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Why the world needs OpenStreetMap (2014) (emacsen.net)
271 points by pwg 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

I work in the public sector in Denmark and we use OSM for pretty much every map routing project we do as google won’t agree to not track our usage or protect our data under the privacy shield.

Gotta say OSM has been mostly amazing to work with, but there have been a few quirks over the years. A few times the direction on one directional streets have been wrong, and when I corrected it, using our GIS data as evidence, my correction was denied because I had to physically go take a picture of the street.

It felt a little silly being a municipality and having an OSM correction denied by some hobbyist, especially because it was blocking functionality on a piece of software used by 60.000 users.

Don’t get me wrong, I blame us for not getting a verified account on a critical piece of software, but it still made me hate community driven software for around two hours.

Others have pointed out the potential copyright angle, but I'll note that various imports of data from governmental GIS systems have revealed errors (or at the least inconsistencies) in that data by comparing them with the data on the ground. An automated tool was built to list all the differences between Street names in OSM and the UK government data. Looking at one region I was familiar with showed 20 fairly glaring errors in the government data, so working with OSM can improve the government data too.

In these situations they have tags you can add e.g. saying "X" is not the name of the street and explaining that there's an error in the data provided by source Y. This stops later people assuming that any difference between the data means that OSM is in the wrong.

Semi-automated imports do happen, but overwriting existing data as part of an import is generally frowned upon without consulting the reality as a tie breaker.

It's great to see people, esp governments, using OSM. It's strange you had that problem with the one-way street. OSM definitly doesn't require that everything has photographic evidence.

I suspect a concern was copyright infringment. Is your GIS data public domain? If not, then it's copyrighted[1], so 'copying' data from that into OSM would essentially be a type of copyright infringement! What's to stop you adding all the info from your GIS data into OSM? All the road names, all the shop names, all the addresses? You see the problem?

If you go there, physically, and look at the sign, or take a photo then the source of the data in OSM is your eyes, not the GIS data. Requiring someone to go there is essentially a form of "clean room reimplementation" of the data, and hence has no copyright issue.

OSM prefers "local knowledge" so if you, personally, know that that street is one-way, because for example you're familiar with the area, then that's an acceptable, copyright free source.

[1] Before people jump in, yes the USA has a 'all map data from the federal government is free' that's not the case everywhere, and yes, under US copyright law non-creative pure facts aren't copyrightable, and hence there's no worry, but in some countries (e.g. the UK) you can copyright non-creative things which you spent effort collecting ('sweat of the brow'). OSM is erring on the side of caution and being strict. And OSM is not a place to experiment with the grey areas of international copyright law)

Kudos to you and your department. I wonder which one it is.

More or less everywhere in the Danish public sector (and other countries' as well, I'm sure) seem solidly hooked on Google services. Even when logged in, deep down in some private interaction with tax or health or legal authorities, my every move and mouseclick is reported realtime to Google Anatytics. And for maps specifically, I know a traffic guy in Copenhagen Municipiality. I'm not sure he even understands the concept of switching to an open map provider.

Gotta say OSM has been mostly amazing to work with, but there have been a few quirks over the years. A few times the direction on one directional streets have been wrong, and when I corrected it, using our GIS data as evidence, my correction was denied because I had to physically go take a picture of the street.

They have to guard against abuse, and they can't necessarily accept that you're an authority on any particular location. It's easier if they demand the same proof from everyone.

That said, demanding a photo of the location seems pretty stupid. If your goal is to vandalize the OSM database, how hard can it be to Photoshop a few bogus street signs?

OSM doesn't generally demand proof from people. I suspect the root cause was avoiding copyright infringment, not abuse.

you could take a screen shot of a google maps picture..

Not really, since Google has a copyright on their data...

Wow... How odd to log into Hacker News and see this.

I'm the author of the post back in 2014. The sad thing is that I'm midway through writing a new post about why I feel OSM is failing.

I have largely stepped away from the project in the last two years. I still believe strongly in OSM, and what it stands for, but I feel the project has not lived up to what the public needs.

I hope your post won't end up being so generalist as this comment is.

OSM is the best freely available map service in Germany. Many (if not all?) local and national institutions use it as well as many private companies.

