comments on the blog posts. Why is this? That's hard to answer. I think it might be simply that there are a lot of barriers to entry on the list, flames and baggage that a newbie doesn't want to deal with - because *they're a different group of people*.
The project can exist with these different schools of thought.
When I think back to most of the beginning years of OSM I'm struck remembering how much time I spent fucking around with SQL doing the big horrible jobs that nobody wants to do. Our sysadmins today mostly do all this awesome work and probably enjoy it like I did even, we need that skill set and school of thought to make the project run.
In other words - we have people who contribute in all sorts of ways.
At the same time, we growing in to the realm of a new school of thought. We're increasingly hitting people who can contribute enormously but just not in the way we're used to. Basically it's a question of time and how much mapping/software/community/etc you can contribute per unit time if you're a random member of the public new to the project:
* If you want to contribute a half-decade to OSM you can, and many have
* If you want to contribute a year to OSM you can, and get a lot out but you need that time
* If you want to contribute a month, that's reasonable
* If you want to contribute a week, you can do it just about probably with some pointers
* If you want to contribute an hour you need lots of help, like a mapping party
* If you want to contribute a minute, you're screwed
Everyone in OSM has basically been contributing for the kinds of extended periods of time as above, not the minutes or hours. Many see someone contributing so little as wrong or pointless. I say just the opposite. The people who spend minutes or hours disappear because we just don't welcome them.
It should be perfectly possible to contribute an error in 1 minute in OSM, and have someone who's prepared to spend a lot of time on it fix it. But so many people fight that idea. There's nothing to be afraid of, we're just increasing the size and reach of the community - and that's a good thing.
To think of it another way, consider a scale free distribution of OSM contributions, because that's what it looks like: we have a very few people spending 24/7 on OSM, we have a few people spending hours on the site a day and then *lots* people spending 5 minutes a day. What we should be able to do is connect those groups. If we have 60 people spending one minute to report a bug, say textually, on OSM then there are plenty of people in OSM willing to spend an hour going through and doing the actual editing. And the project would be infinitely stronger for it.
It's not like this is something new, it's exactly what map maker and waze do in their own way. We can do it better though. Our simple attempts like keepright, OSB and the dupe_nodes stuff points how big these kinds of feedback could be with more polish.
And we have to be honest about how bad things are. I know when I say that OSM is crap, PL1 is crap and so on many of you get all offended... but it's just the reality of it. I don't think we really need to get newbies to do screencasts on usability like wikipedia did? Get people in and record them trying to fix a street. We can, but if you can put yourself in a newbies shoes for a second you can see it.
We need new thinking and a fresh push on design and usability. That might not come from within the existing community, by definition if it's going to attract new and different kinds of people, which it needs to if we're going to scale to the next level of contribution.
Basically it comes down to trusting someone to do this stuff and not giving them too much crap for actually getting it done. We made many similar arguments with the license change process you might recall. Many think you can have a valid legal opinion without the nuisance of an actual law degree in the same way you can write kick-ass C code without having a degree in computer science. Everyone has those legal opinions the same way everyone has design opinions, but they're rarely right.
Back to what we need to fix - design, the editor experience, the logo (this spontaneously came up on uservoice again).. they all have fundamental problems. Just because they've worked for us old timers, we like the existing logo and we've learnt to put up with PL1's foibles doesn't mean that's the right thing to keep going forward.
I know matt takes it personally that the logo is anything other than perfect, and richard takes it personally that potlatch is crap for newbies... but that's just fact of the matter as I constantly hear from designers, newbies and so many others. I don't care about personal feelings on those particular topics nearly as much as it physically pains me to think about all the people we turn away every single day because of it.
We have IIRC about a 70% drop off rate of people who create an account and never do anything else. I've heard the school of thought that says "fuck them they wont contribute anyway" but I have to disagree. A simple prominent feedback tab to report map bugs or feature requests is the simplest possible thing you can add, and I promise it will lead to a huge spike in contributions. I'm willing to bet people money on that.
Most maps in the world try their best to hide their bugs, like closed software. We should be bold end expose them so they're fixed faster.
Lastly I want to talk about implementation.
It's clear after years of chatter that the community is the wrong place to innovate on design and probably editing too. The model of 'wait for someone to do it' works well on a bunch of things, but not everything. How did I get the design done? I paid $70 to a really great designer and html coder in peru who I worked with over skype to come up with the straw design. For $70 (at $7/hour) I got more done than the last 1-2 years of design in OSM. That should be celebrated not attacked because the current site is perfect (really, it isn't) or I didn't warn everybody (JFDI is supposed to be a virtue here).
There are talented flash coders, designers and more who will even work for free to help us too but just can't put up with people pissing all over their work, which is what usually happens on these lists, or bizarre tool chains or having to refactor crappy code. They don't have that thick skin and time for it. I think we need to find ways to work with them, or pay them, to work on this stuff. And that involves putting a buffer between the old timers in the community and people who want to move it forward.
Or maybe there's a better way, you tell me?
Case in point, PL2. We have no idea when it's coming, if it will work or what. What I personally want to see is a community of people behind building the thing like there is behind the rails codebase or even JOSM. But everyone's so afraid of pissing off richard, or doesn't have the time to work it all out, we're not moving forward like we should be.
Here's a radical solution - flash programmers are $10-$20/hour on oDesk.com and others (and it will be quicker and cheaper than you might think). Why don't we club together to get it finished? I'll come back to how in a second - but just think for a minute how many people are turned off because of the editor. If we can bring in just 1% more people a day with a better user experience and editor, then compounded over time we have a huge gain in map quality, community and everything else.
Back to paying someone. Is it the best solution? No. Will the result be perfect? No. Is it the best way to get open source code built? No, but I point out that most of the Linux kernel is now built by paid employees. Would Richard like to be paid to work on PL? No, I've tried a bunch of times. Would someone else in the community? Maybe. Should we try something again like bounties? Maybe that too. But just sitting around with the status quo on all these issues isn't getting anywhere fast.
At this point I will get a load of flames that Richard is awesome, he's spent loads of time on the project and all that. I agree. But, I take that as a given as I do with anyone in the project. We're all here giving time, love and effort. We shouldn't have to preface every criticism with three paragraphs about how we're all so great.
Lastly - I'm saying all this to promote a debate and discussion. Paying someone is just one option. Do I want to do it tomorrow? No, but it does look interesting. And, by the way, just paying doesn't mean we just get the software out. It means from experience you usually also really get the paid coder interested in helping long term (not always, but if you're good at picking who does the work) and in this case we'll also be able to pull in lots of people who are professional flash coders who will expect the code to be laid out a certain way, with such and such a toolchain and all that.
Let the flaming commence.
More information about the talk