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January 26, 2023
by chris
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On the OpenStreetMap Foundation 2023 strategic planning initiative

There seems to be a new initiative initiated by members of the board of the OpenStreetMap Foundation to develop more elaborate strategic planning for the organization. This so far has not been widely communicated in public but it also is not explicitly developed behind the scenes, meaning that you can get some insights into what is happening by observing public communication. That is in particular the public board meetings, the minutes of both the public and the non-public meetings and the changes on the public OSMF wiki. Based on the lack of public discussion (not only on this but also on previous subjects of deliberation in the OSMF) not a lot of people in the OSM community seem to be following these but i like to emphasize that what i am discussing here is based on public information available to all interested OSM community members.

Specifically, the documents on the new initiative on strategic planning can be found here:

Much of the text seems to be the work of Allan Mustard. I see this in a positive way as being developed by someone with a non-technical background, but also in a critical way as coming from someone very firmly rooted in US culture and cultural values. Also, Allan is deriving much of his experience from a career in the US federal government, which is one of the largest strictly hierarchical organizations on the planet (not the largest though – that is almost certainly the Communist Party of China). This shapes not only his analytic view but in particular also what kind of solutions and approaches to solving problems he considers.

In particular remarkable is the first of the listed documents, which starts with the most critical analysis of OSMF procedures and actions i have seen from within the OSMF for a very long time. It is not directly criticizing the OSMF but is phrased like what happens if you neglect to…. It is clear though that this characterizes the current state of the OSMF.

Based on my own observations i would say this is a pretty accurate analysis how the adoption of a centralized, hierarchical work culture in the OSMF without stringent strategic planning and management has led to a highly problematic muddling-through. This is unnecessarily combined with a disparaging remark about tiny family owned firms. That is probably how you could classify the vast majority of companies in the wider economic OSM ecosystem, many of which are a massive source of volunteer contributions in the OSM community in some form, which makes this, when coming from the OSMF, kind of a biting the hand that feeds you statement. And in my experience it is not much based in reality, many of the family owned businesses i know have a much more solid strategic planning of their business than larger corporations – which might produce some colorful glossy paper plans for their investors, which, however, are often not worth the paper they are printed on. Muddling-through is something i see much more frequently in large corporations and institutions than in small businesses. But that might be a bit of a US-Europe business culture difference. Or it might be simply that i know too few badly managed family businesses (which evidently exist). I am getting side tracked here though, back on topic.

The spot-on analysis of the current issues with the OSMF muddling-through is a good starting point and could then have led to a discussion of the two main options to address that problem:

  • Changing the work culture of the OSMF to be less centralized and hierarchical, introducing a clear subsidiarity principle, becoming more open towards the very different work culture of the OSM community, all the things i have been suggesting for years.
  • Moving to a full adoption of central hierarchical management ideas.

Both are, in principle, valid approaches to the problem. And i don’t want to say that choosing the first is the only defensible decision. What in my opinion makes the first one so much more viable and less risky is the nature of OpenStreetMap as a highly non-hierarchical openly cooperative and do-ocratic project. Choosing the second approach means rejecting the core elements of cooperation within OpenStreetMap as the basis of cooperation in the OSMF. And that in itself creates substantial problems.

One likely effect of moving full hierarchical management would in particular be the continued and accelerated replacement of hobbyist volunteers in the OSMF with borrowed labor from corporate/institutional stakeholders. Hobbyist volunteers tend to have very little inclination in volunteering their time for work under a hierarchical management, especially if that management is in pursuit of economic goals.

I want to in particular point out that because OpenStreetMap as a whole is so deeply non-hierarchical, we have quite a lot of projects in the OSM-Community that have, over the years, collected valuable experience with what works and what does not in non-hierarchical human cooperation at scale. So the OSMF would be in an excellent position and would have good access to competent advice in that regard. Of course there are also plenty of examples outside of OpenStreetMap for less centralized approaches to human cooperation. Even in the military domain – most strategies on Guerrilla warfare focus on avoiding centralized hierarchies and build on small, fully autonomous units.

Economic direction and business model

When i look at the writings regarding the strategic planning the most striking overall observation probably is the absence of anything of substance in terms of the basis of the strategic plan – values and mission. There is this fairly elaborate tree structure of ideas and tasks to pursue but nothing of a foundation below that motivates why these things are significant and not others. I see two main reasons for that:

The first is that this is the really hard part. As i have pointed out in the past, the OSMF has over many years substantially neglected and undervalued intellectual work relative to technical work and this is the kind of thing where this becomes a serious problem. Past attempts of the OSMF at drafting and adopting value statements have also not had very positive results.

The second reason – i think the OSMF board at the moment tries to preserve a strategic ambiguity regarding the core conflict of the organization. The previous strategic plan outline (which the OSMF board had adopted as official policy) positioned itself fairly clearly at aiming to move OpenStreetMap from being primarily a social project of cross cultural cooperation towards the goal of collecting useful geodata (in particular demonstrated by putting individual local knowledge contributors on the same level as corporate providers of satellite imagery and AI mapping tools). This idea still shines through in this year’s texts – but it is more moderated now, preserving at least formally the possibility to move in either direction in terms of goals.

The main reason for that is probably the Overture initiative.

To explain that i will need to provide a bit of context. Right now, the OSMF needs cash inflow of about half a million per year to be able to pay its current expenses (mostly personell) and it is made clear in the text that the authors think this needs to grow significantly and permanently in the future (the arguments for that necessity are a bit sketchy – but i will not go into details on that here).

Before Overture, the OSMF had at least in principle the perspective to secure this kind of money (and possibly significantly more) by presenting themselves as provider of useful geodata to OSM data users and as an insurance that this data continues to be produced and maintained. I discussed this perspective already in previous posts. This, however, seems to be exactly the market segment the Overture consortium is targeting with its initiative now.

An obvious reaction to that would be for the OSMF to reposition itself as what it has aimed to be for many years, the guarantor behind OpenStreetMap as primarily a social project of cross cultural cooperation in collecting local knowledge. Based on the confidence that the way OpenStreetMap collects local knowledge through egalitarian cooperation of individual local mappers world wide will continue to be an essential component for many applications in need of geodata, important enough to ensure financing the OSMF, this would be the natural and logical reaction in my opinion (and this is what i hinted at with my hypothetical OSMF statement regarding Overture).

I have a bit of the impression that the problem here is that many in the OSMF these days do not have the confidence that what OSM is traditionally based on, grassroots mapping by people with local knowledge, is going to continue to be economically important enough in the future for the OSMFs financial needs including the need to grow as perceived by them. And as a result they try to secure a piece of the cake Overture is eyeballing while trying to avoid alienating the global mapper community. I probably don’t need to mention that this is a fairly risky endeavor. In German we have a term for that: Der Versuch, auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig zu tanzen – the attempt to dance at two weddings simultaneously.

Of course the other route is not without risks either, especially since it touches the market segment HOT is currently occupying – in particular since HOT is increasingly trying to present itself as supporter of local mapping communities in developing countries. So the OSMF economically would be kind of perilously wedged between two much larger players (HOT and the Overture Consortium). Being extremely passive in clarifying the relationship with either (with HOT in particular w.r.t. trademarks, with the Overture partners w.r.t. ODbL compliance) is not of benefit there of course.

What is missing

As so often with plans and documents like this it is in particular interesting to look at what is missing and not just at what is there. Of course these are drafts and meant to be extended. Even at the early draft stage you can, however, already see priorities.

One amazing thing in light of how much in detail the need for strategic planning as an instrument of hierarchical management is explained and motivated is the complete absence of any thoughts on the need for oversight. Since the motivation and justification of the whole thing is based on a traditional western management perspective, which itself (as explicitly mentioned!) has its origins in military command structures, i could also put it in military terms: There is no disciplinary framework.

In corporate management the primary disciplinary mechanism through which people further up in the hierarchy are able to tell people further down in the hierarchy what to do is money. And since the strategic plan of the OSMF explicitly states that its focus is on volunteer work, this omission is particularly striking. If that is not addressed this will most likely lead to continued muddling-through based on the currently dominant people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm – meaning the primary instrument of exercising power in the management hierarchy would be shared personal interests and personal inter-dependencies between the management and the workforce. And since that is not very reliable as a mechanism of control, this could also lead to a further shift from volunteer work to paid work, simply because the latter is so much easier to handle in a management hierarchy.

Looking at the details of the plan with the clusters we can see that the focus is – as kind of expected – on technical work and management. The whole domain of intellectual work is not covered. I will leave out some of the more concrete fields where i do work in the OSM context – map design and tagging documentation – because you could well argue that this is outside the scope of the OSMF. Though understanding the semantics of the data the OSMF evidently sees as one of its most important assets seems like one of the things to invest some resources in. And in light of how much resources the OSMF is investing in map rendering the complete absence of map design in the strategic plan is in a way remarkable as well. But more important: What do you think about an organization that aims to support OpenStreetMap, a project that without doubt is highly unique and unusual in its social interactions, and the aim to gain some better understanding how these social interactions work is nowhere to be found in the strategic plan?

