Tom Chance for Lewisham West & Penge

Getting enthusiasts into OpenStreetMap

By on 12th June 2013

I started writing this as an email to Richard Fairhurst, but then thought I’d post it to my blog. I wrote something on a similar theme just over a year ago.


I just wanted to say that I thought your talk at the SOTMUS conference was spot on.

But when you talk about the cycling community, I think there’s an important caveat missing. Lots of people in our mapping community (or lots of the 5% who do 95% of the mapping) are enthusiastic cyclists, but few in the enthusiastic cyclist community are mappers.

I’ve not come across the London Cycling Campaign or any of the borough groups really getting involved with cycle mapping. Some members (myself included) do, but my impression is that most don’t. Despite embedding CycleStreets on their homepage and collaborating on a cycle parking campaign with them, I’ve never come across a big concerted push from LCC and local borough groups to contribute to OpenStreetMap beyond the odd mention in their magazine [edit: and a two-page spread]. The same was true of Andy’s great DfT data project. To this day, coverage of cycling infrastructure in London is patchy (although far better than any online alternative).

The same goes for lots of enthusiast communities. You’re right that a lot of people map the thing they’re enthusiastic about. But not many communities organised around those enthusiasms get mapping.

I’ve tried, here and there, to talk enthusiastic people round to OSM. I’ve talked to community campaigners I know involved with cycling, walking, food growing, trees, transition towns, vegetarianism, housing and school catchment areas. All benefit from mapping; some do it themselves with varying degrees of proficiency, usually with pen and paper, Powerpoint slides or Google Maps. But the technical hurdles of using OpenStreetMap (and in some cases simply the effort of mapping) often seem to outweigh the benefits they’d really get from the results.

After a chat over some tea or beer I have to send interested people half a dozen links to different web sites that provide the editor, the not-very-usable tutorials, the place to find tags that aren’t presets, the way to go about inventing new tags if necessary, the custom renders (often a mix of ITO and other third party sites), the way to see recent changes in your area that is actually usable, the quality controls to check your work, the places to ask for help, the other people doing similar work in London and how to discuss it with them, the inspirational examples, and so on. The diversity of web sites and tools is a strength of OpenStreetMap, but it’s also terribly confusing and it can be hard to discover the tool you’re after. Often there simply aren’t tools there to do what they want, and they don’t have the skills to roll their own nor the money to pay someone to make them.

It’s too confusing and complicated. Usually the payback isn’t enough, so they don’t even start, or give up shortly after their first dabble with an editor.

So… your idea of a community page is excellent. It could help to create a central focus for people with the same enthusiasms, saving me the effort of compiling all those links and making everything seem terribly disjointed. It will take a few bricks out of the wall holding communities back from contributing to OpenStreetMap.

Here’s my extension to your idea that seems technically within our grasp since Potlatch 2/iD and the Overpass tool. Make it really simple (a few clicks in a web-based tool) to set-up a hub for your niche interest: a community page bringing everything together, a custom editor with the appropriate presets, a nice map showing the results, data extracts (kml, json, shp), and code snippets to display the results on your own web site. You like Welsh chapels? Spend half an hour on this web form and bob’s your uncle.

As another hapless arts graduate with big time commitments to the Green Party, I don’t have the skills or time for this. I’m left cobbling together halfway-decent sites like OpenEcoMaps to try and fill a niche. It would be wonderful if the more technically gifted folk could make this a priority to turn more enthusiasts into the 5%.

  1. Martin, CycleStreets
    12th June 2013

    Worth noting that LCC devoted a whole two-page spread written by CycleStreets about OSM:

    • Tom Chance
      13th June 2013

      Thanks Martin. I think there was another article as well, which I did note in my original post. I’ll make it a big less dismissive!