OpenStreetMap

The OSM community deserves a better openstreetmap.org

Posted by juminet on 4 December 2019 in English (English)

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 (community@osm.be) 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.

Comment from Andy Allan on 5 December 2019 at 10:04

It’s great to see discussion like this, and I share a lot of your feelings about the site. To say there’s room for improvement would be an understatement! I particularly note the lack of user search, and the rest of the underdeveloped ‘community’ parts of the site. I think it is illustrative that we have the ability to “browse relations” and “node history” but no way to find other community members. (I prefer thinking in terms of ‘community support features’ rather than ‘social networking’ since that term has a lot of negative connotations).

However, there’s no shortage of idea or wishes to improve what we have. What we are really missing are the people who are willing and able to do the coding, design, and other development work. Whether those people are volunteers or paid for doesn’t matter to me, but at the moment we just don’t have enough people involved. So progress is slow.

I’ve spent the last three years relentlessly working on making it easier to contribute to the development. You can read more on my personal blog if you are interested. My own todo list will keep me busy for at least the next 5 years, never mind all the big ideas that are out there.

So I encourage you to get involved in the issue tracker to get more familiar with what’s going on, and get familiar with what will be needed to make a impact on our progress. And again, I think it’s the lack of contributors, not the lack of ideas, that is the most important thing here.

Comment from Thibaultmol on 5 December 2019 at 10:23

Absolutely! I agree with this as well. If I told my municipality about OSM and they just went to the first thing they find on Google, they wouldn’t know ‘what’ OSM is and stands for / makes possible. And as someone who recently (a month ago) started really making contributions to OSM, I had to figure out myself what the tools are that the community really uses. Because sure, you can find lots of ‘tool’s pages on the wiki, but half those tools aren’t maintained and they page just in general doesn’t make it clear like “These are the tools that are most developed and used” (like Osmose, OSMcha,…). Also for example I didn’t know about either of those 2 tools to find fellow editors, even though that kind of stuff can very useful to have

Comment from SK53 on 5 December 2019 at 10:42

Minor point, but even using OSM is fraught. As a search term as it often brings up “Online Soccer Manager” : this was mentioned by people unfamiliar with OSM at an event the other day. So we need to be careful about assuming that everyone knows what we mean by OSM, and in general use OpenStreetMap for general communication.

Comment from Pieter Vander Vennet on 5 December 2019 at 16:43

TBH: I do think that there is a lack of vision what the frontpage has to do, and that part of the standstill is because of that. Whatever is changed, some group of people will either complain that ‘their’ favourite feature is gone or that their favourite idea should be implemented as well.

Use cases

For this, we should think about the multitude of use cases which wash up onto osm.org. I’ll list a few that I could think of on top of my head and are (I think) the most important ones - although I’m sure I missed quite a few:

users

  • users wanting to ‘consume’ the map (search for places, get directions, get opening hours, …)
  • users wanting to consume data (needing specific data items, needing a filter, bordering overpass-queries)
  • users wanting a small snippet map into their website
  • devs searching for a slippy map for their high-traffic website
  • users searching for the ‘official’ OSM-app
  • users searching for paper maps, either printed by themselves or by third parties

contributors

  • people wanting to learn more about the project
  • people wanting to learn how to contribute and get started
  • contributors wanting to edit and validate their edits
  • contributors wanting to get in touch in each other and other social aspects of the project

commercial contributors

  • a small shop owner who wants to add their shop
  • a small government body (think a small city administration) or NGO that wants to maintain a public data set on OSM

Technology

That vision should of course be combined with a technological solution which follows the OSM-spirit

  • the stack should be transparent and easy to hack on
  • the stack should be fully FLOSS and maintainable
  • the usage policy should be clear
  • all services should run on OSMF controlled hardware
  • we should be welcoming to new contributors but at the same time not allow the codebase to become a spaghetti due to too many chefs in the kitchen
  • promote new, cool technologies while remaining stable and offer a place for them to be tested. Why no routable tiles and peer-to-peer exchanged vector tiles, while still offering classical fallbacks if needed?

At last, there are quite some commercial projects as well. If OSM.org starts to offer vector tiles or geocoding for free, this will be a direct and free competitor to already existing (paid) services. IMHO, osm.org should support small projects with a usable free tier that is easily usable (say XXX map views/month) but give a clear guide on how to grow further.

