OpenStreetMap

What comes first, Map or Database? Should we tell newbies the truth?

Posted by BushmanK on 26 December 2015 in English (English)

Definitely, I'm not the oldest and the most experienced member of the OSM community. But for the last five years I had quite a few discussions and arguments regarding of basic principles of contributing to OSM. Usually, it's about the nature of those basic rules, listed on Good practice Wiki page. (By the way, having the majority of "don'ts" there, shouldn't it be called "Bad practice"?) Discussions I'm talking about took place on Russian OSM community forum, in comments on several online articles (written by me) about OSM and in a real life.

People, especially those, who have no familiarity with geospatial science, database architecture, IT in general, just can't get the idea, why these rules are so important and where they come from. Common misconception also includes association of OSM project with certain derivative product: interactive web map on openstreetmap.org or converted maps for digital navigation systems (OsmAnd, Garmin, Navitel and so on).

These people, including several experienced contributors, wonder: "Why shouldn't we tag it in a manner to make it visible on a map? There is no use in this object if it's not displayed (searchable)." Their understanding is based on particular way to use data: visually observe a map, run search on indexable objects on their navigation device/software and so on.

Is there any way to explain, why they must not do what they do without mentioning that OSM is a database? Honesty, I don't know any reliable one. And why should anyone look for one, if the concept of structured geospatial database as both core component and product of OSM project explains more or less every well-known basic rule?

Someone could probably say, that it's a question of philosophy or even demagogic thing to insist on "OSM is a database" instead of "OSM is a map". But here are several reasons to do so:

  • Copyright page of openstreetmap.org clearly says, and it's a legal copyright notice: "OpenStreetMapĀ® is open data, licensed under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL) by the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF)."
  • Same Copyright page uses the term "map" only regarding of map tiles, generated from OSM data.
  • Answer for the question from title is: "Database comes first." No single map derived from OSM open data can ever exist without this database.
  • Every single way of direct contribution into OSM project involves adding, modification or deletion of features of OSM database via OSM API. (By "direct contribution" I don't mean editing Wiki, for example.)

Just in case, I'd like to link to classic definitions of map and geodatabase.

Important thing to know about it is that map is a symbolic depiction (visual representation) of real-world objects, while geodatabase is a structured storage of feature descriptions, including geometry and semantic properties within formally defined scheme.

From my experience, which includes teaching physics, math and other scientific disciplines, I learned, that using deductive reasoning based on single core concept to explain many different secondary effects is much more effective than trying to explain these effects separately. I mean, yes, it's possible to force people to memorize separate things, but this kind of "knowledge" very unlikely transforms itself into any sort of systematic understanding. And only systematic understanding allows people to solve problems by themselves, in opposite to following predefined templates. Also, systematic understanding is usually more reliable in terms of not violating the rules deliberately.

Telling people that OSM is a map, like on About OpenSteeetMap page leads to misconception, explained above.

I completely understand, that wording like this is used there to avoid scaring newbies away. But there are several questions:

  • Is it really necessary to completely remove any reference to OSM as a geodatabase?
  • Isn't it possible to introduce newbies to both concepts of core geodatabase and its visualization?
  • Shouldn't any wording, which potentially leads to misconception, be used very carefully to prevent future harm?
  • Is there any study, which tells, if those newbies, totally "allergic" to words like "geodatabase", are actually capable to learn relatively complex concepts of OSM, required to become an effective contributor in the future? (By "effective" I mean "a contributor, who doesn't create more problems for other contributors than data.")

By telling all these things, I just want to remind people about this fundamental conception, because certain experienced people in this project got used to it to the point, where they starting to think that it's not important at all (because for them it's already completely natural).

Comment from SimonPoole on 26 December 2015 at 10:19

You've touched on a subject that is rather controversial and I've pointed out many times that there is no point on jumping on newbies, sometimes not even "new", screaming it's a database when we don't actually say that upfront or even anywhere hidden. The text on the wiki you are referring to goes back to at least http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/w/index.php?title=About_OpenStreetMap&oldid=1461 so this has been a problem that has been with the project since the beginning.

We have a similar "we a can't tell newbies the truth" situation with relations (which are in reality a simple concept).

Comment from BushmanK on 26 December 2015 at 17:17

@SimonPoole,

I'm not talking about "About OpenStreetMap" page only. I'm talking about an attitude, which leads to untrue statements. And these untrue statements are working against the valuable contribution.

