courtiney's Diary

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How to Tell a Story | a recap of my SotM EU 2023 presentation

Posted by courtiney on 19 November 2023 in English. Last updated on 20 November 2023.

I am continuously surprised by how few people outside of the community know the story of OpenStreetMap. Coming into this community from a world of writers and communicators who spend their days spinning up stories–some of them more worthy than others–sometimes feels like visiting another planet. For writers, the worst crime is what old time newspaper editors used to call “burying the lede”, meaning hide the thing that makes the story interesting. OSM might just be the biggest buried lede in the history of storytelling.

It’s surprisingly hard to tell a good story. Everyone can type an email, but not everyone can make it interesting enough to read. Stories tend to have a “beginning, middle and end,” but so do research reports, tax forms, and parking tickets. Facts and data can add up to a story, but not without interpretation. Telling someone “about” something is not a story, either. If I tell you that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is about a hobbit who travels to the ends of the world to get rid of a magic ring, would you know what happened in the story?

This is why I was at the State of the Map Europe in Antwerp, Belgium last week to talk about storytelling. title slide

Part 1: What is the Problem?

The “problem” at the heart of your story doesn’t have to be a catastrophe or even especially challenging, it just has to be the thing that causes an action.

It could be that you see the world as a map topology, which means you notice when things are missing and could cause confusion or discomfort: street signs, roads, railways, address points, cooling stations, electric vehicle charging stations.

Maybe it’s something even more simple: you enjoy using public bookcases and find it annoying that you have to pay to register a public bookcase on the official “Free Little Library” map.

slide 2

Maybe it’s something that is urgent: a devastating earthquake has happened and emergency vehicles can no longer use existing maps to find and help people.

Maybe the problem comes in the form of a villain: you’re frustrated by the UK Ordnance Survey, which won’t release its data for free, so you need a different way of getting geospatial data.

In Antwerp, my particular problem was that my presenting partner, Kate Varfalameyeva, a Belarusian Youthmapper, based in Arizona, who is an expert on social media, found out at the last minute that she wasn’t able to attend. This meant that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver the presentation that we had planned. Kate is the one who knows how to leverage social media to create influence. I’m the one who specializes in using stories to build brands. Without her, it was much more difficult for me to present data-driven, actionable steps for building an ambassadorship program.

A good story always starts at the intersection of what you want the world to be and what it really is.

slide 1

Part Two: Who Has Come to the Rescue?

There’s a line in a poem by the American poet Stephen Dunn that says:

“a hero is a person who blunders into an open cave”

I love the idea that to be a hero, you just have to be someone willing to take a step forward into the unknown.

For example, Belgian OSM’ers Joost Schouppe and Ben Abelshausen, who noticed that, without a global SotM, there would be no in-person meet-up for the European communities in 2023 and decided to figure out how to host a SotM Europe. Or, Marjan Van de Kauter, who had an idea about how her (and my former) employer, TomTom, might be able to support the OSM Belgium community in planning such an event. photo 1

Or, Ilya Zverev and Gregory Marler who got up on a stage in front of hundreds of people and led icebreaker exercises that got us talking to each other. My favorite was when they had us write something we wanted to learn, and then had us crumple up the pieces of paper and throw them around like snowballs. It made us laugh, and caused our ideas to mix and melt together in interesting ways.

Ilya Gregory

Or, Steve Coast who said ‘yes’ to stepping in and helping me out by talking a bit about what it was like to be the original storyteller of OpenStreetMap (and, let’s be honest, to lend a bit of celebrity excitement to help fill the room.)

Or, OSM user @koreller who saw a tweet showing a map of a new distinct of Pyongyang and said to himself, “Yes, damn it! Why hasn’t anyone mapped this district right in the centre?” and then went on to realize that there were even more opportunities to map. He writes,

  • it was also the Songhwa area. (April 2022)
  • And the island in the centre too! (April 2022)
  • And the central district, the Phyongchon district, there was everything to do! (mid-May 2022)
  • And now why not tackle the big 1980s district, Tongil Avenue, in the south of Pyongyang, which hasn’t been done either! (end May 2022)
  • And the district to the west, Kwangbok, also needs to be done! (early June 2022)

Notice how he builds suspense for his story as he unfolds this list. It took@koreller one year and one month to map Pyongyang, a detail that makes the whole thing seem a bit like a fairytale.

