1 million users! Woosh! Welcome to 2013. This is going to be a good year.
1 million is a big number. My uncle is a retired school teacher, and he has this great story. He told a classroom full of school kids "1 million is a big number. Between all of us, d'you think we could draw one million dots?". He showed them how to draw a block of 100 dots on a piece of paper in a neat 10x10 grid, then they raced to see who could draw 1000 dots as a row a 10 of these blocks. Some kids did it very quickly. Some kids took a bit longer and did them in colourful stripes. "Not bad" he said "If we add them all up, working together, you've drawn a lot of dots, but if you lot can draw 1 million dots I will eat this banana whole, including the skin!". Excited by this prospect, the kids all feverishly carried on drawing dots, but at the end of the lesson they added them up and found they had only done about 200,000 dots. Good progress, but they had a long way to go to reach a million. Lesson learned. 1 million is a very big number.
...but a couple of girls went home that night and carried on drawing dots. Two months later they presented my uncle with a box piled high with dots on paper all carefully arranged in colourful checkered grids. My uncle (now retired) showed me this box which he had kept ever since. It's a true story.
...and yes, he had to eat a banana whole, including the skin.
I'm not sure what the lesson is from this. Maybe "never underestimate the power of bored kids", or "if you ever thought editing OpenStreetMap was a pointless waste of time, people do more pointless things", or how about this lesson "A massive task might just be possible if you have lots of people to helping out and a few very dedicated people getting really into it".
Anyway 1 million is big. The above graph is from osmstats.altogetherlost.com. It shows us blasting over the 1 million user mark some time in the small hours of yesterday morning. This morning's raw stats report clearly show us over the line. The graph shows a downturn at the beginning of the week, which isn't usually possible in the count of registered users. This is caused by the sysadmins doing a clear out of some spam user registrations. They've done this before in the past, and they wanted to do it again in advance of the 1 million users announcement.
Whenever we do announcements about the number of users we have, people are quick to complain that this is misleading. This number includes people who signed up, but didn't make a single edit to the map data. That is no small component of the total, in fact it's a very large component. About 2/3rds of signed up users never get as far as clicking the 'save' button on a map edit. 2/3rds! This is based on Pascal Neis' analysis of this from a couple of years back, but I'm assuming this ratio hasn't changed much.
So we might say a less misleading figure to look at, is the number of users who made a least one change, but this quickly leads to the next question "Should we really count users of OpenStreetMap who have only made a single edit before disappearing?", and then we're into different ways of measuring activity. People have done this analysis. Andy Robinson has been re-plotting this graph since the early days, showing a "rolling week" measure of node editing activity, currently fluctuating around the 8000 mark. We have to measure the size of a community somehow. There's no doubt this 8000 figure is a more down-to-earth realistic figure than the over-blown 1 million figure we're singing and shouting about. But why take a 1 week rolling count? Why look at node editing? There's lots of different ways of aggregating these stats, all with different quirks. The fact is, the least arbitrary measure we have available to us is the cold hard simple count of user sign-ups, and today this is showing a big fat 1 million! Yes we're singing and shouting about it. Guess what? We're trying to promote OpenStreetMap. Nothing wrong with that, so please join in!
But the revelation that 2/3rds of sign ups do not edit, is a frustration for people who work on improving OpenStreetMap. I like it when the discussion comes around, because it leads to inward-looking self-criticism. What are we doing wrong? I would urge people to think of the zero-editors as part of the long-tail distribution of our community. I'll explain what I mean some other time, but basically we shouldn't beat ourselves up about it too much. But self-criticism is good. It leads to conclusions like:
- OpenStreetMap editing software needs to be easier for beginners,
- Documentation needs to be better for beginners
- Editing on mobile needs to be easier
- The website needs "social" features for welcoming and helping new users
- We need simple bug submitting and workflows around fixing them.
- We need to make contributing fun, like a game, with microtasks.
The good news is that we're tackling things on all these fronts. We saw some great progress in 2012, and we're set to see exciting announcements in 2013. In particular...
- We may soon go live with a "Report a problem" link on the OpenStreetMap homepage. 'notes' branch
- In 2012 we've seen the PushPin OSM app brings easy OSM editing to iPhone.
- In 2012 we've seen MapRoulette challenges breaking TIGER fixup in to interesting little microtasks. Now we're seeing the 'Kort' presenting KeepRight bugs as a fun little game.
- switch2osm.org launched at the beginning of 2012, providing targeted documentation on using OpenStreetMap for web developers. RichardF was the main man behind this, and he's itching to do something similar again. Meanwhile learnosm.org is set to receive a facelift very soon.
It's things like this which will improve our "conversion rate", moving people from signing up to making edits, and allow us to really tap into our 1 million strong army of registered OpenStreetMappers. That's why 2013 is going to be a good year.