[OSM-talk] Being more like Wikipedia (was: OpenStreetMap Future Look)

Tom Morris tom at tommorris.org
Wed Jan 9 21:11:28 GMT 2013

On Wednesday, 9 January 2013 at 15:53, Frederik Ramm wrote:
> I'm very much an outsider to Wikimedia but if I look at how much money
> they have spent on development and how little has changed for the
> contributing user - adding a table to an article is practically as
> difficult now as it was five years ago. You sit there and wonder: How
> hard can it be? Hundreds of man-years of developer time... and still a
> person with average computer literacy cannot add a table to an article!
I'll take off my OpenStreetMap pootling-around-Britain-with-a-camera-and-a-GPS hat off and put my Wikipedia administrator hat on and say…

That's perhaps not a great example to choose. The visual editor only started development in 2011. Everyone in the community knew it was going to be a huge and massive slog to build the visual editor. Given what they are trying to do (retroactively specify a parsing model for Wikitext, write a bidirectional parser for it, then build an editor that has to cope with both mobile and desktop use in 280 languages), they are working ridiculously hard. The visual editor is scheduled to launch later this year.
> For example, Wikipedia being as well known as it is has lead them to
> create "relevance criteria" - you can't create an article on a living
> person or a geographic feature, for example, unless that person or
> feature fulfills certain criteria. Wikipedians felt that this was
> necessary because they were swamped with data they considered irrelevant
> and un-encyclopedic. Many people left Wikipedia because of that (and
> indeed many of them are to be found in the ranks of OSM nowadays). I've
> heard other OSMers make fun of the tons of "WP:xxx" rules that Wikipedia
> has but I am sure they are not there because Wikipedians terribly enjoy
> rule-making - they probably had to be created in response to problems.

Well, we have to rein in people who like to make rules. A while back, someone was suggesting that we adopt a new notability criteria for civil aviation disasters. I was one of the few people from outside the aviation community on Wikipedia to step in and say "rules bloat!" In addition, a lot of the time it's not so much rule-making as consensus-documenting. We had to have a rethink a while back about notability criteria guidelines for pornography actors and actresses because the rules that the pornography enthusiasts had written were being ignored in practice. In that regard, it's rather like how OpenStreetMap works with taginfo and the OSM wiki - ideally, we stabilise and then canonise that which works in practice.

As for the notability guidelines (the "relevance criteria" you refer to). There is a reason for that, and it's not necessarily because people create things that are irrelevant and unencyclopedic… though people do actually do that (the number of things I've deleted on the basis that are just things kids made up in school one day is pretty astounding). The notability guidelines are there because we judge notability on the basis of the presence of reliable sources. The reliable sources are there for the benefit of the reader: if the reader says "well, why should I trust what Wikipedia has to say on X?" and we say "well, here's a book, two articles in the Guardian and an article in the New York Times", that helps with verifiability. If there aren't any sources, the topic isn't "notable" (in the sense Wikipedia uses) not because we think it's bad or unimportant or crappy or not worth talking about but literally, nobody has taken any note of it! And if nobody has taken any note of it, we can't reliably source the claims made in the article, which sucks for readers.
> Same with money - an organisation that deals with a multi-million budget
> will automatically have a much higher overhead (recent Wikimedia
> fundraising has been criticized because they made it sound like your
> donation was for servers when in fact only 10% if it went to
> infrastructure or so) and there will be more fighting over who gets how
> much of the cake. If you believe that we're currently having heated
> discussions, imagine how such discussions would go if they were about
> the allocation of millions ;)

Plenty of those accusations were rather overblown. There is a legitimate kernel of complaint, which is that the infrastructure of the Wikimedia Chapters system can be a little bit bloated. There are reforms going on around financial accountability and movement finance. I'd tell you more, but the time I could have spent reading that kind of stuff I instead spend clicking buttons in JOSM… ;-)

I think the important difference between Wikipedia/WMF and OSM is that the WMF exists because Wikipedia had explosive growth in 2004-2006. It's still growing massively obviously (in October 2012, Wikipedia had 488 million uniques; in April 2012, Wikipedia passed 2 billion mobile page views per month). But there were a lot of things that were absolutely essential to the running of the projects, namely servers and technical staff. It took a few years for the huge backlog of technical issues to be resolved, and now the Foundation are working on building new features for things like editor retention.

One important difference is that mapping isn't controversial in the same way as encyclopedias are. A while back, Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee tried to cut the Gordian knot of the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" movements and what to name the articles (I believe the last consensus was something like "Support for the legal provision of abortion" and "Opposition to the legal provision of abortion" or some such verbose and unmemorable term). When this happened, there was international coverage and all sorts of people trying to make political hay about it. Scenarios where people are going to get upset over OpenStreetMaps are considerably fewer than ones where people get upset with Wikipedia. (In fact, when people do get upset about maps, they'll usually get upset with Wikipedia too. At WikiConference India, members of the nationalist BJP protested because of Wikipedia's map and description of the situation in Kashmir.*)

The other difference is that OpenStreetMap has a sort of identity crisis. Is it about competing with Google Maps? Is it about producing great maps? Is it about being directly useful to consumers, or reusers, or both? Are we aiming to become the go-to map for car drivers, or is doing all the niche long tail stuff okay? How you weigh up those kinds of broad project direction questions will tell you whether modelling the future of the project after Wikipedia and Wikimedia is a sensible strategy or not.

* http://zeenews.india.com/news/maharashtra/bjp-activists-detained-for-protest-against-wikiped_742489.html

Tom Morris

More information about the talk mailing list