Two weeks ago Steve Coast held an AmA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit. I’ve selected and rearranged some of his answers for this post, since he rarely expresses his point of view on lists or anywhere else.
Also, he agreed to participate in next week’s Russian OSM Radio (in English, of course). You can submit your questions during the broadcast (22nd of January, 20:00-21:00 UTC) on #osm-ru IRC channel.
mr_gila: What inspired you to start up OSM?
There’s a few different answers to that question. On one level, it was just kind of obvious. Back then, in 2004, Wikipedia was hot new technology and the wiki idea in general was spreading. Why not apply it to maps?
On another level, I had an old laptop with Debian Linux on it and a USB GPS device. I tried to use some mapping software but there were no maps. So why not make them?
On another level, the maps that were available in the UK and Europe tended to be very proprietary and expensive. So why not open them up?
On another level, I was young and naive.
Let’s not forget though that OSM is now many, many people from all over the world. It wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t convinced a lot of people to join in and help.
mapsandmapsandmaps: How did you find your time studying at UCL, and how much of an impact do you think this lead into you founding OSM? Does it feel strange that it has become a big topic of academic research with people like Muki Haklay writing papers about it?
UCL. I was working in a couple of PhD research labs and not paying much attention to studies. That mean I had the time and resources (computers with direct access to the internet, no NAT!) to go do OSM and other things.
Muki was in one of those research labs (as was Paul Torrens, Martin Dodge, Sean Gorman and others), so it’s not entirely strange.
ManAboutCouch: Half-jokingly, how has OSM managed to get this far without a properly defined Polygon feature type?
OSM has succeeded, I think and in part, precisely because the data model (and other things) are/is so simple. When I started it, there were various calls for OSM to use all kinds of complicated schemas (like WFS). You’d blow your brains out just reading the specification. OSM to me in many ways was a people problem not a technology problem, and it’s easier to fit the technology to the people (e.g. OSMs simple models) than it is to convince people to go use WFS.
NorbitGorbit: If you had to redo the map project from scratch, what sort of system would you use or design to handle crowdsourcing map data?
I think I’d pretty much do it the same with some tweaks.
I’m trying to be careful to assign credit. The addition of change sets and relations for example. I had similar ideas but I didn’t implement those, and they’re critical.
I think exploring tags beyond just keys and values, since we hack in third values by doing things like “addr:housenumber=42” for example.
Beyond the data model itself, waze really nailed some aspects of crowd sourcing. The human element of getting people to contribute certain things.
dv7d: Do you map? What do you like to map the most?
Yes I still map under a variety of usernames. I’ve been attacking addressing to get a feel for the complexity of it. I used to spend a lot of time cleaning up TIGER data. Map roulette is a good way to find random things to fix in the map: http://maproulette.org
GregZorz: What would you say to someone responding that your use of multiple accounts waters down ability to check authenticity/reliability of edits?
i’d say in the general case you’re right but as the founder I’ve had satirical fake blogs set up about me, people follow me and other internet weirdness. So I take a degree of anonymity.
ManAboutCouch: Hi Steve, you’re on record saying that you think the next big challenge for OSM is address data. Given the myriad of address systems in use across the globe, and how this is often perceived as ‘less fun’ than adding other features to the map, how do you see this challenge being met?
Frankly it’s hard to see it happen within OSM any time soon. Addressing requires some bold moves. For example, only show roads on the OSM website which have addresses. That would instantly make the world go blank, and create a lot of pressure to add address data, similar to how OSM was 5-7 years ago but with more people and resources. That kind of bold move is unfortunately hard to make happen these days.
edparsons: Looking forward to the book, but to preempt it - Are there any decisions you made in the early days you now regret ?
I’ll split this in to two. Mistakes and regrets.
Mistakes abound. OSM could have had an exit like waze. Segments (a data model we had prior to ways) diverted energy away. Trying to run mapping parties by telling people where or what to map rather than letting them self-select. Calling it OpenStreetMap when it’s much more than streets.
Defining “mistake” would take too long, but we should note that many of these things are only mistakes when viewed under a certain light. Mistakes of some kind are inevitable when doing something new. I’m happy making mistakes because it means I’m learning something. What I discovered is that this doesn’t apply to most people, for whom mistakes or even trying something which has a chance of becoming a mistake is… not something you do.
Which brings me to my only regret: Giving up too much power. I thought that everyone in the world thinks like I do, and would also give up power and try new things like I did. That for the most part simply didn’t happen. It’s worked out very well, and the people are great, and OSM hums along… but the days of taking big bets and risks is over. That drives me nuts, since there’s so much more out there to do with open mapping than just making the map slightly better every year and running another conference. For example, addressing.