In corporate terminology: The cluster Strategic Research is notably absent.

But to be very clear: Just formally adding something like that will not have any benefit. You need some expertise in the field to actually make a meaningful plan, even if the main goal of the plan is to produce that competency. This is a hen-and-egg problem.

This kind of closes the circle to my starting remarks. It is good to see an initiative in the OSMF that is based, as far as i can see for the first time since many years, on an critical look at the OSMF with at least a bit of an outside perspective. But that initiative is only going to yield substantial positive results if the OSMF can actually convince people knowledgeable in a broad range of fields from outside the OSMF and from outside the people whose work we know and enjoy of the OSMF to contribute their expertise. And that will either cost substantial money or will require the OSMF to provide an environment knowledgeable and experienced people find attractive to contribute even without economic incentives. This rules out a management hierarchy or the system we have all too frequently seen in the past years where decisions are made as a negotiation of interests rather than a battle of arguments.

Risks of the approach

And this gets me to what i see as the main concrete operational risks of pursuing the sketched procedure to develop a strategic plan. Because of the established work culture in the OSMF and because there is decidedly not a solid foundation in terms of values, mission and core goals that motivates the tasks planned, there is a strong possibility that this will not become a well structured plan of how to accomplish the goals of the organization but a collection of projects that are in the interest of those who have been most influential in developing the plan.

Another problem – and this possibility is already hinted at in the text – is, that this will not be a plan pursued as a whole in the belief that diligently pursuing all of these tasks will be the key to successfully fulfilling the mission of the OSMF, but that it will become a catalogue of things the OSMF offers as services to its financiers that they cherry pick from what they consider to be suitable for serving their goals.

Conclusions

But i want to make clear that none of my critical comments here are a reason to abandon the idea to develop a strategic plan and instead continue with the muddling-through. Even with all the risks and deficits described, developing and publishing such planning would be a substantial improvement from the status quo. It would of course be good if there was a serious discussion of the alternative of de-centralizing much of the work of the OSMF as sketched in the beginning. But i realize that this is not very realistic as an initiative from within the OSMF at the moment. It would also be great if there was broader independent expertise involved in developing this kind of plan from ground up with the broad range of competencies needed and without interests dominating over expertise and arguments. But i realize it is difficult without a substantial budget to recruit qualified people for that who are not primarily in pursuit of their own economic interests and who are willing to work within a hierarchical management framework. And even if nothing like that happens it would still have the advantage to make explicit the things the OSMF is pursuing instead of the current muddling-through with no clear strategy visible from the outside but extensive pursuit of special interests behind the scenes.

Multilingual name rendering

January 19, 2023
by chris
2 Comments

Rethinking name labeling in OpenStreetMap map styles

As i have explained in the previous blog post i wanted – in light of the situation of name tagging in OpenStreetMap having been stuck for many years now – to try presenting a proof of concept how a solution to this could look like that both demonstrates the practical benefits and that shows a transit path from the status quo towards more elegant mapping concepts while maintaining the paradigm of map design to support, but not actively steer.

The difficulty with doing that is that – as i have discussed many times already now – the tools available for rule based map design have largely been stuck for even longer than name tagging in OSM. Commercial map producers have for the last ten years essentially a hundred percent focused on creating maps for the language needs and preferences of their target customers – which is a completely different problem than to create a map which shows the locally used names everywhere on the planet.

Beyond that, the whole domain of label and symbol rendering in OSM-Carto is also in a precariously unmaintained state for many years now. So when i decided to work on this i needed to do quite a lot of yak shaving first as prerequisite of implementing the name rendering in a way that is not too awkward (and in particular: To avoid the need to make tons of changes in the essentially non-maintainable and fairly chaotic amenity-points.mss file). Many of the changes made (in particular the modularization of the layer definition and the re-design of the POI symbol and label rendering with auto-generated SQL and MSS code) deserve a discussion on their own. In summary, all of these changes are highly experimental, even more so than most previous changes in the Alternative Colors style. Much of the design is code wise not very elegant. As said: this is meant to be a proof of concept, not a ready-to-use product.

As i have explained in the previous blog post, the situation with mapping of local names in OSM is severely stuck. So the usual approach of OSM-Carto to very directly depict what mappers map is not going to work because the only thing to do then would be to universally stop rendering labels based on the name tag – which is evidently not a very constructive approach. There is the possibility though to keep rendering the main use case of single names in the name tag but to selectively stop rendering the more problematic variants. This is the approach i have taken here.

One development that helped a lot with doing this is a tagging idea that was suggested a few years back as a solution for problems of rendering a map for a specific language audience (the labeling strategy of commercial maps, labeling for a specific target map viewer rather than displaying the local name everywhere) that has gained some traction meanwhile – the default_language tag. Originally meant to record the language that is the most likely language in the area (hence maintaining the illusion of there being a single local name for everything) it was recently modified by mappers in a way that is fairly close to what i suggested back in 2017. I will get to how i use this information in the following.

Interpreting multilingual compound names

Let’s first start with explaining the new name rendering logic in the hypothetical case of an English-German multilingual region:

basic name rendering

First of all plain single names in the name tag remain being rendered as is. The primary difference (shown in the second line) is that compound names in the name tag alone (without any other name tags containing the individual names) are not shown any more. Compound names are here defined as names that:

  • contain one of ‘ / ', ' - ' or ';' (slash/dash with spaces around or semicolon)
  • contain words (separated by spaces) composed of characters from different scripts

And as you can see below you can have literal semicolons in names by escaping them with double semicolons:

name with escaped semicolon

Remember that we are in a hypothetical English-German multilingual region – but since we have no way to know that so far, it is clear that name:en and name:de are not affecting the name rendering, a single name in the name tag has priority.

If, however, components of the compound name tag are separately tagged in name:en or name:de (or any other name:<lang> for that matter) – things change:

multilingual name rendering variants

As you can see, i only render those parts of a compound name that can also be found in the individual name tags.

What you can also see is that the separator used in rendering is a line break. This is for horizontal point labels, for line labels (like on roads, not shown so far) i use ' - '.

Single language compound names

But what about compound names with components from the same language? Here the logic is very similar, just that the individual names tags interpreted are official_name, loc_name, alt_name and name:right/name:left. name:right/name:left are even shown when there is no name tag.

Compound names in a single language

This rendering logic is not directly supported by established mapping practice, it is an extrapolation of the consensus we have on multilingual names. Because there is – based on established mapping practice – no reliable way to distinguish between compound labels of a single language and multilingual compound labels, the logic has to be the same in both cases. This could change in the future through interpretation of default_language – which i am going to discuss in the following.

Using default_language

So far what i have shown is simply how map rendering can enforce the established convention that the components of a compound name tag should be also separately recorded in individual tags. This neither solves the han unification problem nor does it provide a path towards a substantially more sustainable mapping practice for name mapping. This is done by interpreting the default_language tag.

default_language was originally suggested as a tag to record the most likely language of the name tag within an administrative unit. It is, however, predominantly and increasingly used for tagging the primary or most common language or languages of an administrative unit. I use it in both meanings. There does not appear to be a clear consensus on the delimiter in that tag in case of multiple languages yet, i allow the same delimiters as for the name tag.

As the tag is applied to administrative units and not to individual features, you need to preprocess the administrative boundary data to use that efficiently in map rendering. I have a proof-of-concept process for that as well but have not published it so far because it is very preliminary – you can, however, download the results.

In addition to the default_language tags of the administrative divisions as mapped, de-duplicated in overlaps with priority on the higher admin_level, i also modify the language information in Chinese speaking areas to provide information about simplified vs. traditional Chinese (more on that later):

UPDATE boundaries SET default_language = 'zh-Hans,zh' WHERE default_language = 'zh';
UPDATE boundaries SET default_language = 'zh-Hant,zh' WHERE country = 'tw';
UPDATE boundaries SET default_language = 'zh-Hant,zh' WHERE country = 'hk' AND admin_level = 3;
UPDATE boundaries SET default_language = 'zh-Hant,zh' WHERE country = 'mo' AND admin_level = 3;

Here is how this default_language attribute is interpreted in case of our hypothetical English-German multilingual region:

name rendering with default_language

As you can see the default_language value is, in this case, used for two purposes:

  • to decide on the order of names in rendering.
  • to render name:<lang> for lang in default_language in cases if there is no name tag.

How to write things is as important as what to write

In addition – and this might actually be the more significant part of the change because it affects a large number of people not only in multilingual regions – i use the default_language information to select different fonts in different parts of the world to address the Han unification problem.

A big disclaimer here: I am no expert in typography of any of the scripts where i vary the font based on language. If the style of script actually represents local practice in these regions and if the change as implemented here leads to better usability of the map is not really clear to me. This is not ultimately what this is about though. What i try to show is the principal feasibility of adjusting the fonts based on language.