History of About page does not serve as an argument - any version is just someone's opinion by itself. But reasonable logic explanation (just like those facts I've listed above) does serve. So, if you willing to discuss something - I'd prefer to do it in logical manner, not historical.

There is no "controversy" about this situation. It seems controversial only because of prejudice, which exists among the OSM contributors, who think, that newbies are extremely fragile and valuable in the same time. As I explained above, there is no single evidence, that "fragile ones" are actually valuable. Therefore, there is no evidence that proper explanation of OSM nature can make any harm. So, why there is still a tendency to avoid saying the truth (expressed, for example, in current version of About page)?

Telling people truth is not equal to "jumping on them".

Comment from Omnific on 27 December 2015 at 17:26

Honestly, you are bringing an overly academic perspective to a project that is supposed to be for everyone, not just gis professionals. It's a good perspective, but it shouldn't be the one pervasive perspective here. You could plaster geodatabase all over the place, but this is called OpenStreet*Map*.

Yeah, you could deter anyone from contributing unless they have a proper academic understanding of the nature of OSM, but the fact of the matter is that we need every single contributor. 99% want to help, even if it takes time for them to learn. Yeah, it's a problem if someone retags all of the, say, casinos to shop=yes so they show up on the default map. But if someone adds a new casino and tags it as a shop but with the name, then they are making a positive net contribution (the POI name).

If Wikipedia had deterred contributions from anyone other than PhD academics, it would be utterly obscure. Same principle applies here.

Comment from BushmanK on 27 December 2015 at 18:03

@Omnific,

That is very bad rhetorical manner to reply on things nobody has said. You did exactly this thing.

Nobody had it proven, that explaining the real mechanisms behind the OSM does actually deter anyone. But people including you just got used to believe that. This is illogical.

I am talking about proper way to educate people. Instead of pretending that OSM is not what it is and telling people useless lies just because someone believes that truth will deter them (without any reason except his own imagination).

Hiding the truth reduces the result even in case of certain experienced contributors (because they missed the conception of geodatabase on their learning curve), as I've explained above.

Comment from joost schouppe on 30 December 2015 at 18:20

When I explain OSM to newbies, or when I see other people explain it, they always say something like "you might know Openstreetmap as the map on osm.org, but it is many many more things than that". So the fact that it is a database is basically the second thing you say. I don't see how that can be controversial, and why anyone would want to hide that from newbies. If you want to avoid the word "database", you could say something like "OSM collects map data".

Comment from BushmanK on 30 December 2015 at 18:48

@joost schouppe,

Totally agree. You don't actually have to use exact term "geodatabase" (why not, by the way?), but the idea of map representation, separated from geospatial data, is fundamental. And I have never had any difficulties explaining that to people, except those people (contributors with certain experience), who already have own wrong vision of it developed.

Comment from SimonPoole on 31 December 2015 at 11:43

@BushmanK ehhh I was actually agreeing with you, pls go back and re-read my comment. The only thing I was pointing out is that the discussion is not in any way new. For example the reoccuring theme of if we should actually show a map on openstreetmap.org at all, or if something more like openstreetmap.de would be better.

Comment from BushmanK on 31 December 2015 at 18:20

@SimonPoole, I'm always reading everything carefully, but sometimes people are, hmm... quite polite, and it makes me a bit confused about what they actually mean. If you agree with my point, it's great. Speaking of openstreetmap.org frontpage - currently it does make an impression, that interactive map is the primary product of OSM (and people are always comparing it to Google Maps and other services), while German frontpage, which looks similar to national geoportal websites of many European countries, has certain message to visitors, telling about the project behind the default map style.

But, being agree with importance of telling people how OSM actually works, could you write a couple of lines regarding those changes on /About OpenStreetMap:Talk page? Because it seems like Mr. Harry Wood have monopolized this page.

Comment from seav on 1 January 2016 at 03:57

Whenever I do my "Introduction to OpenStreetMap" lecture, I always make sure to point out that the project is all about the geodata, and then pointing to numerous examples of people using the data in many interesting manners. I think this explains quite well that the project is much more than the map you see on the website.

Comment from BushmanK on 1 January 2016 at 04:08

@seav, That is great to hear.

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