We’ve done very well, as you know. We blazed a trail for others to follow too. I just have a much higher set of ambitions, including OSM being “done” by now (which would include addressing, of course).
dalek2point3: Steve – are you saying that you wished that OSM had gone down the route of for-profit crowd sourcing a la Waze, rather than non profit a la Wikipedia? Have you thought about these two modes and pros and cons of each?
That’s why I mentioned “certain light” above, there are tradeoffs here. Being able to monetize would speed things up. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, open or closed. You can make data open after two years, or something.
The downside is you don’t get the same unexpected use cases like the Humanitarian OSM Team going and saving the day in Haiti.
GregZorz: Forget mental regrets… looking back 10 years, is there a physical item(s), or data from a specific trip, you wish you you kept/saved/rescued?
I tend to throw things away. I remember the anecdote that when Jobs went back to Apple in ‘97 they had an Apple Museum with all the old computers and stuff in it. He closed it down. Or as I think Gates said, he doesn’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror.
I find those items like mapping t-shirts, paper maps, conference pens, old GPS units tie me to a past that is gone anyway. I’m much more interested in the future.
smellsliketuna: Do you get a lot of people pitching you on ways to leverage your previous mapping project, for for-profit ventures? It would seem to be a logical choice, given your knowledge and experience.
Yes - I’m on a few different advisory boards now for example. Notably Auth0 and ParkNav, the others are stealth.
mapsandmapsandmaps: What’s your opinion on the open/proprietary software situation in the mapping/GIS industry and do you think open tools and data will eventually take over?
I don’t think open software will take over because it’s always playing catch up and very rarely customer-focused or original. As an example, select a group of numbers in Excel and it takes two clicks to color the cells by value. That is, green for low numbers through orange and red. A simple visualization that’s very valuable that I use all the time.
Go try that in libre/open office, apple numbers or google docs. It’s essentially impossible by comparison. Everyone tries to copy Excel (and ESRI and so on) but they always end up copying the wrong thing. See my talk and the part about Dubai copying New York: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2UqGUa2Tgk
alexandreleroux: Do you see Google ever moving to OSM for Google Maps/Earth data? Other major players have done it – at least partially (Microsoft, Apple, MapQuest, Esri).
Google people have been super supportive of OSM including funding our conference and so on. I think OSM just moves too slowly for what they’re trying to achieve, and that’s fine. The world can support more than one map or one ideology.
I think it would be hard for Google for a couple of reasons. First is the investment. Who wants to be the guy to write off billions of dollars? Second, the map isn’t actually good enough yet for them, and they’re not done yet. They’re trying to get cars to drive themselves which in part requires great maps, and they’re not there yet.
Will it ever happen? Eventually. I think it depends how long Google (and OSM) lasts, which depends on them (G) finding more than one business model, which enters in to the realm of speculation.
Think about it like this: Would you bet people wouldn’t use wikipedia? In the end, if OSM is good enough at zero price, why wouldn’t you use it?
alexandreleroux: I heard lots of folk in the geospatial community claiming that it’s OSM’s ODbL license that reduces OSM data reuses.
The ODbL is a convenient thing to blame for not using OSM. I haven’t found a use case yet where it wasn’t really about something else, like a business decision. For example, some don’t want to contribute addressing back to OSM and so “the license is bad”. It’s like saying wikipedia’s license is “bad” because I have to credit wikipedia when I use it.
Is the license perfect? Absolutely not. But we’re breaking new ground here. There isn’t another large open data project close to the scope and size. Could we go public domain? Yes, but then it’s an open question as to whether it would succeed without incentives to contribute anything to the pot. Hence discussion of Linux vs. BSD.
smellsliketuna: What future projects are you looking to get involved in?
I think there’s a lot out there in the world that can be fixed. Search can be a lot better as an example. There are a lot of closed databases in the world that could be freed up. It feels like local businesses should have better services to help them with their online presence.
Then there are simple things. I’m noodling with this: http://www.my-evangelist.com
(Ed.) A pitch from another reddit post: > It feels like companies and startups need evangelists more than ever, but they’re hard to find and retain. Why not contract that?
I’ve been an evangelist and hired them in the past. It’s hard and expensive. Then when you have an evangelist, you have to pay a bunch of money to fly them around to conferences. They burn out. And then, when you go to a conference, most of the people manning booths aren’t super excited or inviting.
So I figured, why not offer evangelism as a service? Help man your booth, plan great talks, run and attend meetups, help with online evangelism. Maybe you just want to know what’s going on at conferences.
It’s not a replacement if you want a full-time person who truly believes in your product, but it’s a way to fill out your team or hire someone to do a conference for you here or there, far cheaper than hiring someone.
dv7d: How does the future of OSM look like?
Every day that goes by makes it harder to justify not using OSM in some way, because the map keeps getting better and the price is staying the same. I’ve said enough about addressing elsewhere here already, but it’s the missing piece.