The mobile apps got really nice and are useful for normal users for different purposes and all that for free.

There are even apps everybody can use to fill the data gaps like: https://github.com/westnordost/StreetComplete

It needs some kind of pretty hard decadence (or corruption?) to ignore that for such a broad generalization.

> I hope your post won't end up being so generalist as this comment is.

If I was going to write a simple one sentence or one paragraph analysis of why the project is not living up to its expectations, it would be easy and I would be done.

Instead, I'm writing an in depth analysis of what I view as the impediments to the project;s success, and it's taking me several weeks to write because it's such a complex topic.

I need to explain not only the problems to seasoned OSMers, but also make my arguments understandable and accessible to a wider audience who isn't familiar with OSM internals.

It's also important to relaize that I'm not writing this from the same position as so many newbies writing about OSM- they go to the website and say "Oh this is ugly" or "This is confusing" then leave. I was very much part of the project for quite a few years, in a number of roles.

I wanted to add you to my RSS reader to ensure I won't miss it. But it seems your blog has neither RSS nor ATOM feeds, neither for the full blog nor for the OpenStreetMap category.

This is really a pity.

Great catch!

Short answer: https://blog.emacsen.net/atom.xml

Longer answer:

I switched blogging software a few months ago and thought I'd changed everything over, but apparently I'd missed the atom/rss feeds.

Thanks for catching this!

Thanks for the feed, I just added it to QuiteRSS.

However, it seems the appropriate headers are not set in the HTML pages. So there is no indication in the browser that your site has a feed, let alone where to find it.

I propose to add something like the following line to the <head> section of every site (or at least your main site):

    <link rel="alternate" type="application/atom+xml" href="/atom.xml" title="Feed">

Please do share the link to your post when you publish it. I really want to know pros and cons of OSM especially the gotchas if we want to fully support it.

Do you already know where you will publish? Wouldn’t want to miss it.

Edit: Having thought a bit more about this I guess you’re going to post it on your your blog.....

Don't forget to share it here, I'm curious to read it.

OpenStreetMap is amazing.

Based on my research, most paid mapping services get expensive quickly with any serious load, even if you're just geocoding addresses. Also, if you want to do anything interesting with the data you're probably going to run afoul of your license agreement that says you can't combine their mapping data with data from other sources.

It opens up so many possibilities for small developers to create large scale mapping services that would have been prohibitively expensive or otherwise impossible. They also make it really easy to put together a quick proof-of-concept by hosting their APIs on numerous public servers with generous usage terms and no registration.

I'm working on a project right now that wouldn't be possible without OSM, for multiple reasons, so I definitely agree with the article's premise.

I am supporting OSM and have dedicated a team of three executives to do updating for OSM.

Nevertheless, I have this burning question on how can we prevent people to abuse OSM by making false edits intentionally. This is an important issue as a lot of applications depend on OSM.

There's a lot of comparisons between Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap, and I think this one is valid: when Wikipedia first started out, its mission was to populate new articles. As most topics became fleshed out, they transitioned to having higher editorial standards (ignoring the various dramas for now) and spending more time curating existing articles.

OpenStreetMap is in that 'early' phase: tons of edits are adding new data for fundamental things: streets, houses, addresses, land uses. And it has a barrier to entry - you have to be a tiny bit nerdy to confidently make edits. But in the not-so-distant future, it will need to transition to more and more maintenance and data quality tasks.

Personally, I think a good intermediate step will be to embed better and more automated review processes. The simplest one is in use by companies/agencies that use the data already:

1. Take a snapshot of your region. Vet it for your use case and deploy.

2. Grab a new snapshot at a later date (time to update the service). Look at the changes - is anything wrong or popping out at you? If so, fix it, then download + deploy.

If this becomes the primary means of adding data to OSM, a similar two-step process could be embedded into the contribution mode: Add data, then get the edit reviewed. Plus, there are automated tools to spot and characterize changes already (e.g. QA tiles) and they'll only get better.

> And it has a barrier to entry - you have to be a tiny bit nerdy to confidently make edits.