A big overhaul

All this would imply a long and very tedious overhaul, not only of the technology but also of what we think the homepage should do. More space could be given to teach people a bit about OSM, while at the same time polishing the frontend, changing to a vector tile infrastructure, …

Comment from juminet on 5 December 2019 at 19:48

Of course, I’m sure there are enough ideas on what should be improved on osm.org, (or just on osm.org/user/myusername). To me, things can evolve faster if there are some dedicated funding and people to work on it, with a clear mandate of the OSMF and the community. In addition to the programming work, some analysis phase could be also subcontracted. This phase would consists of gathering the opinions among the community, drafting user stories, re-designing stuffs, etc. This phase needs a lot of coordination and actual work and I fear that the community or a core of volunteers cannot do it before the web has evolved to another unexpected thing.

Comment from Mateusz Konieczny on 5 December 2019 at 19:50

However, there’s no shortage of idea or wishes to improve what we have. What we are really missing are the people who are willing and able to do the coding, design, and other development work. Whether those people are volunteers or paid for doesn’t matter to me, but at the moment we just don’t have enough people involved. So progress is slow.

Not sure what is the best way to encourage more people.

(1) Reducing technical debt is certainly part of that and thanks for that!

(2) Are there people that are unsure whatever their work has chance to be accepted and matches vision? Maybe mentioning something specific in https://github.com/openstreetmap/openstreetmap-website#development would be a good idea - something like

Pull requests improving mobile support are especially welcomed link-to-issue-1 link-to-issue-2 link-to-issue-3”

or

We need a good design for $THING, ideas from designers are welcomed

(3) Are there maybe people that would be happy to spend far more time on developing something OSM related in case of getting even small grants, far smaller than standard salary for a programmer? (I am mentioning this as I am doing exactly this with StreetComplete)

(4) openstreetmap-website repo has open PRs from 2012 are probably quite discouraging, https://github.com/openstreetmap/openstreetmap-website/pulls?q=is%3Apr+is%3Aopen+sort%3Acreated-asc

Comment from CjMalone on 7 December 2019 at 00:01

I think it would be fun to have a feature on the user page, not that dissimilar to GitHub’s contributor graph. Where you could see how active someone is, or how many days in a row they have made edits.

Comment from Pieter Vander Vennet on 7 December 2019 at 18:00

@CjMalone: well, all these tools exists (see [https://hdyc.neis-one.org/]) - it’s just that they are hard to discover, exactly because the homepage is outdated.

Comment from mmd on 8 December 2019 at 12:57

Thanks for sharing your ideas. No doubt, the current ‘minimalistic style’ osm.org has some advantages, which tend to be forgotten in this kind of discussion. Most importantly, the whole OSM ecosystem can evolve at a much higher speed compared to a more centralized model: you get the API and the data, now go ahead and create some cool stuff with it.

Bringing everything on osm.org might further increase the workload on OWG+sysadmins to a point where it may be no longer manageable. It adds lots of coordination effort, which even further reduces available time to do something productive. In the long run, I see a significant maintenance burden for every new feature being added.

I do believe it is essential to evolve some of the features, in particular social and community support. However, do it one step at a time, with a clear focus (!) on something that is both achievable and adds value to the osm community. We shouldn’t try to compete in areas where it doesn’t make sense (hosting images, yet another chat or video tool,…).

I agree with others, it would be good to have some form of consensus about the target audience we want to address on osm.org.

Comment from Pieter Vander Vennet on 9 December 2019 at 12:47

Hey @mmd,

That is a very important aspect as well. A current problem currently is a very low discoverability of these features. A clear section which at least points to some tools wouldn’t hurt thouh - most notably overpass, the wiki, a few consumer apps are highly needed and the most important ones.

Comment from Valor Naram on 15 December 2019 at 19:53

  1. We can create a Wikipage which then we can integrate in the osm.org website. The wikipage can provide a quick overview of what OSM is, which tools are used and which are the easiest way of mapping (starting points e.g. streetcomplete)
  2. On registration OSM prompts the user to type in his location. Based on that we can show him/her a list of community channels (Telegram, Discord, Slack, IRC, Facebook etc.) from the community index.

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