[OSM-talk] Looking Forward

Mikel Maron mikel_maron at yahoo.com
Sat Dec 24 14:38:39 GMT 2011

Thanks Frederik for the email. Agree these are deep, interesting, technical, social problems for OSM to dive into. I welcome the discussion.

However, your clarity on these issues is slightly obscured by side comments about the OSMF, and user experience, and I just want to quickly address those and move on.

The OSMF, as for as I can see, is concerned about user experience, and rightfully so, among many important issues. However, no one I know thinks that it is the only issue facing OSM, and no one I know thinks that all problems will be solved by improving usability. You talk about "some people" but I have no idea who they might be. Please stop the FUD.

Thanks, and moving on to the substance of your email....

== Mikel Maron ==
+14152835207 @mikel s:mikelmaron

> From: Frederik Ramm <frederik at remote.org>
>To: talk at openstreetmap.org 
>Sent: Saturday, December 24, 2011 7:02 AM
>Subject: [OSM-talk] Looking Forward
>Fellow OSMers, 
>   I'd like to use the calm end-of-year season to say a few things I
>consider important, hoping that I might get a few people to spend a
>thought or two on them.
>I've been accused in the past of not having a vision for OSM and I
>don't claim to. But it would be great if those who have a vision would
>also have answers to the issues I want to talk about.
>Our admins have recently published a list of "top ten tasks",
>technical things they'd like to see implemented sooner rather than
>later. Looking at that list makes you think: If *those* are the biggest
>problems then the project must be working quite well! But fact
>nobody claims that they are the biggest problems: they are just the
>lowest hanging fruits. 
>The OSMF is very much concerned about making sure that user experience
>is improved and that it becomes easier for everybody to contribute to
>OSM, shedding our image of being a project for geeks and enthusiasts,
>and I've heavily contested that on osmf-talk. The underlying idea seems
>to be that of any web startup: Once we achieve growth everything else
>will fall into place. And who's to blame them - it has worked for OSM
>for quite a while. Indeed among the more technical-minded people in OSM
>the making of big plans is usually frowned upon as "astronautism". (To
>be fair, a project as big as OSM does indeed attract a fair number of
>people who think that even without knowing anything about OSM, they can
>surely tell us that we should use a certain trendy technology to
>continue to work.)
>All this together means that everybody - including myself - is more or
>less sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to the real big
>issues, issues for which we not only lack a solution, but where it is
>even unclear how we could arrive at one and implement it.
>(And I'm not even talking about the license change - that is, at least,
>an issue where the path ahead is relatively clear and things just need
>to get done.)
>Here's my shortlist of "big issues" for our future:
>1. Strict Tagging Rules
>Not a week goes by without some discussion on a forum or mailing list
>ending in a lament about the lack of strict tagging rules. Data users
>hope to be able to find out that the feature they're looking for will,
>if it exists, be tagged exactly so and so. Junior mappers want to know
>how exactly to tag certain objects. Experienced mappers despair at
>others changing their hard work according to some wiki "vote" that
>attracted 15 participants out of tens of thousands.
>The current wisdom is "we neither have nor want strict rules" - we have
>got where we are now precisely because we did not waste time on trying
>to come up with rules. Also, we are an international project with
>diverse communities and there is no reason why everyone in the world
>should tag the same. But still the issue remains, and a lot of valuable
>time is wasted between mappers discussing the merits of one tagging
>scheme or the other. Sometimes, edit wars ensue which then bind even
>more resources in mediation.
>Meanwhile, editor writers and bot programmers gain all the power - it
>is, in effect, them who decide what gets tagged how (or auto-corrected
>if the user should be so audacious as to use a tag differently).
>This is a continuing source of friction. Our data is more valuable and
>easier to use if it easy to interpret; mappers could often benefit from
>that as well. But tagging freedom, and the lack of a "central tagging
>command" structure, have brought us where we are. In contrast to other
>systems like Google Map Maker, our mappers are not just worker ants
>expected to mind-numbingly fill in the blanks on a form; they can be
>creative agents deciding what gets mapped and how. Out of despair some
>people even call for a "tagging czar" who would make a decision
>whenever the community doesn't arrive at one. This doesn't look like a
>good solution to me but it illustrates the problem.
>The project changes, and the bold and autonomous mappers of the first
>few years (who often had a whole city to themselves) are in decline; we
>have more people who actually *want* to be told what to do. But with
>many of the sensible people in our project being from that bold
>generation and not wanting to create rules for others, we end up with
>rules being made by people with strange ideas whose main spare time
>activity seems to be rule-making rather than mapping, and voted on by
>people who cannot grasp the consequences.
>2. Imports and the Community
>Governments all over the world are opening up their data. OpenStreetMap
>was born from frustration: "You don't give us your data, ok, then we
>collect it ourselves." - More and more, governments are giving out
>their data, and many people less familiar with OSM's tradition of
>surveying think that this must be a boon for the project and wildly