Highly recommended for on-the-fly edits. It's available on F-Droid too. The most complicated part of it is entering your OSM account credentials (and perhaps the fact that you have to tell it to Upload changes; early versions didn't even require that). From there on, you just wander around town and you click on POIs and roads that pop up, and it asks you to fill in very specific bits of missing information. What are the opening hours of this place? What's the address of this house? What kind of roof does this house have? What style of road is this? What's the speed limit? Etc. It's got pretty icons and helpful images for what you're labeling (different types of road, different types of roofs, etc), and no confusing frills.

I had the idea for exactly this sort of thing myself for a while. Thankfully somebody did the work for me.

I had a similar idea a few years back; an optionally-always-on mapping app that made it really easy to add data and fix existing data, with prompts about nearby things as you're moving around.

Yet another example of how execution is what matters, not the idea.

> And it has a barrier to entry - you have to be a tiny bit nerdy to confidently make edits.

Serious question - what can we do to lower these barriers to entry? Friendlier community norms? Documentation / tools? Social stuff (groups, meetups, etc?)

I'd love to hear people's experiences on contributing, and your honest feedback. I'm one of the "core" members of OSM (I maintain the iD editor) and we're always looking for ways to improve the new user experience.

> Personally, I think a good intermediate step will be to embed better and more automated review processes.

I agree! For now, most review is done manually by volunteers. We're looking for ways to make this process more efficient.

If you haven't already, check out the OSMCha changeset review tool: https://osmcha.mapbox.com/

It runs some checks against every changeset as they occur, and presents a newsfeed-style list for anybody to review. It also has filters, in case you are interested only in certain geographic regions.

I recently started mapping, and scaled the learning curve that surprised me how high it is. I downloaded streetcomplete and Vespucci for my phone, but when I came to a road (on my bike) that didn't exist on the map it wasn't obvious to me how to add it (I still don't know how to do it on either app).

When I finally hopped on my desktop computer and did the iD tutorial, a lot of things became much easier. I learned how to add roads and buildings, and started doing so. Then I noticed that my map software (osmAnd) didn't announce my freeway exits.

To figure out how to mark freeway exits properly was terrible. I found the motorway wiki page and the motorway link page, but from those pages I didn't feel like I could tag an exit properly still. When I finally found the exit_info page things made a little more sense why they are confusing: there are conflicting ways of doing it! I started tagging freeway exits near me.

One thing that would have been helpful for me (although would probably be a bit of work to implement) would be more overview-level tools. Like "I want to..." a) add a missing building, b) tag a freeway exit, c) give addresses to these buildings, etc. Granted, some of this is already done. I suppose it's really the exit tagging that is a new example.

I also have been worrying about my changes being erroneously modified by other people, without a way to "take ownership" of an area and be notified of changes- I will take a good look at that OSMCha change set tool.

>Serious question - what can we do to lower these barriers to entry? Friendlier community norms? Documentation / tools? Social stuff (groups, meetups, etc?)

You can't edit while wasting time on the computer. You have to actually go to places you want to add. It makes scaling hard.

> There's a lot of comparisons between Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap

Yes there is. There are some differences, which the OSM community has written up to help Wikipedians get up to speed: https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Welcome_to_Wikipedia_use...

tl;dr OSM is all about the original research, much stricter about copyright, etc

Do you know if there is a 'method' to train executives to work on OSM data update? We would like to devote more resources for OSM especially in South East Asia but we are afraid that the work might not be scalable. Right now, most of our execs just google the information e.g. highway toll and update it.

> Right now, most of our execs just google the information e.g. highway toll and update it.

Careful not to copy from other maps! That's copyright infrigment, and against the OSM rules.

If anything, OSM is over-policed. I remember going in and fixing up some divided roads that were criss-crossed at each intersection. I went in and carefully "unbraided" them and aligned the roads so they were parallel and matched the underlying road geometry. Lo and behold a day or so later I got a message from some guy outraged that I would make such an edit to his roads and asking me to revert the work. Thanks for nothing I guess. I reverted the change for him and never made another edit contribution to OSM.

Sorry to hear that you had a bad experience.. For what it's worth, it sounds like your edit was fine (what you described is actually the preferred way to map divided roads) and should not have caused any issue.

I'd love for you to give it another chance! A few of us do monitor the changeset discussion feed in Slack, and try to speak up when we see new users being mistreated.

