Note: I’m a not a native English writer and for this topic I’d be more comfortable writing in French, but I wanted to have a wider audience here. Please keep it in mind while reading.
OSM contributor for a while, I’m also working in a small company that use OSM data from times to times. To better promote OSM, I think we really need a better openstreetmap.org website. In this post, I’d like to suggest some points of improvement for the openstreetmap.org website.
My experience in promoting OSM
For some years, I’m doing a lot of promotion of OSM to various public, mostly as an OSM volunteer but also for my company. I have spoken about OSM to university students, municipalities representatives, the regional public sector (firemen, road network agency), associations (active in environment protection, local history, tourism) and some private companies (i.e., in electricity network management). At OSM-Belgium, we also set up a simple email address (email@example.com) where any organisation which has a particular demand with respect to OSM can reach the community. Therefore I also get some requests from this address from companies or non-profit organisations for using OSM in their activities. Usually they only have a very vague idea of what OSM is, and it is not uncommon that they think of OSM as a software or another thing that OSM is definitely not (I’ve once read a student report where OpenStreetMap was compared to OpenLayers and LeafletJS!). So I’ve wrote plenty of emails presenting and explaining OSM, usually with links to some OSM Wiki pages, learnOSM, and/or overpass-turbo queries. Our incredible OSM ecosystem of software, maps, web services, projects is just amazing, but I sometimes feel frustrated that some core functionalities of OSM are actually not on openstreetmap.org.
Lack of integration of basic tools
For instance, last week it was my municipality which is interested in using OSM for their inventory of trash bins and benches. I’ve answered with sending an email with some links to overpass-turbo.eu with the ad-hoc queries, just to show them how well the trash bins and benches were already mapped in OSM. But why do we need to rely on overpass-turbo.eu for that? Why this strange name “overpass-turbo” ;-) ? If you are outside Europe, the “.eu” extension might just look weird (e.g., the recipient might reasonably think : Is it something funded by EU commission? Is it valid outside Europe?). If overpass is an API for OSM, why is there even no OSM logo or link on overpass-turbo.eu? I know that Overpass is an open source software and that there are other instances for this service (see here). But since overpass-turbo has become de facto the default OSM API, I think it really deserves to be on osm.org. for instance on overpass.osm.org or, even simpler, query.osm.org.
Overpass is not the only “OSM standard” that lacks integration with osm.org. While Nominatim and some routers have been progressively included on osm.org, the open source state-of-the-art geocoders solutions (Photon, OSMNames, …) are still not part of it. We should consider whether websites such as learnOSM, switch2osm, osmose.osm.fr and possibly others should be integrated to osm.org. Today, these websites are core elements of the OSM project, so they deserve to be recognized as core susbsystems of osm.org. Currently, the user interface of these websites is not harmonized with the one of osm.org. As a result, for the OSM beginner or for a potential user, it is hard to understand as a first sight if you can actually trust them or if they are really part of the OSM project.
You may think that stuffs like a web extension, lacking of user interface harmonization or the presence of a OSM logo or not are pure details but I think it is actually more important that we think, especially when we need to attract and retain people that have just heard about OSM. It is about encouraging newcomers to stay longer in the project. It is about trust in our project.
A better social network
As many of us, I’m passing a lot of time to monitor the activity of new contributors. For this, I can rely on a nice tool that was set up by the Belgian community, welcome.osm.be, that automatically detects all new users that make their first contributions in Belgium. I’m also monitoring the activities of my OSM “friends”, usually some active (or less active) mappers in my neighbourhood, to see how well we collectively progress on common or self-attributed goals toward a better OSM. But this “social” aspect of my OSM activities is not facilitated by the interface of osm.org. The pages osm.org/user/myusername lack many functionalities of a social network. There is a messaging interface which is not very user-friendly, and I’d love to see something more convenient, such as a geolocalised chat. Many times I had forgotten the exact spelling of a contributor username and, to my knowledge, there is no tool to search contributors by their username. BTW, finding active contributors in a given area is not easy: we can rely on this nice tool of Pascal Neis or this one from Martijn van Exel, but why the hell this is it not integrated to osm.org/user/myusername?
We all know maintaining the motivations of the OSM contributors is a key issue for the project. Tools that monitor the achievement of contributors, such as this one, are important for maintaining this motivation. It is true that some user rankings can have drawbacks such as people stupidly competing with others by pushing low-value changesets. We also have to seriously think about avoiding some hard-core contributors become toxicly addicted to contributing to OSM. At the same time, a friendly competition between mappers can help to have more useful and long-standing contributions. Again, why this kind of tool is not integrated to osm.org?
I’m usually not writing OSM-related stuff in my OSM diary. The editor for writing diary entry is not very user-friendly. It seems that we cannot insert images directly when writing posts, so you need to know how to host images or videos to write a post with some media. The editor is basic, with almost no text formatting. This is probably why many users prefer to post in their own blog instead on osm.org. This is not bad, but is quite a shame because the diary should be actually simpler than making a blog for the OSM contributors who have no blog. This adds another technological barrier for contributing to OSM, and my feeling and experience is that many enthusiast people about mapping does not feel comfortable enough with OSM because it is technically too hard to contribute and to participate in the project.
Lastly the overall user interface of osm.org does not look like a 2019-web interface. I don’t know if this is restricted to the French version of osm.org/user/myusername, but there are even some display bugs such as “ ” literally displayed on this page. The question of having a sober but fancy interface is is important, especially if we want to bring young contributors to OSM.
How to move forward?
I don’t know the technical or organisational implications of these suggestions. I even never filled an issue on https://github.com/openstreetmap/openstreetmap-website/, nor resolved a single one. Of course, it is easy to just complaining. I don’t want to blame the OSMF nor the current maintainers of osm.org: I’m sure they’ve made a huge work mostly on a voluntary basis, and I’d like to thank them for that. But since OSM is growing, I think, we, the contributors, and also the users of OSM, deserve a better front-door for our amazing project. This may probably need a huge work which, IMHO, should be community-deliberated and then subcontracted. This will let our community focused on what we can do the best: community building, crafting incredible applications with OSM and mapping.