Here is how it looks like for Chinese, Japanese and Korean (CJK). The sample towns chosen (Chuanchang and Mifune) might not be the best to demonstrate this – but they show the principle. Because the difference might be difficult to properly see at this size you can click on the sample to get a double resolution version.

Regionally adjusted label styling for Chinese and Japanese

Especially the following things can be observed here:

  • The default rendering is Simplified Chinese. This differs from OSM-Carto, which defaults to Japanese. However, based on number of people affected, Simplified Chinese is clearly the more logical choice. Note the default is only relevant for parts of the world where default_language does not change the script style (i.e. countries outside the CJK regions).
  • For single names in the name tag like here the default_language overrides the individual name tag matching to determine the language. Otherwise Chuanchang would not be rendered in the Japanese variant with default_language=ja because there is no name:ja.
  • The tagging of name:zh, name:zh-Hans and name:zh-Hant is redundant in this case because all variants are identical.

Some real world tagging examples from outside the CJK domain:

Non-CJK multilingual names and font style variants

Note in particular the reason why it is Brussel – Bruxelles without default_language is because the order in rendering is alphabetical w.r.t. language code based on matching with the individual names, and Brussel matches name:af here, which comes before name:fr. default_language helps resolving such ambiguities.

Some comments on the implementation:

Because i implemented this change in name rendering in combination with various other changes of significant impact on the style overall, it is a bit difficult probably to understand by looking at the code changes. The main part of the functionality is implemented in a number of SQL functions you can find in sql/names.sql. In the queries of the style layers this is used like:

  (SELECT
      way,
      name_label[1] AS name,
      name_label[3] AS font,
      ...
    FROM
      (SELECT
          way,
          carto_label_name(way, name, tags, E'\n') AS name_label,
          ...
        FROM planet_osm_polygon
        WHERE ...) AS _
    WHERE name_label[1] IS NOT NULL
  ) AS layer_name

And on the CartoCSS level you then use something like:

#layer {
  [zoom >= 14] {
    text-name: "[name]";
    text-face-name: @book-fonts;
    [font = 'jp'] { text-face-name: @book-fonts-jp; }
    [font = 'tc'] { text-face-name: @book-fonts-tc; }
    [font = 'kr'] { text-face-name: @book-fonts-kr; }
    [font = 'ur'] { text-face-name: @book-fonts-ur; }
    [font = 'bg'] { text-face-name: @book-fonts-bg; }
    ...
  }
}

Because of Mapnik’s particularities in interpreting fonts (newer versions of Mapnik seem to try to be over-clever and guess the language of a string and then select font locl accordingly) the only way to actually control the script type is to use font files which only contain a single set of glyphs and not allow choosing one of several with the locl mechanism. For Noto Sans CJK these single language fonts are readily available from Google, for Bulgarian Cyrillic i had to modify the fonts used (Acari Sans) and remove the Russian Cyrillic variant. See get-fonts.sh for details.

Some potential questions:

That was just a very quick look over this change in name rendering, skipping a lot of details. There are a number of issues i anticipate readers to see that i will try to discuss briefly here:

The name interpretation logic is complicated, doesn’t that clash with the goal to be intuitively understandable for mappers?

Yes, that is a valid point. Keep in mind, however, that a very simplistic interpretation of name tagging is what got us into the current situation in the first place. The world of geographic names is complicated and this can only be properly dealt with if mappers and data users alike embrace the complexity.

Doesn’t this actively steer mappers into changing their mapping practice?

IMO much less than the current practice of plainly rendering the name tag no matter what. The overall idea of this change is to pick up on the few things where there mappers seem to have a clear consensus and to do the necessary extrapolations/extensions of that to create a viable and consistent rendering logic that supports mappers in a consistent mapping practice based on their own consensus decisions. And the rendering logic is deliberately designed to allow adapting to future changes in mapping practice. If default_language, for example, is in the future more widely adopted, it can be considered to allow it overriding the name tag (like for example if a language in default_language is tagged individually as name:<lang> but not as part of name, or to prefer name:<default_language> over a single name in the name tag). Some decisions that might be considered steering (like allowing default_language on the feature level) are currently in the code mainly to facilitate easier testing.

Wouldn’t this require all data users to use a similarly complex logic.

No, the good things about this approach is that data users satisfied with the status quo can continue to interpret the name tag as a label tag. The quality of the name tag might over time further degrade, but this is likely to happen anyway. And if mappers embrace the possibilities this approach offers for more cleanly structured name tagging (in whatever specific form they decide to do so), it will likely become much easier to semantically interpret the name data than it is right now.

Isn’t the logic of splitting compound name tags awfully complicated? Wouldn’t it be much easier to just standardize on semicolon as separator?

I don’t think there is a huge difference between supporting one or supporting three separators. The detection of different scripts to separate compound names without separator (as it is common in particular in Africa) is a different matter. But i am pretty sure once there is a viable way to get multilingual name display without an undesired delimiter, the local communities would not be opposed to changing that. For the moment this complexity is there to support all the common multilingual name tagging variants with equal determination.

Isn’t the preprocessed default_language data highly prone to vandalism because a single tag change can massively affect large parts of the map?

If you process the data in a simplistic way (like a process newly run on a daily basis) then yes. But for data not subject to rapid changes (languages of regions do not change from one day to the other) this is a solved problem. You have to apply some change dampening, i.e. roll out a change in tagging in the processed data only once it has proven to be stable over a longer period (like a week or a month). This is not rocket science, just a bit of hand work.

Shouldn’t other tags (like brand, operator, addresses) be subject to the same font selection logic as names?

Yes. As said, this is a proof-of-concept demonstration, not a ready-to-use product.

Nice, but where is the point? If this is not included in OSM-Carto it is extremely unlikely that it will have a substantial positive influence on mapping practice.

True. But you have to start somewhere. As said, nothing of substance has changed for the past five years. This is an attempt to provide a perspective how things can change. It is up to others to decide if they support the idea.

Real world examples:

How does this look like with real data? Here you go:

In most cases some compound labels are missing because the individual names are not in other name tags or because they are written differently in those. And you can see that in some cases the order of compound labels is different because of the logic described above.

January 19, 2023
by chris
2 Comments

Names and labeling in OpenStreetMap

More than five years ago i wrote a blog post here on the problem of name tagging and multilingual names in OpenStreetMap. I want to give an update on the situation from my perspective and reflect a bit on what has changed since then and what has not. Also, this is meant to serve a bit as an introduction to a following blog post i plan about changes to the rendering of labels in my map style.

What i explained five years ago is essentially that the primary way through which mappers in OpenStreetMap record names, the name tag, has been central in establishing the idea of OpenStreetMap recording the local knowledge of its contributors because it is, by broad consensus, explicitly meant to record the locally used name of geographic features. Since every mapper anywhere on the planet does this in exactly the same way and sees this local name directly on the map as they have recorded it, this practice well represents the idea of jointly mapping the planet in all its diversity.

On the other hand – what i also mentioned already five years ago – this practice unfortunately comes with various problems:

  • it is based on the illusion that there is always a single local name.
  • recording the local name without any information on the language of that name creates serious issues in some cases (in particular in what is commonly known as the Han unification problem).
  • what mappers want to see as the label of features in the map very often is not the locally used name.

The solution from the tagging side that i proposed back then as well as various other attempts to suggest tagging ideas to address the first two of these problems did not find broader support. Both mappers and data users seemed mostly content with the status quo.

The situation today

In a nutshell: The situation today and the problems described are essentially unchanged. The problems which were already visible back in 2017 have, however, aggravated and it is visible now quite clearly that the current practice is not sustainable. Trying to categorize the use of the name tag today i get the following:

The vast majority of name tags record a single name. In most cases this is the locally used name. However, there is also a significant percentage of cases where non-local mappers record names they use or are familiar with in the name tag despite them obviously not being the locally used name (like because they are in a language not widely spoken locally). In other cases local mappers use a signed or official name (i.e. one endorsed by some sort of authority, either political authority or the owner of the feature in question) rather than the name used locally in practical communication.

All of these variants of recording a single name in the name tag that is not the locally used name are largely motivated by the fact that many data users either only interpret the name tag directly as a label tag or give it priority over other tags with names when selecting what to label. This incentivizes mappers to record the name they want to see on the map – which, depending on the individual mapper and the local cultural conventions in map design, can mean different things.

The second most common use case for the name tag after recording a single name of some kind is to record something that is not a name at all. This practice is partly fueled by the same mechanism i already discussed. The other reason why we see this is because the concept of names (or more precisely: proper names) is a highly abstract matter that quite a few mappers have difficulties with. A significant percentage of uses of the name tag for things that are not a proper name are cases where mappers record a real world label that is not showing a proper name of the feature. Often this is a brand (like in case of shops etc.), the name of a person operating a feature (that would usually be tagged with operator), address components or a classification (think of a playground where there is sign indicating use restrictions: Playground: use only allowed for children of age under 14 – and the mapper interprets the Playground as the name of the feature).

