How We Improve OpenStreetMap

Posted by felskia on 19 April 2018 in English.

At Development Seed we’re always looking for ways to contribute to open source projects. Recently, we started thinking about how we might be able to help improve the OpenStreetMap (OSM) ecosystem of tools. Of course we had our suspicions, but to insure whatever we came up with had the whole OSM community in mind, we started with a round of user interviews. Below you’ll find our process and findings, in hopes that we can all start supporting tools to serve the greater community.


User interviews are essentially what they sound like, interviewing users to better understand who they are, what they do, how they use OSM tools, and what they feel could be improved within the OSM ecosystem. To try and capture the opinions of such a large group, we broke up the community into 3 different groups:

  • Inexperienced mappers, ones who had only mapped a few times
  • Experienced mappers, including people who map for their work vs people who map on their own
  • People who want map data, people at organizations like American Red Cross or HOT

We interviewed at least 4 people from each group, to ensure that we were hearing from a number of different voices. For the 19 different people we talked to, from Belgium to Japan, we asked them a base set of questions, and asked follow up questions based on the discussion. There were a lot of interesting patterns and ideas that emerged from our conversations:

Having a community is key

  • Most mappers want to map what they know and are concerned about what is nearby to them. This seemed to outweigh the desire to contribute to humanitarian efforts, although that did make mappers feel as if they were doing something good.
  • New mappers often learn more quickly when they have a community, than they would otherwise. Being a part of the community is a huge motivator for people to map.
  • Having someone who can give feedback and make mappers feel welcome increases retention.

Understanding completeness and complexity drives motivation

  • Community feedback and support motivates a lot of mappers.
  • Completeness is a huge driver for many mappers. Knowing what is new and what needs to be mapped, helps them to map more.
  • Understanding, very clearly, how a task is going to help people. Mappers who were involved in humanitarian mapping often didn’t know what the purpose of the task was, which made them significantly less motivated.
  • Communicating the complexity of a task helps mappers better choose a task that fits their skill level. Knowing that a task takes 10 mins or otherwise, is extremely valuable to guide mapping efforts. The skill level of the mappers and the density of the area that is being mapped should be thoroughly considered.
  • Completing a task in 10 mins or less. When tasks are only 10 minutes long, mappers often complete more tasks than they would otherwise.
  • Many mappers talked about not having a good way to see what is unmapped, especially when they’re away from their computers. Not having an easy way to see this information hurts their ability to collect that data when they’re outside of their homes, in their local communities, or are out in the field.

Better onboarding and guides help new mappers

  • Many interviewees commented on how new mappers often don’t understand what OSM is or what it can do. To increase their understanding, more experienced mappers often point them to local communities, the wiki, walkthroughs and most importantly, applications. All of these things are hard to come across or know how to access from the homepage.
  • Adding metadata is a challenge for new mappers. iD’s interface for presets leaves users confused and often leads them select the wrong attribute. Improving autocomplete search and reimagining how new mappers interact with this complicated subject would help.
  • Many mappers are using a trackpad to map and not a mouse, so they often don’t notice the right click features.
  • People learn better by doing. Giving them a way to do this will increase their knowledge.

Being able to easily understand and discover local standards will improve quality

Communities often have their own standards or features that are unique to an area. People who aren’t engaged in the local communities, who don’t know what these derivations are, can sometimes do more harm that good. It would be ideal to be able to showcase those local variations so that mappers are more aware of them.

Learning about other mappers helps coordination

Many interviewees commented on how it would be nice to know more information about a mapper. For example, what kind of skills they have, features they’re interested in mapping, potentially how responsive they are to messages. Knowing more information about a mapper could help better build a community, giving people a better understanding of which individuals to reach out to.

Improving offline OSM capabilities will reach new users

Many people in the field or people who often don’t have good wifi connections talked about this. One OSM member commented on how it’s been hard building the community without a way to demo OSM offline.

Other ideas

  • There is a need for an easier and better Overpass, or alternatives.
  • Creating a better building tool for iD.
  • Improve tools to align imagery faster.
  • Better ways to deal with multi-polygon relationships.
  • Being able to have more layers in OSM

Conclusions Per Audience

Another interesting way to look at the data collected is by the different audiences.

People or organisations who use OSM data

  • They want easier ways to import large amounts of information
  • Ways to filter down data - see features that are relevant to them in certain areas
  • Easier ways to export data
  • Being able to map things that don’t belong on OSM, e.g. minefields

People who manage teams of mappers

  • Their wants are mainly focused around getting a better overview of what mappers are doing. Also, being able to show progress in what they’re doing. They want things like:
  • Dashboards
    • Leaderboards (e.g. features in Missing Maps)
    • Being able to see who’s mapping where
    • Seeing change over time
  • Easier ways to get new mappers up to speed so that there are fewer errors

Experienced Mappers

  • Better community
  • Being able to know what is missing or what has changed in their neighborhoods/areas they map
  • Better information in one place. There is a need for more user friendly information on OSM intricacies, and complex tasks such as mapping cycleways.

New Mappers

  • Better tools to help them understand the OSM ecosystem
    • Better way of tagging
    • Better access to lists of resources
    • Better understanding of how HOT and OSM work together (for new mappers there seems to be much confusion over the interaction between the two tabs. They will often close Tasking Manager which obviously creates much more work for them when they’ve completed a task).
    • Better tutorials (Shorter so that they can learn a little bit at a time and/or more easily rewatch a video around a particular topic when they’re confronted with that topic).
    • Encouragement
    • Better community (less intimidating and having a better understanding of how to access the community)

Overall, there is a lot of good potential work here. At Development Seed, our next steps will be coming up with potential projects that fit the needs of the community, as outlined above. Of course, we’d love to hear any suggestions for how to keep in contact with the community or any thoughts about projects to improve OSM moving forward.

Find our blog post here.


Comment from KMR31 on 20 April 2018 at 13:08

Thank you for all Development Seed is doing. Your list of possible improvements sounds right on. I might add to future changes for editing in OSM iD: 1) add Strava Slide for path alignment 2) add the Strava Heatmap as a background overlay.

Thanks again. * - Kimball * Mapper since 2015 * Just under 200 edits/contributions so far.

Comment from Omnific on 20 April 2018 at 13:49

One of the minor suggestions is one of the best: “Creating a better building tool for iD.” JOSM has a fantastic, intuitive building tool as a plug-in that allows a four sided building to be completed in less than half the clicks (3/2 vs 4 in iD + 2 to square + 2/3 to tag as a building) that would be great for HOT and reduce complaints about new users not squaring buildings. It also makes the process much faster and more enjoyable. This is a readily needed improvement for iD.

Comment from dave683 on 21 April 2018 at 13:22

@Omnific yea thats the 1 thing i would love to see added to ID. another plus for josm is that you can make complex building shapes using that building tool to create the smaller parts of each building and then join/combine them all into a single building. its quicker in some cases than tracing the outline fromt scratch. ID has a merge option but it only groups things together unfortunately

Comment from mcld on 24 April 2018 at 08:30

Regarding this one: “Being able to know what is missing or what has changed in their neighborhoods/areas they map”:

Improving the “History” has always seemed like a missing piece of the puzzle. The “History” of edits on the main website interface is rather unhelpful since many systems (such as wheelmap) commit changes whose bounding box seems to cover the whole of the Earth - so when you look at the History, you’re not really able to focus on “changes that happened here”.

There was a project called OWL to make a new improved history view but it stalled.

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