Author Archive | Steve

OpenStreetMap: Is Cartographic Innovation Possible?

The primary way many people experience OSM is through the main website at

Consider what you might have seen, in the map, in 2006. Basically it would be mostly blank with map data here and there where it was available. Incredibly, in the mean time, we’ve built something that looks great today.

But that’s a problem. It looks great.

It’s not great. It’s missing all kinds of address and turn restriction data. Data that is vital to making OSM a true digital map.

It used to be that you saw the worst view of the map, now you see the best view of it. It looks complete. It isn’t!

Here’s what I say we should do: show the worst possible view of the map possible and let others show the best view. When there were big empty spaces in the past people would feel compelled to complete the map. You could see there were blank areas and go fix them.

Now there isn’t that same compulsion. I say bring it back.


By making the map look blank again. Don’t show map data that is fresh. Don’t show roads with no addressing data associated. Don’t show unedited TIGER data.

In reverse order.

TIGER data which has not been edited will have dave_hansen or something as the username. So it’s super easy to filter it. Don’t show that map data at all in our front page rendered map. Or, if you want to, show it in bright angry orange. Call attention to it, or remove it. Create a big incentive for people to edit it. If it doesn’t need editing (and let’s be honest, that’s rare in TIGER data) then we can use the tiger:checked key (or whatever it is) to mark that it is ok.

Address data. If roads have no address data don’t show them. Instantly large chunks of the entire world will go blank. Good! We need a reason for people to collect the data. Or, if you like, show those roads in bright purple. If a road has no addresses on it, mark it as addressing:none. Let the renderer figure out to show roads which have no addressing. Will people add one address point and suddenly the road is visible? Yes! But that’s a good thing. Now up the limit to needing more than one point. And so on. Until it’s marked as ‘complete’.

If data is version 1, that is if it’s been entered by one person, and it’s been sitting on the map for a year then don’t show it. Or show it in bright orange. Force people to go check old v 1.0 data and as above, check that it’s correct in order for it to be rendered.

Instantly you’d have a global map of orange or missing data and thousands of people would plunge in to fixing it all.

Will any of this happen?


Or, at least, I doubt it.

With everyone in charge at OSM nobody is. Innovation, bold innovation, doesn’t happen by committee. Who would give permission for such a bold change in cartography? Who would order it done?

Inherently there would be a gigantic discussion on the mailing lists about the pros and cons by people with nothing better to do. Nobody would feel the authority to make such a striking change, which is (one of the reasons) why we end up with effectively no change in OSM’s user experience. To be clear, I give you permission.

And yes, anyone could go make a map style like this. The point is to make it the default on the main OSM site. You could turn it off if you wanted. There could be a banner saying “Hey, this is a view of our map with all the bugs exposed, here’s how you can help” to manage expectations.

We desperately need those with the keys to the castle to feel both the ability but also the permission to innovate in new and unexpected ways like this to force the project forward.

OpenStreetMap: Addressable?

How on Earth are we going to add addressing in to OpenStreetMap?

Today OSM is a great display map. It’s routable too if you squint. But it’s essentially not geocodable, you can’t turn an address in to a location.

If we fix that then there’s really not a whole lot of point to ever using a proprietary map ever again.

Here in the United States there are essentially two readily available sources. TIGER data has address ranges between intersections and counties (all 3,000 odd of them) have parcel data.

TIGER is public domain but it’s kind of crappy. There is a problem importing it because automatically taking TIGER ranges and putting them in our map is non-trivial. In lots of places new roads have been added, old ones deleted and so on. So, getting an address range in TIGER and then figuring out where to put it in OSM isn’t always easy.

Parcel data is much better but it’s all over the place. There are companies which will aggregate it together for you and sell it to you, but that’s millions of dollars of cost. And, they have no incentive to make it all available.

And it’s even worse in Europe. And even more worserer in Japan where addresses are assigned according to the age of the house and the block they are on, which may as well be random().

So what the hell are we going to do?

I say import the TIGER ranges and slap them on top of the map. They won’t impact the rendering. It will be kind of painful to go and fix all those ranges but it’s much better than what we have today (which is nothing).

All the other solutions are basically horrible. We could crowd-source it but that might take 100 years. We could try and raise the money to purchase the data. We could go visit all 3,000 counties. None of these is palatable.

So, let’s just import what we have available and make the most of it. It worked for the road network, it can work for addressing.

OpenStreetMap: Indispensable People?

Should anyone in OpenStreetMap be indispensable?

I think firmly not. There are whole graveyards full of indispensable people.

A project as broad and important as OpenStreetMap needs the systems in place to withstand the loss of anyone. Should someone important get run over by a bus or simply decide to move on, as many have, the project should at most be slowed a little.

Today that isn’t the case. We have points of control which are fully owned by single individuals. The people around them readily acknowledge that they don’t have a clue what we would do if they quit.

I say that’s terrible. I say they should quit and we should find out what we have to do. By keeping the de-facto in place all we are doing is kicking the problem down the road, for they have to leave at some point in the future. Let’s find out how we distribute the workload now while we only have 900,000 registered accounts instead of 9 million.

Those people should, if anything, build that process themselves. Where that doesn’t happen we should gently ask them to work elsewhere in the project on positive things. For all of the amazing work they’ve done in the past, for all the time they put in, for all of the sheer good they have absolutely contributed to the project, there should not be anyone who’s indispensable.

Maps at Google

Interesting Ed Parsons talk with some behind-the-scenes pictures of what Google uses to manage it’s geographic infrastructure. Nice enough talk but definitely for the Google audience, a little implicit that Google invented everything. Random dig at MapQuest who were apparently Google’s original map supplier (who knew?).

Google map data sources then and now

Interesting screen shot of what I’ll call GoogleGIS with streetview bubbles flattened out in to a donut as part of the editing process. Looks like a Mac app in some third party language/widget set:


Ed uses a tiny snippet of video of this guy who’s cheerfully editing map bugs submitted by the crowd;

Upper middle class Google Map Maker editor in relaxed Californian atmosphere fixing the occasional map bug

I’m not entirely sure how accurate that is though.

Map bugs dutifully fixed by glad worker bees

Full talk;

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