This, my friends, is an excellent example of a hero, walking into an open cave to solve a problem.
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Part Three: What Are The Interesting Details?

The key word to emphasize here is “interesting.” It can be difficult to know what is interesting to other people. You have to be curious about what your audience thinks about, which is different than what you think about. This takes empathy and a knack for knowing what to leave out of a story as well as what to put in it. It is one of the reasons why writers should be paid for what they do–we are good at things like this.

I call it “being able to see what glitters.” I look for the thing that captures my creative imagination, which is not the same thing as something I “should” be interested in, or that I think my boss (or friend or mom or whomever has an opinion) wants me to be interested in. It’s also almost never what the person who is telling the story thinks is interesting. It’s always some random thing that has to do with that mix of empathy, curiosity, and curation.

For example, the OpenStreetMap servers are named for dragons, which is an important detail for anyone who is not a sys admin, because otherwise, why would a server be interesting. To name them after dragons is a very glittery thing–it creates a terrific visual, right out of the gate. It anthropomorphizes a server into something you could love, or fear, depending on if you think you’re on the same team as the dragon. It also evokes the historic medieval cartographers who wrote “Here be dragons” at the edges of their maps, which lays claim to 1000 years of mapmaking in one simple server name. Pop wow–that is a good detail.

Data is a great source of detail, but tread carefully because a number that represents something that is obvious to you, is probably not obvious to your audience. Plus, data always needs context.

Case in point: when people inside of mapmaking companies do their first Google search about OpenStreetMap, they often find the graph that shows that 10 million people have created profiles and, too often, don’t read any further. I’ve seen this data point used badly a couple of dozen times in the last four years. As you all know, it doesn’t mean that 10 million people are actively mapping now, nor even that 10 million people have actively mapped over the last 19+ years. It just means “created a profile.”

In this example, what is the data telling us? slide libya

We discussed this in the workshop and the story on that one is still pending, though we all agreed there probably is one.

That said, there are plenty of vividly interesting data points for OSM. I saw one just yesterday: as of June 2017 there were 89 million tags. (source) That, to me, is a detail that glitters. It shows the “folksonomy” aspect of the OSM taxonomy–the way it is ever-growing-and infinitely adaptable to whatever humanity needs. No corporate map could ever come close to that kind of feature diversity, which is why OSM is the one map that truly reflects the world as it is.

Sometimes the detail is a tool or new source of imagery. These are the OSM versions of what the writer Joseph Campbell referred to as a magic “elixir” in his classic description of storytelling “The Hero’s Journey.” One such tool is the open internet, itself, and more specifically, the many thousands of communication channels, forums, listservs, group chats, and GitHub issues and comments that are the magic carpet of the entire community. Without the ability to document everything that people needed to know about the project for free, in the beginning, in a place that everyone could access, the project could never have grown to its present global scale.

The same could be said about language localization and the machine translation capabilities that scaffold the humans who have been translating the project since the beginning.

slide channel

The fact that anywhere you go in the world you can go online and learn what you need to know to make an edit in OSM is, when you think about it, astonishing. The fact that you can ask a technical question that will be answered, expertly, by someone who likely lives in another part of the world and may not even speak the same language as you is miraculous.

The fact that a very earnest mapper might get impatient for an answer to a question and type HURY THE HELL into the chat and have it become a meme for people in about 20 different countries is just pure comedy.

slide language

Part Four: What’s the Happy Outcome?

That old saying that “it’s the journey not the destination” is true. We’re now almost to the end of our story, and we know what the happy outcomes are already:

We’ve faced down the obstacles and villains: the missing maps and presentation partners, the proprietary organizations that impede free and open source data, the fact that mapping and geospatial data are a bit difficult for a lot of people to understand.

We’ve been given companionship and inspiration by our fellow heroes and travelers: spent a year and a month mapping in Pyongyang, captured two new dragons to our stable of servers, planned a conference, posted a thousand comments, and worked into small groups to practice telling our stories.