Multiple names

The third most common use case for the name tag – and we are down to a single digit percentage here, though for specific feature types and in some regions this is much larger – is the recording of multiple names in the name tag. This, likewise, is largely motivated by data users showing the name tag as is as a label and mappers in some cases seeing the display of several names in the map as the most desirable form of labeling.

There are two fundamentally different variants of this recording of multiple names in the name tag. One (and the vastly more widespread one of the two) is the recording of names in different languages. If there is not a single locally used language but several ones, a feature will usually have different names in these different languages and accordingly no single locally used name. The other (much less common) variant is when there is more than one locally used name in the single locally used language and it is not possible to verifiably determine which is the locally more widely used name.

I like to add that for both variants of this there is also the rather common case that a single locally most widely used name can be determined, but mappers – for social or political reasons – do not want to specify that and prefer to record several names as if they are equally widely used locally, even if they are not.

There has been some renewed interest more recently in the OSM community on the subject of recording multiple names in the name tag but most of the discussion dealt with the rather superficial and insignificant question how to separate the different names in that case. This is kind of like planning to pave over the cracks and discussing what shape of paving stones to use for that purpose.

In practical use the most common separators for multilingual compound names are ' / ' and ' - ' (that is slash or dash/minus with spaces around) and – for compound names where the components are distinguished through different scripts – it is also common to not have a separator at all (using just a space, which equally is used between different words of the individual names). The semicolon (;) has some use, but mostly in non-multilingual situations, in particular in cases where the different names refer to different real world features.

Despite all these inconsistencies and conflicting mapping practices there is one broad consensus about multilingual names: If there are names of multiple languages in compound name tags, each of the components should be also separately recorded in the respective name:<lang> tag. While this rule is not universally followed, there is clearly broad consensus that this is desirable.

The dilemma in map rendering

The core of the problem on the social level (and the reason why nothing of substance happened in that field for the last five years) is that the illusion of the name tag recording the single locally used name is rather convenient for data users because it allows them to label their map in a very simplistic fashion and at the same time the ability to directly control the labels in maps is something mappers have come to value and many mappers do not have the confidence

  • in data users to be able and willing to interpret more cleanly structured information in a way that results in good maps.
  • in their fellow mappers to diligently record more cleanly structured information on names (and the inconsistent use of the name tag is directly confirming that suspicion).

What i (and others) have tried in the past is presenting ideas how the problem can be addressed from the mapping side. But neither data users nor mappers turned out to be very keen of changing the status quo.

Also – both on the mapper and on the data user side – the most influential circles in the OSM community are from Western Europe and North America and primarily interested in languages using Latin script – hence have only little interest in solving the problems the lack of information on the language(s) of the name tag causes.

The dilemma for map designers, in particular in OSM-Carto, is, that it is completely clear meanwhile that the simplistic rendering of the name tags as labels for many features in OpenStreetMap is a large contributor to the bad situation as outlined above. In other words: We as map designers are part of the problem and it therefore would be prudent in a way to stop doing that. But since we want – for the reasons mentioned above and in the blog post from 2017 – to continue rendering local names in the local language everywhere on the planet and because there is no established way of record that information in OSM other than the name tag, we have no way to really do that other than displaying the name tag. And we do not want (for very good reasons i explained recently again) to actively steer mappers to change their mapping practice in a way we consider desirable.

One approach to try to overcome this stalemate between mappers and data users could be to actually present a working proof of concept showing both the benefits of actually solving the problem (instead of just paving over the cracks a bit – see above) and how a smooth transit from the status quo to such a solution could look like. And above all – to show that following such a route does not require mappers to relinquish control over mapping practice to a small elite of technical gatekeepers but would allow mappers to continue making self determined decisions and to present a solution that respects and builds on the few points described where mappers actually have consensus about how names should be mapped. This is what the next blog post is going to be about.

January 11, 2023
by chris
1 Comment

On open map design licensing

I have been working on a number of changes and new features for the Alternative Colors map style (AC-Style) during the past few months (more on that likely in future blog posts) and during that time have also contemplated quite a bit about the situation of open map design – in general and in the OpenStreetMap community specifically. One outcome of these considerations is that i have decided to change the license of the style. And in this blog post i want to explain why.

Rule based map design is something of an unusual concept – both for those who come from and who look at things from a perspective of traditional IT and software development, as well as for people with a traditional graphics design, visual art or cartography background. A map style like OSM-Carto or the AC-Style contains rules on how geodata is transformed into a visual representation – the map. These rules are implemented in the form of code that is automatically processed by computers. Hence many software developers (and sometimes also traditional designers) have a tendency to view map styles as software and to reduce them to being software. The main problem with that (apart from dismissing the core of map design work itself as insignificant) is that the way map styles work clashes with the classic paradigm of computer programming that software processes data and that the two things are technically and legally separate. Past conversations i have had about copyright and licensing of map design have often shown that many people working in IT firmly believe that when you process data with a computer program the copyright of the processed data is categorically unaffected by the copyright of the computer program. That there are such things as self replicating programs – challenging this idea quite clearly – is typically considered a practically irrelevant special case.

The map produced by an automated rule based map style, however, is a derivative of both the geodata the style is applied to and the style itself. The resulting map obviously does not contain the generic logic of the map style any more, but it contains the work of the map designers who developed the style – in the form for example of carefully balanced color combinations or line signatures – or just in the selection of what to show and what not to show at a certain map scale. And these choices are actually manifested in the resulting map. Hence the rendered map is not only based on the map style and the work of its developer in the same sense as a computer program generating data according to the intentions of its programmer, it directly and literally contains the design work itself. Or in other words: You could call it a collage of the work of the mapper generating the geodata and the work of the map designer writing the style rules.

In light of this it is rather curious that most openly licensed map styles either waive all rights of their designers (like with CC0) or are licensed under a software license (usually a fairly liberal one like BSD or MIT). This is especially remarkable in the context of OpenStreetMap, where the work of the mappers is subject to the significantly more substantial terms of the ODbL.

Superficially this makes it easier to deal with the peculiar nature of map styles as works subject to copyright. But i doubt, meanwhile, that in the long term this actually provides a net benefit. I have pointed out on this blog on several occasions now that i think in the OSM-Community (and probably also in geodata processing and digital map production in general), intellectual work, and that of course in particular means map design work, is severely undervalued compared to technical work and that this substantially limits innovation in the domain. That most open map design projects in this context are licensed in a way that allows the users of the map styles to pretend they are just software seems quite clearly not helpful in that regard.

One specific observation that made this abundantly clear was that when i pointed out to the board of the OpenStreetMap Foundation back in mid 2022 that it would be nice and morally advisable if the OSMF as the largest user of OSM-Carto would acknowledge the work of the OSM-Carto designers in their public communication, in particular on the website where the map is shown – nothing happened. And why should it you could say. If the OSM-Carto designers really would want this kind of acknowledgement they could require that in their license. And since as is this is legally not required – why should the OSMF provide it?

One important prerequisite to change the way the OSM community looks at map design work quite clearly is to provide some practically straightforward options to map designers how they can license their work in a way that

  • ensures that the style and other map design work derived from it remains open and can be used under similar terms.
  • properly acknowledges and deals with the special nature of rule based map design as something that has both software components and contains visual design work that is included in the produced maps.
  • requires users of the design work to acknowledge and credit the work of the map designers developing the style.

This is not easy because there so far seem to be no licenses specifically developed for map styles. What helps, however, is to look at other domains where the situation is similar. Economically significant here is in particular the field of computer games where – in a similar fashion as in map design – you have a combination of visual design work and software development that gets exposed to the user in the form of a collage. License models that are used in that context could therefore be suitable for map style licensing as well.

The choice i have made for the AC-Style is to license the visual design components under CC-BY-SA 4.0 and the software elements under AGPL 3.0. Both CC-BY-SA and AGPL have in the past been used in map design contexts – CC-BY-SA notably in the OpenTopoMap project, the AGPL for example for the transliteration work of Sven Geggus. Practically those licenses mean that you have share-alike provisions for both the software and the design components and that deployments of the style or derivatives need to release any modifications of the style rules under compatible terms (which would not be the case with the GPL). If this is practically a good choice of licenses will remain to be seen – like the style itself the license can be considered experimental.

Having the two different licenses for software components and visual design work does not mean that you can flatly assume that all parts written in a programming language are only subject to the AGPL. As i have tried to point out above this is not merely a technical distinction. There are plenty of cases in the style where visual design is implemented in the form of code – see the symbol designs for trees that are represented in the form of SQL code for example.

That i license the AC-Style under this license scheme does not mean that the features and ideas i develop in the style cannot also make it into OSM-Carto any more. So far i am the sole author of the specific features of this style and i am free to also license parts of this work under a different license if i choose to. On the other hand, it might of course be a good idea to discuss if to change the license of OSM-Carto as well. As i have discussed above, it is meanwhile fairly doubtful if the choice of a very liberal license for an open community map design project like OSM-Carto is of benefit for progress and innovation in the field and for attracting competent designers to contribute to the project.