I am sorry to hear you had a bad experience. I have never encountered that kind of grumpiness from a user in my eight years of OSM editing, so I personally don't feel that it is overpoliced. And no editor is obliged to revert a change if the editor can simply explain how it was a correct one.

I've also given up on OSM due to all the toxic territorial mappers. The idea that the real world might have changed since they last biked through the area unfortunately eludes many of the kind of people attracted to OSM.

Sorry, I don't have an answer, but I just feel the need to say that OSM isn't alone. Google doesn't handle it any better when it comes controlling poisoned data.

Some years ago, in my town some moron (probably in some half-assed attempt to get the town council to deal with its incredible lack of cycling infra-structure), managed to mark pretty much every pavement as a cycleway. Of course the effect is to present the town to potential visitors as very cycle friendly. It ain't - but the council don't care.

I submitted a number of notifications to Google via the appropriate link. Even attaching screenshots from StreetView showing the "No Cycling" signage. The only response was an automated reply. Years later Google is still showing these non-existant cycleways, so I assume that all notifications of incorrect data go straight to /dev/null.

Edit: perhaps the answer is for OSM to provide a downvote button for bad features.

> how can we prevent people to abuse OSM by making false edits intentionally.

I wish they had a method of automatically identifying relevant signs from images with GPS data. Sooner or later, cars and AR-enabled apps will be able to produce these as by-products of normal use.

There's multiple efforts along those lines.

Mapillary provides sign detections to OSM:


Telenav is doing similar through their OpenStreetCam project (but no good link). I'm not entirely sure, but I think they have the goal of running the detection locally.

Mapbox recently used Bing Streetside imagery to detect turn restrictions (which are important for high quality routing):


Mapbox and Telenav also compare their incoming position data with OSM and flag discrepancies (missing roads, turn restrictions again, stuff like that).

I used to use and contribute a lot to OMS, then affordable data plans happened, and I realised that map is a small part of the issue, navigation is a bigger deal, and where google has a huge advantage.

That depends what part of the world you are in. There are places where OSM coverage of local ways is superior to Google’s. It is hard for Google to provide navigation through an area when it doesn’t even know about the streets there.

Data plans have certainly got cheaper. However for me living in the UK with a phone plan that doesn't include much data then roaming in Europe can still be expensive. I very much appreciate the ability to download OSM maps to my phone with something like OsmAnd and be able to use them offline.

I’ve found MAPS.ME to be a good alternative for navigation. It’s not perfect (especially with time estimates) and the UI is a bit clunky, but as long as the OSM data is correct it should get you to where you need to go.

Some open source apps like OSMAnd and Maps.me have offline routing. It's probably not as good as google, which is in the top 3 largest companies in the world.

Even as a casual user OpenStreetMap is great. My old Garmin GPS isn't supported anymore and no up-to-date maps are available, but some awesome persons online are providing updated maps that are compatible with it using the OSM data.

Thanks OpenMapChest!

I’ll be checking that out

After all of this time, OSM still has many glaring (maybe still necessary) empty spots. Usually involving bodies of water. I could point to, for example, thousands of square miles of lake country in the Canada map which are -empty-. (I usually shrug and switch to Bing.)

I can only guess how their editing priorities are mapped out (is there a Wiki or something?) but I'm guessing that's related to visitor numbers.

Openstreetmap depends on ordinary users adding/editing what they care about. Why not have a go editing those areas yourself :)

If you don't want to add them yourself, be sure to leave a note.

Notes are basically bug reports for OSM. See https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Notes

There is no global editing priorities. People map what they want. So in Ireland a few of us spent a while mapping historic administrative boundaries. Someone who's interested in cycling will map cycle infastruvture etc.

The editing preferences are defined by what people find fun, or by the itch they want to scratch. If you've got your own itch to scratch, feel free to.

Getting OSM data exports is a little tedious.

They're available, but it's not so easy to get it since it's always very exhaustive. They should try to review how they make data available for developers, have different data sets, appropriate file formats, etc. They should offers different level of exhaustiveness and type of maps. The most basic should only contain roads and streets with their names.