We’ve even solved the problem of a mistake on the lat/lon of the event t-shirt design by turning it into a mystery about a missing candy jar, proving that a good story can make even a wrong turning into a bit of fun.

Now, we are just tired and dirty hobbits of mapmaking, ready to find a warm fire and some Belgian beer.

There’s just one more thing to do and that is to ask you, What’s your OSM story?
I hope you’ll post it online wherever you interact with people–not just OSM’ers–but other friends and family, too. I hope you use a hashtag like #whatdoyoumap or #mapwithOSM and tag @openstreetmap so I and other members of the Communications Working Group (CWG) will see you.

For more of the many, many stories from State of the Map Europe 2023, here’s the program and here is OSM Belgium’s LinkedIn post. You can also search #SotMEU in all the usual spaces.

For more of my writing:

end image Image Source: @MarjanVan

Location: White River Junction, Hartford, Windsor County, Vermont, 03784, United States

How to Use OSM Channel Data for Effective Communications

Posted by courtiney on 11 July 2023 in English. Last updated on 24 September 2023.

Last month, at SotMUS in Richmond, Virginia, I, along with Marjan Van de Kauter and Keara Dennehy, presented on “How to Use OSM Channel Data for Effective Communications”


The genesis of the project comes from Marjan Van de Kauter’s and my work piloting an OSM community engagement program for TomTom. To make sure we were communicating about TT’s organised editing correctly, we began tracking and organizing communications channels. As the list grew, we realized we needed a better tool, so we worked with a TomTom developer to build a webscraper that could show us in which channels the community was active.

Later, we brought Keara on board as a business analyst who could build a more robust tool to manage all of the data. By this time, we had realized that this information was something that the community could use at the global, regional and local level.

Then, when I left TomTom, but kept volunteering for the CWG and the OSM/F board on fundraising and communications, we saw additional applications for the data. So, we decided to create a proof of concept for a communication channel data store and present our first efforts and findings at the 2023 SOTM US in Richmond.

The Context:

As background, Marjan and I shared some of the results from the Communications Survey we conducted in May. I wrote about it here. Some of the findings were skewed, but we identified some interesting trends, including:

  • Some respondents reported that they felt the forums have a hostile tone (35%)
  • Many respondents said they were able to keep up with the conversations, both locally (60%) and globally (49%). Nearly 70% said that they got at least one useful response if they posted a question
  • Respondents were more likely to read than post: 379 said they read daily or weekly and 152 said they posted daily or weekly
  • Older respondents were more likely to use the Listservs or Community Forum, whereas younger respondents were more likely to use Discord or Reddit

Although the channels are seen as sometimes hostile and often noisy, and adoption of the various platforms varies widely, people are able to get the information they need. It speaks to the shared purpose of the community.

The Channel Data Store:

The methodology for creating the channel data store was roughly as follows: Keara and the other members of the TomTom analysis team used the forum API to scrape the community forums and a webscraper for the mailing lists. The team also used the Azure language detection tool to add language information to the data returned from the data scraping process. User information was anonymized, and message content removed, before the data was stored in the team’s data lake. Visuals were created in PowerBI , a closed-source tool used by the data team at TomTom. The proof of concept for the data store was based on data from January 2022 to May 2023 and contained the following:


  • 60 community forums
  • 217 mailing lists
  • 86,177 messages


  • 3,039 in community forums
  • 1,698 in mailing lists
  • 76 languages (automatically detected)

Of those 86,177 messages, 56,356 were from European sources. These results were not surprising, because editing volume is higher in Europe than the rest of the world, and the European communities tend to favor the mailing lists and community forums. We’d expect to see more volume from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America in Telegram and other channels. From this data, we extracted a few interesting trends:

  • More than half of the messages posted in the forums and listservs are in languages other than English
  • English is more often used for global topics, such as “Tagging” and “Foundation”
  • Individual channels trend toward a single language, not multiple languages
  • Adoption of the Community Forums is mixed
  • Channel activity is driven by a few frequent posters.