I am, however, also aware that moving to a license more limiting for the style user is not necessarily going to widen the user base of the style. The whole initiative to change the license is part of a long game to raise awareness that rule based map design is not just a somewhat specific type of software development but a field of value and importance on its own that depends on qualified and talented designers being motivated to invest their time and energy in it.

I also want to make clear that this license change is not meant to diminish the work of the OSM-Carto contributors whose work the AC-Style is based on. Therefore i ask – for the attribution as required by the new license – to specifically also acknowledge their contributions.

The main result i hope for is that this initiative encourages other map designers to (a) embrace the idea of open map design and (b) to make more conscious and self determined choices about the terms under which they make their work available to others. Right now, unfortunately, too many map designers – when working on rule based map design – happen to publish their work not under terms of their choosing but under ones that others (who are often not map designers) have picked. Or they keep their work proprietary because they cannot find a good way to make available and share it and to not at the same time make it available for selfish exploitation by others without giving anything back.

December 22, 2022
by chris
2 Comments

The statement the OSMF should have made

A lot of fuzz has been made in the OSM community in the past week about a new cooperation that has been announced to start between a number of US tech companies. I am not going to comment on this in substance at this time (because there is nothing of substance to comment on so far and because i have moved away a bit from doing real time commentary on OSMF matters in general). For those who are interested in meaningful commentary i would point to Ilya’s comment, which – although i disagree with quite a few considerations of his – is the most considerate and informed comment i have seen so far.

What this blog post is about and where i could not refrain from commenting on in some form is the statement released by the OpenStreetMap Foundation today. And i don’t actually want to comment on it, instead i want to present – for your consideration as readers of this blog – the statement that in my eyes the OSMF should have made:

The OpenStreetMap Foundation is pleased to hear the announcement of a number of large users of OpenStreetMap data to cooperate more on the use of OpenStreetMap data and other Open Geodata sources. In particular the announcement that the results of this cooperation are to be largely published under open licenses is good news for the Open Geodata and the Free Open Source Software community.

OpenStreetMap data is available for anyone to use under the terms of our license and we have published guidance on how you can make sure to meet these license requirements when using our contributors’ data, in particular also in combination with other open data sources. Given the partners in this new cooperation have indicated that their contributions of data are going to be released under terms compatible to the ODbL, we do not envision difficulties with our license terms. We will of course continue to keep an eye on how OpenStreetMap data is used to ensure equal and fair conditions for all OpenStreetMap data users. By sharing data you combine with OpenStreetMap data for a more valuable combined product under compatible license terms – as it is required by our license – you support the idea of Open Data and by providing attribution for the OpenStreetMap contributors whenever you use OpenStreetMap data or data and services made with OpenStreetMap data in a form that ensures that your users become aware that OpenStreetMap data is used, you show appreciation and provide support for the work of millions of mappers in our community.

We invite the Linux Foundation as the organization hosting this new cooperation to become a corporate member of the OpenStreetMap Foundation. By doing so you support the OSMF in supporting the OpenStreetMap community with important infrastructure for their volunteer work and this way also provide material support for the OpenStreetMap community.

The strength of OpenStreetMap is its large global and globally widely distributed community of contributors and the local knowledge they provide as mappers to our project as well as the diverse skills and the expertise they bring into continuously further developing and improving the way we map our planet. We therefore do not consider the more industrial and mechanized geodata aggregation and processing ideas this new cooperation has announced to pursue to in any way compete with the work of the OpenStreetMap community. There could be chances in the future for data released by the new cooperation to be of value for our mapper community to support and help them in their work and the share-alike terms of our license help ensure that such data would be available for such use. But the core of OpenStreetMap and the key to our success is and will always be the commitment of our mappers to sharing their local knowledge and to cooperate in making this shared knowledge available to everyone.

Imagico.de StyleInfo

December 20, 2022
by chris
0 comments

Introducing StyleInfo

In the previous blog post i introduced a bit the idea of systematic testing in map design and how my work on that has led – as a byproduct if you want to say so – to the rendering illustrations you can find on TagDoc.

But there is another problem most automated rule based map rendering projects are faced with that can be solved with systematic testing. Map styles, in particular more complex ones like OSM Carto, face the problem that it is very hard to determine what the style actually renders (meaning which attribute combinations are rendered in a distinct fashion at what zoom levels) by looking at or by analyzing the code. The only reliable way to do that is by actually rendering things. The only meaningful index or map key of OSM Carto that exists so far is a hand curated wiki page produced by people based on their knowledge of the style.

The way systematic testing can be used to help with that is by feeding the style with various combinations of data and checking which of them results in a distinct rendering. As you can probably imagine this would require a prohibitive number of tests if you’d do that in a dump fashion. But by using heuristics to narrow this down, the effort required can be reduced to manageable level – even if you still end up with more than 100k tests in case of a map style like OSM Carto.

And this is what i want to introduce here – StyleInfo is a new tool that i created that allows you to view how various map styles depict OpenStreetMap data – based on an analysis of the style that uses heuristic systematic testing to determine what the style renders and in what form without requiring substantial up-front information about the style.

StyleInfo is structured a bit like Taginfo, it allows you to look at the different keys and tags of the OSM tagging system – but instead of showing how these tags are used in the database it shows how these tags are depicted by the selected style.

Key based view in StyleInfo

Tag based view in StyleInfo

In addition you can also look at how the style depicts tags only on a specific zoom level.

Zoom level based view in StyleInfo

All of this is cross referenced with links so you can move between the different views quite easily. A few examples:

The information about the map style this gives you is somewhat limited particularly in two ways:

  • For principal reasons the results cannot be guaranteed to be complete. I have already identified a few tag combinations that are missing in some styles in the analysis and will need to make adjustments to the heuristics because of that. None the less this is still the most comprehensive documentation of OSM Carto and derivative map styles available so far.
  • StyleInfo so far shows renderings of primary tags and combinations of primary tags with one secondary tag. Neither combinations of several primary or secondary tags nor tertiary tags are covered so far. What this means exactly i will explain in more detail in the following.

The underlying tagging model

In principle OpenStreetMap uses a free form tagging system – i have discussed that in more depth in context of TagDoc. Practically, all OSM based map styles interpret this tagging in a somewhat more constrained fashion and because of that, mappers also tend to use tags under this somewhat more constrained tagging model.

In this model (as documented on TagDoc) tags are roughly divided into

  • primary tags – those are tags that provide semantic meaning to a feature even if they are applied alone.
  • secondary tags – those are tags that only have a well defined meaning when applied in combination with a primary tag.

In the context of map rendering and therefore StyleInfo, primary tags are tags that alone – when applied to some geometry – influence the rendering result. That would be tags like natural=water on polygon geometries, highway=motorway on linear ways or amenity=pub on nodes. Secondary tags are tags that modify the rendering of a primary tag. Examples are name=* on any of the previously mentioned primary tags or bridge=yes on highway=motorway.

Practically, there are some cases in styles that do not follow that model. For example administrative boundaries are rendered by most map styles only if they are tagged with both the primary tag (boundary=administrative) and with an admin_level=* tag (in case of OSM Carto with admin_level between 2 and 10). That requires introducing a third type of tags into the tagging model:

  • qualifier tags – those are secondary tags without which the primary tag is not interpreted by the style.

In addition to the mentioned example of administrative boundaries, the most common qualifier tag is the name tag on features a map style renders with only a name label.

Note different map styles make different assumptions on what are primary and what are secondary tags – which poses additional difficulties on the analysis. OSM Bright and also OSM Carto in early versions interpret name=* as a primary tag and render name labels for anything with a name tag even in the absence of any other tags.

And as said – what StyleInfo so far does not cover is combinations of several different primary and secondary tags – which is interesting to look at because sometimes styles distinctly render such combinations (like a road with a bridge tag and access restrictions) while in other cases one tag shadows another (like most cases with several primary tags). What is also not covered is tertiary tags – that is cases where a three tag combination leads to a distinct rendering result – like in OSM Carto certain values of denomination=* in combination with religion=christian on amenity=place_of_worship changing the symbol used.

The principal limitations

Some might have already wondered about the selection of styles featured currently on StyleInfo. As you can see with the Map Machine style the analysis is not limited to CartoCSS/Mapnik styles. However, because of the large number of tests that needs to be run it is necessary that integration tests of the full rendering chain can be run efficiently on general purpose hardware in a headless configuration. And that is difficult for all of the postmodern client side rendered styles popular these days. If anyone can point me to a toolchain that renders Maplibre/Mapbox JSON styles into plain image files on headless general purpose hardware without depending on esoteric bloat like npm or docker i might give it a try.

