It’s been three years since the launch of Niantic’s Pokemon GO app, a lifetime in the online world. After all this time, there remains a certain frustration and tension between Open Street Map (OSM) volunteer mappers and a subsection of Pokemon GO trainers who seek to edit the map in order to enhance or even cheat their game experience. At least in part, this is caused by a series of misunderstandings about the OSM project, Pokemon GO and the relationship between the two.
Several guides exist for budding Pokemon GO mappers, such as https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Tips_for_new_(Pokemon_Go)_mappers. However, there are scarce resources aimed in the other direction, that is to say, guides to help mappers understand the motivations driving trainers to make changes to the map, and ways to understand what kinds of changes said trainers are likely to want to make.
Some of the terms I will use here may be unfamiliar to mappers, so I will define them here.
EX Raid/EX Eligible:
EX Eligibility is a special characteristic of certain Gyms (see POI definition below) that allows that Gym to occasionally output invitations for a local event in which trainers can obtain a rare Pokemon. (See “EX Eligibility” sub-section below for more detail)
A term used by the Pokemon GO community to describe locations where certain kinds of Pokemon might appear. For example, proximity to a water biome might result in more fish like Pokemon and forests might attract more bug-like and plant-like Pokemon. Niantic occasionally refers to biomes as “habitats”. (See “Biomes/Habitats” sub-section below for more detail)
An area where Pokemon are forced to stop appearing.
A preset area on the map that has an increased occurrence of a particular kind of Pokemon. These change species of Pokemon on a two week cycle and also occasionally when in-game events start and end. (See “Nests” sub-section below for more detail)
Points of Interest - Niantic keeps a user submitted locations and displays these on the Pokemon GO game map as “Pokestops” and “Gyms” - these are used to generate map pins that trainers can travel to and interact with in order to gain virtual items, earn in-game currency and also play a jazzed up version of “King of the Hill”. POIs in Pokemon GO are not sourced from OSM.
A point on the Pokemon GO game map where a Pokemon appears each hour. Spawnpoints are aligned to a level 20 S2 cell grid.
In this context, someone who plays Pokemon GO.
Niantic has seldom updated their OSM derived database since the launch of Pokemon GO. Additionally, Niantic has repeatedly shown that they are capable of using different versions of OSM data from different times simultaneously when updating distinct game features.
OSM+Pokemon GO Timeline
March 2016 - Pokemon GO Beta Testing Begins.
April 2016 - OSM-like tags are found by data mining the Android application package for the Pokemon GO Beta client.
June 2016 - Nest areas are present in the late stages of the Pokemon GO beta.
July 2016 - Pokemon GO begins to launch around the world using Google Maps to generate its visual game map, but hidden OSM data is observed when it comes to Biomes, Nests and Blocked Areas.
December 2016 - Niantic distributes spawn points along certain pedestrian highway tags such as “highway”=”path” and “highway”=”footway” apparently using data sourced close to when the game launched in July.
January 2017 - Pokemon GO launched in South Korea. For apparent legal reasons, in South Korea Niantic uses OSM data to generate game map visuals, and also adds in OSM copyright/source information in the app’s “About” section. Globally, nesting and blocked areas are updated to OSM data sourced from some date between late December 2016 and early January 2017.
Early/Mid November 2017 - Pokemon GO begins to transition globally to OSM for its visual game map, this rollout happens over several hours. Visual data appears to have been sourced earlier in August. Other OSM features remain unchanged.
Late November 2017 - EX raids are hinted at occurring in parks and green areas, it is quickly realized that these parks are based on OSM data. Later, it is discovered that the OSM data used for EX Eligibility is from July or August 2016 - meaning that EX raids are possibly using the oldest OSM data still in Pokemon GO. As of mid-2019, this data has never been updated.
January 2018 - The Pokemon GO visual map is updated to more current OSM data from earlier in January. As with the previous visual update, other features remain unchanged.
March 2019 - Nests, Blocked areas and spawn points distributed along paths are all updated to OSM data that was seemingly sourced in late February. Map visuals remain unchanged.
How OSM impacts Pokemon GO
As of 2019, the Pokemon GO visual game map is now entirely based on OSM data, though only a limited number of features render at all, and these can be broken down into 4 basic categories:
- Dark Green “Park” areas
- Blue “Water” areas
- Grey “Highway” lines
- Semi-Transparent 3D “Building” areas
The following tags are known to visually render in Pokemon GO:
Parks: “leisure”=”golf_course”, “leisure”=”park” and “landuse”=”recreation_ground”
Water: “landuse”=”basin”, “landuse”=”reservoir”, “leisure”=”swimming_pool”, “natural”=”water”, “waterway”=”riverbank” and the ocean (beyond coastline ways) all render. Un-closed water lines such as most streams and drains do not display as anything in Pokemon Go.
Highway: Most highway lines render, highway areas do not. Footways and similar tags tend to render as very thin lines, whereas primary highways are displayed in-game with a slightly thicker weight than residential roads.
Buildings: Any building area tagged with building=* will render, building:part and similar tags are also supported and can have quite a nice effect.
A nest is an area in Pokemon GO in which a certain species of Pokemon will appear about 25% of the time from all active spawn points contained within that area. Nests “migrate” or change species every 2 weeks and can also change as a result of in-game events.
There is some evidence that nesting tags may modestly increase the number of spawn points in an area, but there are plenty of nesting areas without any spawn points at all.