Our Proof of Concept raises a lot of interesting questions that we would like to pursue. Some of them include:

  • Are these frequent posters carrying a burden of disseminating the knowledge across OSM?
  • What is the best way to post about a topic that needs to be seen by the entire global community?
  • What are the effects of the increased use of new channels such as Telegram and Matrix?
  • How does the quality and availability of language localization affect access to posting and knowledge?
  • How does the quality and availability of language localization limit participation and knowledge sharing from some regions more than others?
  • How can we reduce channel noise for better all-community decision-making?
  • What could we learn if we could measure impressions, including liking and saving activity (which we can’t do in the listservs)?
  • How can we use this data to support fundraising and OSM messaging?
  • How can we use this data to support team work and inclusivity in OSM collaborations?

Next Steps:

We have prioritized two next steps for this project:

  • We are looking into developing an open-source version of the communication channel data store to share with the community, so any member can use it to analyze communications in OSM and make data-backed communications choices. We are also interested in adding data from other community channel types. If you’d like to get involved, please reach out to Marjan.

  • We are also looking for help analyzing user trends that can support best practices for communicating cross-culturally on distributed teams, including creating a data-backed OSM communications guide. If you are interested in getting involved with this work, please reach out to Courtney.

We’re also happy to hear any other questions or suggestions you may have about this project and potential applications of the data.


Marjan Van de Kauter

Keara Dennehy

Data-Backed Communications and OSM - Update

Posted by courtiney on 1 May 2023 in English. Last updated on 26 May 2023.

Hi, everyone,

Between the end of April and mid-May, my former TomTom colleagues * and I posted a communications survey with the goal of gathering some information about how OSM users experience OSM community communications. Now that the survey is complete, I want to give it context as part of our presentation at State of the Map US in Richmond, Virginia.

At SotM US, we will be presenting on How to Use Data for Effective Community Communication. (The project is supported by TomTom and informed by work that two of us have done for the CWG, but it’s not formally a TomTom or OSMF project.) Our primary source of data for this presentation is derived from a tool that scrapes publicly available, anonymized, channel data from OSM listservs and forums. To augment this data, we created a communications survey. We knew that we would not be able to get a broadly representative cross-section of the OSM user demographic with our limited time and resources, but we did believe we would get some additional details that could help inform our approach.

The survey had a mix of free answer and multiple choice questions about demographics, local community involvement, and experiences using the various forums, lists and other channels. We created 12 versions of the same survey to post in 12 different channel types so that we could get a sense of the user demographics per channel: community forum, mailing list, Telegram, Twitter, Discord, Slack, Mastodon, Reddit, IRC/Matrix, weekly OSM, Facebook, LinkedIn. We received 464 responses, with more responses from Europe and North America than from Latin America, Asia and Africa. We will present a few of the observable trends at our presentation, with the caveat that they are more impressionistic than representative.

Then, we will present the channel data, which is a much larger set. We will also include details on our method and processes. Finally, we’ll give attendees the chance to work with the data themselves. Some of the preliminary questions that I, as a communications professional (not as a member of the CWG), think would be interesting to consider include:

  • When is important to use English and when is it important to use a local language?
  • How could the channel usage data be used to help improve OSM collaboration on local projects and global projects?
  • How could studying channel usage trends help new users to onboard to OSM?
  • Does the data suggest the possibility of one or two channels that could be considered “primary” or “official”? What would a data-backed approach to such an analysis look like?
  • What can’t we learn from the data? For example, it is not easy to measure “impressions” i.e. people who are reading, not posting.

Of course, the community can and should look at the survey data and the channel data and form their own questions! This is just the beginning of a long inquiry.

What’s next? We will present at SotM US on Friday, 9 Jun 2023, EDT-16:30/UTC-04:00.


Courtney Williamson, person, OSMF Communication Working Group, and fundraising volunteer

* Marjan Van de Kauter: MarjanVan,(TomTom community engager, and OSMF Communication Working Group member)

Keara Dennehy (TomTom business analyst)

L.J. Lambert (TomTom business analyst)

Location: White River Junction, Hartford, Windsor County, Vermont, 03784, United States