For OSM Carto and other styles with a rendering database that directly reflects OSM tagging without any fancy tag reinterpretations on import, the map style analysis can be made quite a bit faster by excluding the database import step from testing. This underlines my past observation that the idea of performing tag interpretations on data import instead of during rendering – a consideration that has gained quite some popularity recently in the OSM community – is a bad idea from the perspective of map design. You gain nothing of substance (because tag interpretation is cheap) and it requires the map designer to either integrate the database import into their design work and testing (just like i need to do for the StyleInfo analysis) or to develop their style not for OSM data but for an intermediate data model out of their control (which is what most of the postmodern client side rendered style development tends to do – hence probably the popularity of that idea).

A viable map key?

What StyleInfo documents is how a map style translates OpenStreetMap data and tagging into a visual depiction. While this is evidently a key element of producing a usable map key or legend it lacks the translation between the OpenStreetMap tagging and real world semantics to qualify as such. This is – as some readers might remember – what TagDoc is aiming at. StyleInfo and TagDoc are projects complementing each other and the idea is that those two together could be key components to provide a much better understanding of the semantics of OpenStreetMap data and of OpenStreetMap based map styles to a wider audience.

Tags interpreted by OpenStreetMap Carto - visualization from StyleInfo, click to see interactive version

Tags interpreted by OpenStreetMap Carto – visualization from StyleInfo, click to see interactive version

Systematic testing in map design

December 19, 2022
by chris
0 comments

Systematic testing in map design

This post’s subject is a matter i have been working on for quite some time – the problem of systematic testing in map design. To make clear what this is about i will have to explain a bit the wider context.

Traditional testing in map design

The traditional way of designing rule based map styles, in particular in the OpenStreetMap context, is to do so based on a test database containing a sample of actual map data. Most map designers have a test database, typically containing either an extract (like from Geofabrik or created with the Overpass API) of their area of interest or a number of areas from different parts of the world. You can get an idea of the content of my test database through the ac-style sample gallery.

When you work on the design of a certain type of feature you find one or more occurrences of this in your test database and study the effects of your design work on these occurrences. Commonly used design tools – like TileMill in the early days, or Kosmtik (in case of CartoCSS styles) and other tools, like Maputnik, in case of JSON based styling languages – are specifically designed for this workflow.

Many examples of use of this approach in style development can be found in OSM-Carto – like here.

This design work strategy has several advantages:

  • It is fairly straight away and does not require significant work from the designer to get started.
  • It tests the design in exactly the context it is meant for, that is rendering of actual map data.

But it also inevitably comes with disadvantages:

  • You only test the design in those contexts you happen to have picked as sample occurrences. That usually neither covers all the relevant situations the design is going to be used in nor is it representative for the full diversity of locations that feature occurs in.
  • It is very difficult to do any sort of systematic testing. Even the comparison across different zoom levels is difficult because the geometric context changes in scale as you change zoom levels.

Synthetic tests

Because of these problems OSM-Carto developers have for a long time and in addition to the traditional testing based on real world test data started using synthetic tests. I can’t say for certain when this was done the first time but here are two examples:

OSM-Carto synthetic test example 1

OSM-Carto synthetic test example 2

Typically such tests are designed in JOSM, run through osmium renumber and then imported into a test database.

This kind of test is particularly useful for somewhat more experienced map designers who can already predict in advance in what contexts a certain change is in particular critical to be evaluated in.

I would go as far as saying that changes of the road rendering system in OSM-Carto, that often need to work in many different design contexts, are almost impossible to develop without the use of synthetic tests. The unpaved road rendering that recently finally made it to OSM-Carto is a good example for that:

OSM-Carto synthetic test example 3

As useful as this kind of testing is, it also bears the risk of map designers completely focusing on synthetic tests and neglecting testing with real world data. That is of course not a good idea. In practical map design real world data testing is always necessary and important.

The other issue is that with this kind of hand drawn synthetic tests you still have the problem of limited comparability across zoom levels.

Automated scaling of tests

This limitation has led me a few years back to develop an approach to scale synthetic test data sets in an automated fashion for better cross zoom level comparability. I have shown samples using this approach on several occasions on this blog. By scaling the test data to the zoom level you want to test at you make rendering results much better comparable across zoom levels. This is in particular useful to make sure that design parameter progressions across zoom levels (like line widths or label sizes) are working well.

Road features at z16

Road features at z16

Same at z17 with scaled geometries

Same at z17 with scaled geometries

Systematic testing

Once you have automated scaling of tests working, it is only a small additional step to systematically test rendering results across zoom levels and with different combinations of attributes. This allows two things:

  • formally testing map design in all the different variants it is supposed to work in.
  • documenting the functions of a map style in a comprehensive fashion.

The latter use case is something i already demonstrated some time ago in TagDoc:

Rendering samples from TagDoc

Lately i have further developed the whole concept of systematic map style testing into a tool i am going to introduce in the next blog post.

New Antarctic images for mapping

December 10, 2022
by chris
1 Comment

New Antarctic images for mapping

I recently prepared and uploaded some more satellite images of the Antarctic for mapping in OpenStreetMap. They mostly cover the mountain areas of Queen Maud Land, that is the section of the East Antarctic coast facing the Atlantic Ocean. This has historically been a major focus area of European exploration of the Antarctic and features some of the most spectacular landscapes of the continent. Also included are some more images of the Antarctic peninsula.

In addition to the 10m resolution Sentinel-2 images i also included a number of evening Landsat images because having two images with different illuminations available can be of high value for mapping peaks and ridges in mountainous terrain. Here an example:

Also otherwise i specifically keep the individual images in separate layers so mappers can consult several different images where available for better assessment of the local situation.

If you have read my previous discussion of the state of mapping of the Antarctic you might be wondering why i put effort into this despite the clear lack of interest in the OSM community at large in mapping the Antarctic. The reason is that in light of the poor situation in most image sources commonly used by mappers in this area i want to make sure mapping is at least not hampered by the lack of suitable imagery.

The imagery i have prepared for the Antarctic now covers more than half of those parts of the continent containing ice free areas. That means if you are interested in mapping a particular part of the continent you might still be out of luck with finding decent imagery. If you, however, are interested in mapping the continent in general you have plenty of places to do that all over the continent.

As before the new images are likely going to be available in the editors soon – if you can’t wait you can also add them manually based on the links provided on my preview map.

November 23, 2022
by chris
0 comments

The OpenStreetMap Foundation in 2022 – Trends and Outlook

In this third part of this year’s discussion of the OSMF i am going to look at the overall trends in the organization as i see them. For the first two parts see here and here.

It is hard to make reliable predictions regarding the OSMF board with four of seven board members being new next year. What is clear is that if there is a substantial change in direction or work style pursued by the new board members, that is going to be a hard uphill battle for them against the inertia and established work culture within the organization. Two of the board members who are going to continue have made it clear that they are going to want things to mostly stay as they are and the third one has shown no indications of different interests so far. Some of the candidates in their statements and answers have also made it clear that they pursue a conservative agenda.

So, based on the assumption that this conservative desire to keep things going in the present direction will prevail, i am going to describe a bit what i perceive to be the current trends in the OSMF as they are likely to continue in the future. I don’t want to be too repetitive to what i wrote in previous years so this is just a few notes on the more recent changes of direction and new tendencies. I am also – for every section – constructively going to provide a suggestion for the OSMF how to turn the development in a more positive direction. Based on the experience from past years i don’t have high hopes that these are going to be followed, but i think it is important to outline that concrete better alternatives exist and that they are, for the most part, not difficult to pursue. And i want to give the four new board members, whoever they might be, the benefit of the doubt.

Clouds and seagull

Centralization of communication and cultural homogenization

With the definitive roll-out of the behavior control framework and the new communication platform, the trends of previous years for more explicit centralized control and management of community interaction have started to substantially manifest this year. There are mainly two trends i expect to come out of this:

  • An increasing encapsulation of people on the new platform from the rest of the OSM community. In a nutshell: that new platform and how it is managed is modeled after Facebook rather than Usenet. The strongly hierarchical elements and the prominent display of participation and engagement scores in the design of the platform’s user interface and the clear distinction between the logged in user tracked in their activities at every moment and the not logged in anonymous outsider with very limited options all support this by underlining and affirming an exclusive sense of ‘we’ on it. A desire to exclude people not using the platform has already been articulated on various occasions by users there. How fast and how far this will go is not sure yet, because at the same time there is
  • a trend of fragmentation of the OSM community into closed social circles. Due to the exclusive nature of the new platform, requiring participants to significantly adjust to the social standards and expectations that are imposed centrally, quite a few local communities have decidedly not adopted the new platform as a place of exchange. Since the OSMF has expressed no commitment to continue to provide the more traditional infrastructure like the mailing lists and because of trends in communication styles, many local communities have moved to proprietary platforms like facebook, telegram or dicord instead. These have the advantage for the local communities that the commercial operators give them more freedom than the OSMF on their platform to self manage the channel in their own style. But many of these channels are semi-public (so you can only read them after having actively signed up to them – so there is no permanent public record) which often leads to significant radicalization in particular in smaller groups.

