All I want from OpenStreetMap is…

Kate Chapman and Mikel Maron have written a couple of interesting posts about improvements they’d like to see in OpenStreetMap. Kate’s is the more interesting to me, being based on various experiences with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team projects.

Kate, the prolific Andy Allan and others have extensively covered the usability of editing tools. Frederik Ramm has pointed out that many of the editing tasks are conceptually complex so there are limits to how much software can make it easy for newcomers to get stuck in.

But I liked Kate’s point about using data. Along with the fun of editing OpenStreetMap, the principal benefit is supposed to be that we offer all this raw data, whereas Google, Bing and co just offer pre-designed maps. But who can actually use this data?

Here are some pen portraits to illustrate a few gaps in our toolsets. They are all based on real people I’ve known trying to do something with OSM.

People for whom OpenStreetMap is fantastic

Fred is a computer expert. He makes use of  Planet and the osmium/postgis/mapnik toolchain on his dedicated server to produce a custom online map for cyclists in the UK. He’s a happy chappy, an innovator.

Sally works in GIS and knows her way around commercial products like ArcGIS. She uses Geofabrik’s excellent download service to pull shapefiles into QGIS, where she does her usual analysis as part of her job. She’s pretty happy too, an early adopter.

Nabeel runs a small company who use a lot of maps on their web site and materials. He paid a consultant to set them up with MapBox’s tools for their web maps and a custom set-up to turn out nice printable maps for their leaflets. He’s a satisfied customer in the early majority of companies for whom the extra special OSM maps are worth paying a little extra.

People that might get somewhere with OpenStreetMap

Eilidh is an enthusiastic walker, who wants to produce hiking maps of the south downs showing her favourite routes. She already contributes to OSM using her GPS and Potlatch 2. She downloads Maperitive (which she was told about by a friend after much fruitless searching around the OSM web site) and manages to produce some maps of the area, but gets stuck adding her routes and tweaking the map design. She’s an early adopter, but with her technical skills Eilidh can’t quite produce her own maps yet.

James is a bit like Eilidh, but he wanted to share a proposed cycling route with the other members of his club. How easy is this? Dead easy with Google and the many web sites that cater for his needs. He likes the OpenStreetMap maps, but there’s nothing on the web site to explain how to do this simple task. He eventually found the CloudMade’s online maps and, putting in lots of hops in the directions tool, managed to plot the route and share the URL. Sadly it isn’t on top of the OpenCycleMap style map.

Nuzhat is a blogger who writes about poverty in London. She came across the wonderful GEMMA tool and has managed to produce some really nice illustrations of the relationship between deprivation and public transport for her blog. But she can’t embed the maps on her blog, and one look at OpenLayers plugins and Leaflet code turned her off immediately.

People sadly put off by OpenStreetMap

Jeannine is a volunteer with an environment charity that are promoting food growing. She’d like to get her network’s members mapping food growing spaces in their area, put a map of them on the charity’s web site and make nice posters and leaflets. They don’t have the budget to hire a consultant, the editor is too complex for most of their members to just add an allotment or community garden, and they have no idea how to produce the maps. They move on and just use Google like everyone else.

Ian is co-ordinating his local political party’s leafleting in the run up to an election. He wants to export a map suitable for printing and draw on top lots of little areas for people to take charge of. He gets totally confused by the export tab and the mixture of half-finished buildings and points of interest confuses his helpers, so he gives up and prints off a Google map to draw on instead.

Why using data matters

Given that most OpenStreetMap tools are created by wonderful volunteers or companies looking for a niche market, you might think – so what? If there’s demand, someone will build it.

Moreover, had I written this blog post just a year ago half of those tools I described wouldn’t exist, or would have been in their very early stages and so unusable. Things are moving on fast!

But think about some of those people for a moment, and what they could bring in terms of contributing and maintaining data:

  • James and his cyclist friends track new lanes and contraflow arrangements that the council put in, and are very particular about bollards and other things mapping parties often miss. Years after we started, the London Cycle Network is still incomplete and mapping of cycle infrastructure is extremely patchy, often out of date. James & co are the best bet to fix this.
  • Jeannine and her local groups live in some of those deprived, under-mapped areas Muki Haklay is often writing about. They could continue to update areas that tend to only get visited once in a blue moon by richer OSM enthusiasts on mapping parties.
  • Ian and his helpers walk down the same patch of streets several times a year, noticing every new home that’s built, past every shop that closes down. They’re the world’s best maintenance army. In my experience, only a fraction of London is currently kept really up to date by a few dozen enthusiastic innovators.

If we could start to make OSM more useful for those people, whether on or by others starting up their own web sites (like MapBox, Geofabrik, Cloudmade and GEMMA) the database would benefit enormously.


  1. cyclestreets said:

    Your great descriptions for “People sadly put off by OpenStreetMap” are basically why I proposed “Lots of OSM widgets / OSM widget constructor” as a GSOC project:

    If we want to make use of OSM very widespread, we have to see those barriers lowered. Plotting markers on maps with popups, showing lines, adding little widgets all over the place shouldn’t require people to have to learn OpenLayers, etc.

    Perhaps you could add any more suggested widgets to that page?

    19th April 2012

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