>import any government data they can find.
>The point has been made that imports damage a community, or even keep a
>healthy community from forming in the first place. There already is
>more free and open geodata in the world than we could ever deal with;
>how can we make sure that OSM is not ruined by importing more than we
>can digest?
>A stock answer for the "I want to import XY into OSM" issue is "put it
>in a separate database and merge when rendering" and this might indeed
>be sensible for many areas, but it would require easier ways for
>merging data and also ways to see these other data sets while editing;
>but most of all we would have to get the message across that OSM is not
>intended to be a "melting pot" of the world's geodata. 
>3. Level of Detail, Relation Overload
>Everyone who downloads OpenStreetMap data gets the same stuff, whether
>they want it or not. This is especially true for people wanting to edit
>OSM, but also for data users. You always get the full detail, down to
>every last post box and garden shed. In the traditional GIS world this
>is different; data is usually produced in several scales (see e.g.
>naturalearthdata.com) or, where one master map exists, downscaled from
>that using sophisticated algorithms or even manual work.
>The only application in which we have something comparable is tiles -
>of course no attempt is made to draw residential roads on zoom level
>10. But other than that, everyone always has to deal with the full
>amount of data we have. With ever-increasing depth of detail, the
>"50,000 node" download limit for editing means that the area you can
>download for editing becomes smaller and smaller, and even if you could
>download more it would be hard to handle in the editor. 
>OSM prides itself in not having Wikipedia's much-hated and hotly
>debated "relevance criteria" - while we do sort of expect that you
>don't enter data that you cannot maintain, we largely allow people to
>add whatever data they are interested in. This has potential to cause
>trouble especially when coupled with imports - recent discussion
>revolved around 3D building data, about drawing roads as areas, about
>historic information, or about certain streets meanwhile being a member
>of 30-odd relations because there are that many bus lines. This is
>despite the overwhelming majority of OSM contributors not being
>interested in 3D buildings, historic data, or public transport
>information. You can choose what to display on a map, but you cannot
>choose when editing; the mapper always has to deal with the full depth
>of information. There are limited options of "hiding" stuff in editors
>but that only goes so far and carries the risk of breaking implied
>spatial relationships.
>We must find ways for people to deal with one topic to their heart's
>content without impacting the work that others do; otherwise any work
>we do to make editing simpler will be nullified by the sheer amount and
>complexity of data.
>4. Data Model Changes & Technology
>Our data model is reasonably simple but it does have its quirks and it
>begins to show. More than half of our ways are used to model areas
>(which is mainly due to imported building data), yet we don't have a
>proper area data type. This is being discussed but no solution is
>apparent; API or data model changes used to be something that one could
>simply decide at a hack weekend but with an ever increasing number of
>users and data consumers it becomes more demanding. We manage to paper
>over any cracks in our data model by using relations but they are
>hopelessly under-specified and often hard to evaluate automatically
>(witness e.g. discussions about using cascading relations for
>boundaries). Relations often make editing difficult, and they sometimes
>have several thousand members and several thousand historic versions
>which makes them hard to handle in all respects. But simply ignoring
>them or even dropping support for them becomes less and less of an
>Also, the way we distribute database updates - the daily, hourly,
>minutely diffs - is optimized for keeping a fully replicated OSM
>mirror, but less suitable for keeping regional extracts (as you always
>download and process a world-wide diff and then discard most of it),
>and practically unsuitable for keeping thematic extracts (because a tag
>added to a way might suddenly make that way interesting for you but you
>lack information about the nodes required).
>                                 ----
>Some people seem to assume that if only we grow big enough then all
>these problems will solve themselves somehow. Maybe we can simply
>outsource problem solving to paid coders from some web platform, or
>OSMF could hire people and tell them to fix things somehow. But it
>seems to me that while these problems may have a technical component,
>they are very strongly linked to how we work in OSM - the mappers, the
>technologists, the sysadmins, how everything goes together -, and
>solving them requires a good way of decision making in the community. I
>don't think that e.g. OSMF is the body that can or should be burdened
>with that decision making; but I don't have an alternative either. We
>like to say "show working code or STFU" but one has to be honest and
>admit that once problems reach a certain complexity, that basically
>boils down to being in denial about the problem.
>I'd love to find that all the problems I listed here turned out to be
>non-problems in the end, and were somehow solved automatically along
>the way. It wouldn't be the first time for me to think something is a
>problem and OSM took it in its stride. Maybe mentioning the issues
>already helps to achieve that magic.
>Merry Christmas, or whatever you're having -
>talk mailing list
>talk at openstreetmap.org
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