The following tags can create nests if they are present on either closed ways or closed relation based areas:
leisure=park, landuse=recreation_ground, leisure=recreation_ground, leisure=pitch, leisure=garden, leisure=golf_course, leisure=playground, landuse=meadow, landuse=grass, landuse=greenfield, natural=scrub, natural=heath, natural=grassland, landuse=farmyard, landuse=vineyard, landuse=farmland, landuse=orchard, natural=plateau, natural=valley and natural=moor
Some nesting Pokemon are highly desirable, however, (in my opinion) Niantic has somewhat backed away from the nesting feature with recent additions to the game, and many newer Pokemon do not appear in nests at this time.
Certain POIs that are known as “gyms” are capable of providing trainers with special invitations to obtain a rare Pokemon after specific interactions. In order for the gym POI to be EX Eligible, it must have the center of the level 20 S2 cell that it occupies centered over a mapped area that meets particular criteria.
EX Eligibility shares the same list of tags as Nesting areas, however, it does not support relations, only closed ways count for EX Eligibility. Additionally, the data used for EX eligibility is old, with eligibility being observed to require the mapped area’s presence on the map in July-August 2016 in order to count.
Certain areas can block spawns, additionally spawns will not occur within the proximity of certain ways. These include - school grounds, military, wetlands, many water tags used for areas as well as basins, some religion-related tags, higher level highway tags, railways, and powerlines.
Biomes remain poorly understood, but OSM data certainly has some influence. Tags related to water are, in particular, commonly observed to have a strong correlation to particular biomes. Some trainers have observed lines of water associated Pokemon appearing along underground streams as an example, or have been disappointed when unmapped lakes have yielded no water Pokemon at all.
OSM’s influence on biomes has perhaps become less important over time, as Niantic has taken steps to diversify and add complexity to the biome system through the addition of features such as in-game weather.
When Pokemon GO launched, Pokemon spawn point distributions were reliant on a global database that Niantic possibly sourced from Google/Android location pings while they were a division of Google. This disproportionately favored dense urban locations, and in response to this problem Niantic made some changes to how spawn points were distributed.
One such change involved the addition of spawns to certain highway tags such as highway=footway and highway=path (and also, oddly, highway=unclassified, but not highway=track). While this was likely intended to bolster spawns along hiking trails and in other low pedestrian activity but still high “value” locations such as parks and open nature reserves, it had the side effect of adding spawns too many sidewalks and similar features as well.
Outside of rural locations, the addition of spawns along paths was modest. Creating paths does not turn a location into a Pokemon paradise by any means, but after being updated in Pokemon GO, they do have the effect of making many previously unplayable locations much more accessible in the game.
With the above in mind, we can define a number of archetypes for Pokemon GO inspired mappers
The Self-Serving Vandal:
Their first edit will often involve adding a park or several other nesting features over their house or entire neighborhood. Often this will be accompanied by scribbles of footways and possibly water features. Often you’ll see no more than 6 to 9 edits out of this kind of mapper.
More persistent Self-Serving Vandals may attempt to fabricate evidence and play into OSM’s expected benefit of the doubt/”on the ground” culture.
The Malice Inspired Vandal:
This mapper will add spawn blocking areas or remove nesting areas en masse. They are often inspired by petty rivalries from Pokemon GOm and can be more tricky to deal with, These mappers can be very persistent, with some cases stretching across multiple accounts and hundreds of edits.
The Hyper-Altruist Vandal:
Attempting to help their local gaming community, these mappers are like a Self-Serving Vandal who has had way, way too much caffeine - expect entire residential areas changed to parks, footways everywhere and very messy, truth stretching edits.
The Graffiti Artist:
Not that unusual for OSM, but in an attempt to get their name on the map, this mapper will draw text or pictures using features that specifically render in Pokemon GO
The “My Street Wasn’t on the Map” Trainer:
This mapper will add one or two features, maybe with a couple of errors, maybe not. Once their small set of edits are complete, they will vanish never to be seen again.
The Empty Town Trainer:
Often these trainers become mappers because their local areas just simply isn’t on the map. These kinds of mappers are worth a bit of patience as they come to OSM from Pokemon GO with good intentions but often very little experience or guidance.
The Map-Savvy Trainer:
Well informed on how Pokemon GO interacts with OSM. In some ways, this mapper is similar to the Hyper-Altruist Vandal but will attempt to play “within the rules” of OSM. While it’s always worth watching in case they go rogue, these mappers are typically very careful, trustworthy and make many worthy additions to the map.
The Former Trainer:
They may have started as another kind of Trainer-Mapper, but they have started to spend more and more time editing OSM… “and what was Pokemon GO again? I forgot”.
I hope that the above is useful to mappers who are struggling to understand the motivations behind these strange Pokemon GO inspired mappers who have been appearing on OSM over the past few years.
I know that sometimes, their actions may seem frustrating and even confusing, but in my experience, the vast majority are well-intentioned and in many cases, you wouldn’t even know that they came to OSM as a result of Pokemon GO.
My personal journey has taken me from adding a cemetery while Pokemon GO was in beta in an attempt to bring out more ghost type Pokemon, to helping remove vandalism and guide new mappers on an almost daily basis. I personally find both Pokemon GO and OSM very rewarding in their own right, and it’s been quite a journey walking the middle road with both of them.
I’m always happy to answer any questions or write some more on the topic if this is well received (this is my first diary entry so I’m not sure how it’ll turn out). Feel free to comment or shoot me a message at any time.