To be clear: It is perfectly expected and necessary that a diverse and multi-cultural project like OpenStreetMap socially structures into different local groups and communities with different local cultures. The key for this to work is that these groups need to interact with each other on equal levels based on tolerance and respect for each other on the foundation of the basic universal core values of the project. This can only work by accepting and tolerating that they might differ fundamentally in their cultural values, social conventions and collective and individual goals otherwise. This way different local communities form a loose but stable and inclusive sense of ‘we’ overall across culture boundaries, unconditionally including anyone who likes to participate under the basic premise of the project of cooperative mapping. What does not work and where unfortunately the current trend seems to go, is, that one part of the global community tries to impose their cultural standards and values on others and by doing that attempts to colonialize the project while others increasingly encapsulate themselves, partly in reaction to the colonial tendencies, to protect their cultural values. This is what we see happening right now. Unfortunately, the most likely reaction from the OSMF is going to be to increase the pressure and extend the radius of cultural homogenization and cultural imperialism.

What could the OSMF do to avoid this? Go back to the roots and provide communication infrastructure openly to any group within the project to manage under their own responsibility. Offer support and guidance when self managed communities struggle dealing with difficult individuals or outside interference but have trust in people to be socially responsible at large, even if they don’t abide by and subscribe to your cultural values.

Clouds

Decreasing diversity within the OSMF

In addition to these trends in the OSM community at large we also see an increasing commitment in the OSMF to the currently dominant culture in the organization. I mentioned in the first part that the first board committee with non-board members involved has been staffed exclusively with Americans. It is likely that fundraising in the future will therefore perpetuate the dominance of US corporations and organizations among the financiers of the foundation. And since corporate OSM data users and organizations like HOT are meanwhile the main source of new volunteers in the OSMF working groups, this will also have an influence on diversity among volunteers in the working groups that are not selected by decision from the top. And this is – as pointed out in previous years – a self emphasizing problem as the increasing presence of people with a professional interest in OpenStreetMap in the structures of the OSMF makes these less attractive for hobbyists.

As discussed in the first part, the Engineering Working Group this year took on the fairly remarkable initiative to draft a framework for open calls for tender of projects to be financed by the OSMF. While this is of course specifically designed for software development projects, it could be used as a blueprint for similar procedures being made mandatory everywhere in the OSMF where outside paid services are contracted. While this in principle would be a very positive perspective i see two problems with that:

  • It is uncertain if this framework will actually be followed for any larger projects at all. The OSMF board in particular has a long history of creating policy but then flat out ignoring it.
  • Even if procedures like this are made mandatory everywhere, there are well known techniques to work around the open competition these are meant to ensure. If those drafting the call for tender know in advance who they want to win the bid, they can design the call in a way that makes this outcome likely – even without outright cheating in the assessments.

Same applies for selection of volunteers. Many of the committees that were created by the board during the past years (specifically here, here, here, here and here) were staffed based on an open call for volunteers. But it was clear from the beginning that the main criterion for selection was the people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm. Plus occasionally some ensemble optimization for on-paper diversity. To put it very bluntly – if you were not part of this small inner circle of people whose work we know and enjoy of the OSMF board (which probably contains no more than about 30 to 40 people) and do not happen to have any desirable formal traits that look good for diversity on paper, you did not need to bother volunteering in such calls. And as a result people likely stopped volunteering – so despite the formally open call the selection becomes highly non-diverse. The end result is: The staffing of committees with volunteers by the board in an intransparent process became one of the most significant factors working towards less diversity in volunteer contributions in the OSMF.

My recommendations:

  • Put everything into the open. Transparency is the best cure against favoritism or the appearance of favoritism.
  • Stop trying to control who does volunteer work. Simply publish tasks that you think need doing and call for people to work on them in their own initiative and responsibility (and cooperating as a self organized group if necessary for the task in question). Offer support for that work but don’t try to steer it. Believe it or not – there are many people in the OSM community willing to volunteer for the project who are better managers than you are.
  • Let the local chapters do selection of political appointees. There are meanwhile sufficiently many local chapters for such a process being much more inclusive and representative than the usual self referential people whose work we know and enjoy approach of the board.
  • Introduce a meaningful subsidiarity principle to the OSMF. I have said so in the past – i repeat it here.

Clouds

Management structures

There seems to be a general sentiment among the board members proactively communicated in the past months that they largely suffer from work overload and burnout.

While there is certainly some truth to the workload of the board having in total increased over the past years, it is important to recognize that much of the workload of the board is self-imposed. Self-imposed either because

  • The board has taken on tasks and is getting involved in matters that are not in its domain as defined by the OSMF mission. As Simon also has recently pointed out the board has in the past few years gotten much more involved in operational work (with an often highly questionable outcome i might add).
  • The board has in the past made many decisions to substantially grow the operational scope of the OSMF without making sure a self sustaining infrastructure to support this scope exists. On the contrary – almost all of the structures newly created by the board in the past years – like various special committees etc. – were appointed by the board and were designed to be under direct control of the board and require regular board activity to continue working. This not only massively increases the board workload in total (both for actually doing these tasks and for keeping track of them), it also leads to awkwardness when the board does not live up to these self imposed obligations, like in case of the software dispute resolution panel, as described in the first part of this blog post series.

The solution is obvious – to (a) be more diligent in limiting the board to its core tasks and to (b) trust the community to pursue tasks in the interest of the project in an independent and self determined fashion, either in the OSMF working groups, in the local chapters or in self organized groups independent of formal organizations. Again – the OSMF mission outlines this principle quite clearly, the board would just need to follow this.

Unfortunately, the measure the current board seems to increasingly favor instead to mitigate the work overload problem as perceived seems to be to hire paid management. It is even possible that the proactive communication of the workload issues is partly a measure to pave the way for such a change among the OSMF members. Of course, such a step would break with existing conventions and policy and it would also massively change the inner dynamics of the OSMF and its relationship with the OSM community. It would most likely lead to a further exodus of volunteers who do not like to be supervised in their volunteer activity by paid management, from the working groups and the OSMF in general.

In total it is likely that this would not work (in the sense that it would add more work to the board than it would take off them). But if it does, it would mean an OSMF run by paid management and labor leasing from corporate OSM data users as a new professional–managerial class of the organization with support from a number of unpaid interns running the working groups (who are motivated to volunteer – just like unpaid interns elsewhere – by career interests). The volunteer board would still formally sit above this. But since the main interest of the board in the process is to offload work, it would lack the ability to substantially exercise oversight over the management because they don’t understand the internal processes enough any more to develop meaningful policy. And the paid management will of course in that scenario have and pursue interests that are distinct and possibly substantially differ from those of the OSM community and the project.

If and when the board in the future might make a move towards hiring paid management the claim will likely be that they believe that they will be able to avoid the negative consequences sketched while still getting a net benefit. They would, however, likely be mistaken in that belief. It would therefore be a very good idea for the OSMF membership to ask the board, if and when they make a move in that direction, what their plan B is in case their belief about how this should work out turns out to be mistaken. Because the risks in that are immense.

And of course with the current work culture of the board, paid management positions would most likely be filled with people whose work we know and enjoy of the board – further emphasizing and perpetuating existing cultural bias in the organization. It is also not unlikely that a revolving door principle will develop where paid managers are predominantly recruited from former board members.

Interestingly, the upcoming board election of the OSMF can also be considered a poll of the OSMF membership if they want the board to continue the current line of direct involvement in operational work or if they should focus more on oversight and policy development. Many of the candidates in the election have positioned themselves quite clearly in that regard.

My recommendations:

  • Subsidiarity principle, subsidiarity principle, subsidiarity principle (if i could make every board member write that a hundred times i would do so).
  • Maintain the taboo against paid management. Someone paid for their work in OSM telling a hobby volunteer what to do or how to do it is an affront against every single one of the millions of volunteers in OSM. That includes by the way people paid by a third party. Don’t take this lightly and don’t be so arrogant to assume you can manage these problems.
  • Don’t try to control everything, concentrate on setting meaningful policy and exercise meaningful oversight where necessary but don’t interfere with operational decisions – as it is mandated by the OSMF mission.
  • Move the OSMF out of the UK, and while doing that, create organizational structures that separate policy making and oversight over operational work from its management, while disallowing direct interference of oversight with the operational work. Clear separation of functions like this would massively reduce workload and stress while giving operational work the competence and freedom to organize their work independently without continuous interference by the higher-ups while maintaining a clearly defined and independently codified oversight over the operational work.

Clouds

The OSMF as HOT 2.0

In the predictions from last year i indicated that the OSMF might in the future pursue a business model similar to that of HOT – selling OpenStreetMap as a solution for the needs of others, without substantially controlling the project. I also indicated that such a scenario would most likely be fairly unstable.

