What is OpenStreetMap, really?

Posted by L'imaginaire on 6 February 2024 in English.

Yesterday, I reached the point of one million map changes and twenty-thousand changesets. Leading up to this milestone, I tracked my progress on How did you contribute to OpenStreetMap? and carefully planned to make a single edit that would be my one millionth in my twenty-thousandth changeset. I eventually made a gimmicky changeset referencing my first mapping experience. Mission accomplished! However, despite the impressive numbers, my initial sense of accomplishment faded, replaced by nagging existential questions. Have the countless hours I devoted to OSM truly been worthwhile? Why have I been doing this? What is it exactly that I have been doing? … What is OpenStreetMap, really? And there it is, a question that seems very simple, but is not. It is the same question that hides far below the surface in Xvtn’s OSM Iceberg Meme. Inspired by this meme, user rtnf put it this way: “Is it a map? A dataset? A community? A trademark that encompasses an entire ecosystem consisting of the dataset, the tagging scheme, the rendering infrastructure, and the subculture around its mappers, developer-mappers, and third-party data consumers?? What is OSM, really?”

When you invite someone to go to for the first time, the first thing they read is “OpenStreetMap is a map of the world”. The next thing you usually want to explain to them is that OpenStreetMap is NOT (just) a map of the world. We then continue showing off different rendering styles, different editors, different tagging schemes … We pride ourselves being part of a secret society, where only the sworn in know what it is actually about. We giggle when we see the Iceberg Meme because it is “so true”. We say things like: “If you have been doing this for years, you will understand”. All of this without being able to answer a very simple, fundamental question: What is OpenStreetMap?

If we reflect on how important OSM has become, it’s really crazy to see how much difficulty we have to explain what this ‘thing’ is we are so passionate about. Think about it: we have been complaining that it’s not clear what the Overture Maps Foundation wants to do with OpenStreetMap, but soon it may be easier to explain what the Overture Maps Foundation wants to achieve than what OpenStreetMap actually is.

A proposal

Of course, asking questions and pointing at problems that need to be solved is relatively easy. Therefore, I will take the risk of also doing a proposal. I don’t think it is a very controversial one, but if you start reading it and immediately feel the need to start shouting at your screen because I got it all wrong, feel free to skip the rest of this section. It is just a proposal to get the ball rolling, not an attempt to convince you of anything.

I think it was at that I heard “OSM is a movement” and I quite liked that (feel free to stand up and let me know if it was you who said this). So, is it a movement? I cherry picked the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A course or series of actions and endeavours on the part of a group of people working towards a shared goal”. I would say we have a winner! From here, we can explain what our common goal is (I would say “providing the data for making the best map(s) of the world”), how we want to achieve that goal, which values we adhere to, who we choose as our representatives for certain tasks … It might also influence some of the decisions we make, like what someone should see when they arrive at for the first time, what tasks the OSMF should take on, what expectations we have towards big tech that wants to capitalize on OSM … I realize this won’t solve all the challenges OSM is facing, but at least it is a start to build upon.

But what about …

But what about everything else above or below the surface? What about mapping maps? What about navigation for visually impaired people (Dutch)? What about mapping the etymology of street names? (Yes, I did sneak in some projects I like and/or care about.) Shouldn’t we celebrate the richness of OpenStreetMap instead of pretending it is something very simple? Of course! We should foster the diversity of mappers and their opinions. We should always be critical about what we have done and what we should do next. However, that shouldn’t prevent us from agreeing on the foundations on which to build our stories. Each with their own accents and anecdotes. But maybe with a bit more understanding from the outside world of what it is that we are so passionate about.


Comment from Xvtn on 6 February 2024 at 23:23

Great article, and some thought provoking questions. I’m in a similar position of wondering more about “OSM Philosophy” after making quite a few map changes. I’d love to see more meta-discussion in an accessible format*.

So if you’re reading this comment, here’s your invitation to make an OSM diary post or community forum post with your deep questions, spicy opinions, or general thoughts! Hear ye, hear ye - OSM is a movement!

*(it seems like much of the high-level osm discussion goes on in mailing lists. I just don’t want to comb through millions of emails to get to the juicy write-ups like this one.)

Comment from rtnf on 8 February 2024 at 09:40

“In the realm of shadow, a secret society meticulously charts the world. Its elusive members lurk in every corners of the Earth, donned in the ordinary garb of civilians, seamlessly blending into the teeming masses. With each foray into the vast expanse of the land, they meticulously transcribe every minutiae that their vigilant eyes can seize—cataloging every iota that exists upon the surface of this Earth, and compile their gathered reconnaissance into an imposing, singular, global information repository—an ominous monolith of shared knowledge.”

Comment from Thierry1030 on 8 February 2024 at 23:41

I fully support the statement that ““OSM is a movement” or at least should strive to become it! :-)

I think that the Belgian OSM-community is already applying this “movement-phylosophy”; I just don’t think it’s being fully propagated that way yet … it seems to me an exciting and ongoing challenge to make OSM as open as possible to externals who are looking for more “depth” in (open) data, maps, geo-info etc …

Comment from adreamy on 15 February 2024 at 02:34

I think that’s a very meaningful comment. I would like to translate it into Korean, if you don’t mind, so that more people can think about it together.

Comment from L'imaginaire on 15 February 2024 at 12:21

@adreamy: Cool, go ahead! Please leave a link to this original post if people want to reach out here.

Comment from adreamy on 16 February 2024 at 01:32

@L’imaginaire, Thank you for your permission. The article translated into Korean can be found at the link below. Here!

Unfortunately, this space (the OSM diary) is not the right place for discussion. I hope that more people will translate and discuss in other languages. Thanks for the good food for thought.

Comment from 快乐的老鼠宝宝 on 17 February 2024 at 08:43

I think either “map” or “database” would be the correct answer, and they don’t seem to be completely separate. For visitors who browse the OSM website directly from the web, this is a map rendered using the openstreetmap-carto style sheet; for GIS developers, OSM is a free database. This is not a contradiction. The generation of maps requires a database, and if the database is to be presented in a form that is easy for humans to understand, it must be rendered into a map.

I think it was at that I heard “OSM is a movement” and I quite liked that (feel free to stand up and let me know if it was you who said this).

This is really scary to me, because I have heard the term “Wikimedia Movement” before (and it seems WMF is keen on calling it that?). To a certain extent, it is defined in China as an ideological export from the United States because of it is a “movement”. I am concerned that our definition of OSM as a “movement” will make it political and prevent citizens from some countries with more conservative ideologies from participating in contributing to or benefiting from it.

At least as far as I am concerned, I am promoting it from the perspective of maps and databases and those related to geographic information science and computer science, rather than the abstract concept of “OSM”. (More like what open source technology evangelists do, at least focusing on the technology itself can make me feel safe in China to a certain extent)

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