OSM.org is great as a google maps alternative for users, but the problem lies with how OSM lets it data being available. GIS systems are always sensitive to size and performance, so it's not a simple problem.

MapBox seems to be on the rise, but I don't know what they're doing exactly, and what is free or not.

I tried using their .mbtiles format once and failed, it is a combination of zlib, sqlite and google protocol buffer. The generated C++ headers were the most horrific thing I saw in my life. There are better alternative to google pbf, I guess flatbuffers for example?

I have no idea how one would or should distribute map files properly. XML is not indexed and very very large, mainstream databases are inadequate because indexing geographic data is tricky so you cannot really select a specific zone you want.

If I was openstreetmap, I would federate XML exports, and generate country exports automatically, AND generate smaller exports for smaller country regions. I don't know if a good alternative would be to provide slightly overlapping squares, so planet.osm would be divided by 16 (or 32) squares, and then each square 16 (or 32) times again.

Open platform only thrive if distribution is smooth, and for maps it's not easy but it could be done. It's only a data problem.


I'm talking about exports simply because OSM.org servers might never be able to hold XML API calls for every developer who wants to use it in their apps.

OSM.org does provide a "per minute" data feed https://planet.openstreetmap.org/replication/minute/

"basic map" with "roads and streets" is choosing one thing. What about country names? Or city/town names? What about administrative borders? which language should be included? What about turn restrictions?

Unicode can be used.

As in basic map I meant something the user can recognize easily enough, but still more compact in data. If you want an user to navigate manually, this kind of data is enough.

Exports for countries and smaller regions (in the .osm.pbf Protobuf format as well as some others) are typically provided by third party services such as Geofabrik's download server: https://download.geofabrik.de/ It's linked from the "export" tab on osm.org, but could probably be made more visible.

As far as APIs for OSM raw data go, Overpass API is the most popular open source option. The osm.org API is neither suitable nor intended for building non-editing apps.

When it comes to keeping a rendering database current, of course, most people use the minutely diffs mentioned by rmc.

I wonder how they deal with political topics. For example, searching on their map for "Palestine" brings you to some village outside of Rennes, France. Searching for "Israel" brings you to the state with that name.

By trying not to.


Part of the explanation for your search is that local languages are given some preference by that search engine. Searching in the US I get the city in Texas as the first result.

Searching the Arabic فلسطين returns the country.

Then why is ישראל (Israel) displayed in my browser when I hover over the region but not فلسطين (Palestine)?

Whatever you are looking at is preferring one of the particular name tags on https://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/1473946 or https://www.openstreetmap.org/node/424297647

Likely "name" on the node link.

(assuming the display you are looking at is getting the data from OSM anyway; The default tiles on osm.org will use the "name" tag on nodes for most rendered place names, other users might combine OSM data with other data sources or whatever)

I'm doing a "map" project and currently if you want to use something like google map that is not openstreetmap you're going to have to pay a lot of money for it (that is, if you get any views or customers)

OSM helped lower the barrier of entry into GIS for me and hope many of you would agree.

I discovered routing OSRM, geojson, proprietary data formats, ETL, and lot more on GitHub and blogs.

Four years after this article was written, nobody has a "monopoly on place," no monopoly has take over mapping, and OpenStreetMap is still the least convenient of many options.

At some point, vague appeals to freedom and decentralization need to be backed by evidence.

Sadly, as much of a critic of OSM that I've become, this analysis of the situation is untrue.

Mapping companies simply consolidated, and Google began agressively mapping on its own.

As much as I like OSM, I had to switch back to Google Maps for two reasons:

1. The library is better designed use out of the box 2. The tile layer is more professional to regular users

For 1, I just need something easy to use. Leaflet is great but you still need more manual coding than google. Google's library is very intuitive. For a feature, I will barely touch after implementing, I prefer Google's: less learning the api, and gets the job done.

For 2, I know there is Mapbox, but they don't provide a tile layer similar to Google or when tiled, some buildings are simply missing. I just want a Google-styled tile layer. If someone could provide this, I will switch back.

Google's style and cartography is copyright, so it's not allowed to simply copy it. They also change it every year or so, often to emphasise businesses over things that don't pay.

You can use https://OpenMapTiles.org to style your own map with vector files generated from OSM data.

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