With the developments of the past year, in particular with the negotiations with HOT on a trademark license and the stalling of the OSMF board on the pursuit of ODbL violation by large corporate financiers of the OSMF, quite a bit could be written on that, where it might go and what risks and opportunities result from that. But i will cut this short here because – as i already indicated in the first part – i am not very keen to provide free consulting services to an OSMF in pursuit of commercial interests.

Clouds and seagulls

Conclusions

In total, my outlook on the future of the OSMF has brightened a bit. Ironically this is partly because the economic climate is getting more difficult and hence the ability of people in the OSMF to use money in pursuit of ideas that are bad for OpenStreetMap is likely going to be rather limited. But more importantly, this year’s board election has the potential – if the OSMF membership shows wisdom in selecting four new board members – to substantially change the work culture and the direction of the OSMF. The possibilities how to do that are fairly clear now – i outlined a few in my recommendations above. A lot more can be found in past comments of me on OSMF matters. Yes, there is of course equally a potential for a change to the worse. But even if that is the case – it is clearly in the hands of the OSMF membership this year – and even more, thanks to the active contributor membership program, every mapper who cares about OpenStreetMap in principle had the opportunity to become a member and vote in the interest of the project they care about. In other words: This year much more than in previous years it is in the hand of the OSMF membership to decide on the future of the OSMF.

In addition, i observe that the centralization and cultural homogenization attempts from the OSMF have led to an increasingly broader push-back from the community. As discussed above, this push-back and diversification also takes some rather problematic forms with the radicalization of smaller groups on proprietary platforms. But, overall, this is a positive sign: Local communities all over the world developing a robust self-confidence in the way they unite OpenStreetMap’s core values with their local culture. If these local communities now manage to overcome their relative isolation (which i discussed a bit for the German community in the previous post) and successfully engage in a peer-to-peer exchange with each other, that would be even better. Interestingly, the local communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America here seem to be ahead of the European communities with regular supra-national conferences and more regular exchange across language barriers.

Clouds

November 18, 2022
by chris
3 Comments

The OpenStreetMap Foundation in 2022 – The upcoming elections

This is the second part of a series of blog posts on this year in the OSMF – you might also want to read the first part.

Before i get to my look at current trends and the outlook on where things are likely to go in the next years in the OSMF, i want to have a few words on this year’s board elections. Last year, the elections were boring, three of the four board members whose seats were up for election ran again and were re-elected as expected and the fourth seat was filled with a German. The only two other candidates were two Americans working for large corporate OSM data users and were known for their fairly radical political ideas.

This year, the situation is fundamentally different. No current board member whose seat is up for election is re-running and we have again four seats open because Amanda announced her plans to resign at the end of the first year of her second term. That means it will be the first time in the history of the OSMF since the initial election in 2007 that there will be four new board members and that – also for the first time – there will be more new board members than old-timers. This is remarkable and could indicate that we might be at a turning point in the development of the organization (or it could, of course, be just a singular outlier).

I want to express my appreciation for the decision of all four board members leaving to make room for new people to have the opportunity to positively influence the direction of the OSMF. This not clinging to your seat and being willing to put trust and confidence into others for the future reflects a substantially positive attitude.

I also want to point out that with Eugene, the first OSMF board member from outside Europe and North America is leaving the board. Like Ilya in 2017, who was the first board member from outside Western Europe and North America, he only served one term and does not re-run this year. For comparison: About half of the board members who have in the past served on the OSMF have re-run for their seat at least once. While two cases is not really a statistically significant pattern, it is noticeable. I see two likely explanations for this: (a) that the board – while in principle being open to people from other cultures – is still massively culturally biased, making it unattractive for people with other cultural backgrounds to work there or very difficult to contribute in a meaningful way and (b) that the clinging to your seat, that we characteristically observe and have observed in some board members, is a character trait more prevalent in Western Europe and North America.

clouds over water with sailboats

Board member statements

I recommend everyone to read Amanda’s departing statement on resigning from her position and i hope that at least some of the other three board members leaving will publish some reflection on their work and the reasons for leaving.

Possibly even more interesting are two statements of two of the three board members who will continue their terms after the election. One of them essentially declares the end of history in the sense that all political struggle regarding the strategic direction of the OSMF has allegedly concluded and there is no fundamental disagreement on the overall direction any more so all that remains is boring technical management work to pursue the strategic goals everyone supposedly agrees on. For those unfamiliar with the end of history metaphor – see here.

The other statement by a current and future board member is in German. On the one hand it tries to resurrect the old topos of an impeding hostile takeover of the OSMF in the board election, trying to motivate German mappers to put themselves up for election in light of this threat. I have explained in the past years why i think this kind of hostile takeover through the front door is not a likely scenario and the economic and soft power influence of large corporate interests is actually much more worrisome. On the other hand, that statement also essentially declares defeat of the German OSM community on the political level. It calls for three or four people who are willing to let themselves be elected and does so explicitly with no expectation to do anything once they are elected, just to prevent others from being elected and possibly do anything undesirable then. That is nothing less than a confession of political failure and expendability.

clouds over water with sailboat

This is a remarkable and at the same time highly problematic statement, because it claims that the German OSM community as a whole has no ideals to pursue beyond the conservation of the status quo and no positive vision for a progressive development of the project on the political level. On the other hand, it also implies that no other local communities do so either and that all progressive change pursued and fought for elsewhere in the global OSM community is inherently destructive and undesirable. In this way it ironically perfectly aligns with the end-of-history idea of the other statement. The vision of Mikel of the end of history is, of course, most likely that the economically-pragmatic idea of OSM as a collection of useful geodata – that so conveniently aligns with the big corporate interests – has triumphed over the backwards idealists envisioning OSM as a social project of egalitarian cooperation of local craft mappers. This kind of reflects Fukuyama’s thought in 1989 that western liberalism has triumphed and no substantial ideological competition remains – hence my use of the end-of-history metaphor. Roland, on the other hand, just seems to try to conserve the status quo out of a glass-half-empty attitude.

Roland’s statement can be considered to retroactively confirm Allan Mustard’s criticism of the Traditionalists in OSM (for which the stereotypical German mapper is probably often considered to be representative) as regressive conservatives clinging to the status quo and averse to any change out of principle. Therefore i want to clearly state: This is not a view and attitude representative for the German mapper community. There are, of course, the apolitical mappers who just want to continue engaging in the project the way they are used to and therefore want it to change as little as possible. But there are also a lot who are there to contribute to a progressive project, who are open to change and who are eager to contribute to making it better and who are willing to engage in the political discussions and the struggles of arguments that are necessary to determine the best way to do so but who stay far away from the OSMF at the moment. Reasons for doing that are in particular that many are deterred by either the dominance of the English language, the need to adopt an anglo-american work culture they dislike, the need to cooperate as hobby volunteers with people who are active in the OSMF out of career interests or simply because of the lack of perspective to affect meaningful change in a positive direction. Most of the latter you will not find active on the new community platform, you will, however, find them editing the map and possibly at the pub meets all over the country. And most importantly: Most of them will probably feel embarrassed by Roland’s call for people to put themselves up to be elected just to fill a seat on the board so no one else can.

On the other hand, while the German OSM community cannot be blamed to collectively have the glass-half-empty attitude Roland presents, they are to blame quite a bit for failing to communicate a different, positive vision and attitude in public. Staying away from, and not volunteering for, the OSMF is one thing, not engaging in public exchange with others, also internationally, about your ideas and thoughts on the project is another. This does not have to happen on OSMF managed communication platforms with their behavior control and community management, but it should happen somewhere. And while there are admirable exceptions, collectively the German OSM community has huge deficits in that.

But i am getting a bit side tracked here.

clouds over water with sailboats

Candidates

There are eleven candidates for the four seats open on the board this year – which is a respectable number, considering the general difficulties of the OSMF to recruit volunteers, though it would have been good to be a few more for a broader choice.

I have not formed a clear opinion on any of the candidates yet and i will be reluctant to give a recommendation even after reading their self-presentations (which are probably published by the time you read this). Various collective failures of the board i have pointed out in the past in my blog posts here (including the previous one) have left me astonished how that could have happened, considering the people on the board are largely smart people who have shown good judgement before they were elected to the board. Note i am not talking about decisions that i politically disagree with and criticize because of that here, i am talking about objectively bad actions and decisions. And i have seen in talks with other people that i am not the only one who is irritated by that. The most likely explanation i have for this is that the board in their practical work and in their decision making processes in the past few years increasingly encapsulated itself in an echo chamber where group dynamics seem to strongly influence the views of the board members on things. In light of this the robustness of a candidate against group-think and social pressure, the demonstrated ability to self-reflect critically and the ability and willingness to openly discuss their thoughts in public, are probably important things to look at. Reliably assessing that from candidates’ statements is of course rather difficult. A better solution would probably be to get the board to move their deliberation and decision making into a public setting again – which requires either a considerable change in work culture from within or substantial outside pressure from the OSMF membership.

That gets me to the trends and outlook on the future i am going to discuss in the third part.

clouds over water with sailboats