New contributor experience

Posted by brittag on 6 August 2013 in English (English). Last updated on 7 August 2013.

Writing this down since it may be useful for other beginners:

My biggest confusion at first was that my edits didn’t show up right away, and the interface provided no hint about why that was happening (so I wondered if I was doing something wrong). I googled it and found out that delays are normal, but the estimate in the FAQ said “a few minutes”, which hasn’t seemed accurate for me - my edits often seem to take hours to show up. So I just have to do my edits and then check back on them later; as a newbie, it’s important to me to verify my edits to make sure I did them correctly. Eventually I read the extended technical explanation for delays on the Q&A site, and it helped me be patient with the process; I’m not a programmer, but I work with software, and I can appreciate descriptions of complicated caching systems. :)

My next stumble was when I found editing a set of park boundaries difficult to do properly (since attempting to fix the boundaries seemed to delete the adjoining streets). I asked the OSM IRC channel for help (which I found by googling “OSM IRC”, since I’m familiar with IRC and like using it), and their comments suggested trying a different editor - which worked! Fixing the boundaries was much easier in iD than in Potlatch (which I’d been using since it’s the default editor), even though I’ve stuck with Potlatch for most edits since it provides lots of point-and-click options for adding and annotating points of interest and other details. I learned that if something is hard/tricky, I should try a different editor.

I only ran into the Good practice wiki page and Bing wiki page by accident (when trying to help an even-newer person on IRC), but they’re very helpful. On the “good practice” page, “One feature, one OSM element” confirmed for me a best practice I’d guessed about, and I appreciated learning why it was OK to trace from Bing (I’d been wondering about that).

I’d heard about the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team a while back via people I follow on Twitter and via a presentation at OSCON about HFLOSS, and checking out the HOT OSM site turned out to be a good candidate for solving my current stumbling block of “what should I try next after fixing the obvious problems in my neighborhood?”: the Tasking Manager - nice!

Postscript: I just noticed another issue - I’d had this New Diary Entry page open for several days while writing down notes, and finally I clicked “Preview” and confirmed that it looked good enough to post, but when I clicked “Save” I got an error message - I was no longer logged into OpenStreetMap! I would have lost my post text if I hadn’t had a copy of it in a text editor. It would be nice for “Preview” to somehow check that the person is still logged in, to avoid losing posts.

Comment from mikelmaron on 7 August 2013 at 02:53

Great notes on the new experience. I think that feedback about tile rendering delay should be noted in the iD walkthrough, or on commit (at least the first couple times). And lots of other useful ideas. Welcome to OSM!

Comment from Tom Chance on 7 August 2013 at 08:49

Yes, welcome and good feedback! Thanks.

On your first issue, I think it is a bit slow at the moment because we recently switched the technology that renders the maps, and I think it is taking some time to clear a backlog:

Comment from dcp on 7 August 2013 at 09:49

I like your perseverance. You will be a good contributor to OSM. Yes, OSM has a very steep learning curve and only those who read and understand the instructions will be excellent contributors. Even then you will still make mistakes as we all do but most of them come naturally from beginners. Don’t worry about them though and ask for help whenever you need it. And be careful when correcting the work of others: You may not initially see the relations, multipolygons, turn restrictions, routes, etc. and change them. Many of my complex work has been eliminated, wrongly changed. I have come to expect it as being normal and it is equally important to keep enthusiastic newbies. You are very, very welcome.

There are a number of error-check applications that I use to check my work (and that of others). Check them out. Examples:,duplicate_ways,intersections,intersection_lines,ring_not_closed_hull,ring_not_closed,unconnected_end_nodes,touching_inner_rings_hull,touching_inner_rings,role_mismatch_hull,role_mismatch,duplicate_tags_hull,duplicate_tags,multipolygons_type_is_boundary,type_is_boundary,ways,role_markers,way_end_nodes,way_nodes

Studying these errors illustrates the errors that we all make. So don’t forget: People that contribute a lot make a lot of mistakes. People who contribute less make fewer mistakes. But if you contribute nothing then you make no mistakes. So olease make a lot of mistakes!

Comment from sejohnson on 7 August 2013 at 16:57

This is great feedback both for new users, but also for us more experienced mappers who need to bear in mind the experience of those just getting started. I’m going to share your notes with a group of new mappers I work with in a government agency. I think it will help orient them and perhaps encourage them to comment on their own experiences as new mappers.

Comment from lxbarth on 7 August 2013 at 19:46

Thank you for taking your time to write this up:

My biggest confusion at first was that my edits didn’t show up right away, and the interface provided no hint about why that was happening (so I wondered if I was doing something wrong).

Any specific POI’s you couldn’t find in iD that make you switch back to Potlatch? iD is the intended successor to Potlatch so any suggestions to improve iD are more than welcome. Feel free to file requests directly to the GitHub repository for iD:

Comment from eimer42 on 28 August 2013 at 18:03

I liked your statement ‘I’m not a programmer, but I work with software’ which applies to me as well. And I have made the experience, too, that it is not that easy getting started with new OSM features etc. Please keep on mapping and blogging such helpful beginners experiences!

Comment from madnag4u on 1 September 2013 at 02:23

Welcome to OSM! Great job documenting your newbie experience! When I discovered OSM, I was too scared to even begin editing. And Potlatch was not helping matters, even with the walk through. I had to read through the wiki several times in order to get comfortable with all the map features. I must have used Potlatch very less and I quickly jumped to JOSM and found it more comfortable.

Good luck mapping!

Comment from brittag on 12 September 2013 at 11:20

A belated thank you to you all for the (slightly overwhelming) welcome! sejohnson has it right - helping experienced mappers and OSM developers understand the new-mapper experience is part of my goal.

Tom, my experience with edits taking more than a few minutes to show up was happening in July, before the stylesheet change. :)

dcp, those are some cool error-checking links, thanks! The learning curve actually wasn’t as steep as I expected - I was imagining something more complicated than this point-and-click interface for the basic stuff. I wish I’d taken the leap into editing years ago when I first found an error, but there’s a difficult-to-explain mental hurdle between browsing a map and clicking the “edit” button. Part of the hurdle for me was being afraid of making a mistake without realizing it + that mistake lingering in the map for a long time, because map diffs seem so much harder to check than the text diffs that I’m used to (on Wikipedia for example). Eventually I just had to commit to trying it and seeing what happened. Maybe there’s some way OSM can better communicate a message to newcomers that our inevitable mistakes won’t hurt the project, like Wikipedia’s “be bold” message in its core philosophy.

lxbarth, you answered my implied question of how to actually help fix these things - thank you so much. I was pleased when I recently made an edit with iD and saw the note about map update delay times - I’m proud to have contributed in a small way to that happening.

I’m delighted that this User Diaries system exists, by the way. Despite participating in software mailing lists before, I wouldn’t have felt confident enough to go seek out an OSM mailing list and post my unsolicited thoughts to everyone, but posting to a “user diary” felt fine - that it’s “mine”, so I get to put my thoughts here.

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