OpenStreetMap – challenges of a changing world


I was preparing material for a talk i am going to give at the Integeo conference in Frankfurt next week and it reminded me of a topic i wanted to write about for some time here. The talk is going to be about the role OpenStreetMap and open geodata in general had and have for the development of digital cartography from a mere dematerialization of pre-digital workflows towards rule based cartography where the work of a cartographer is no more primarily the processing of concrete data but the development of rules defining the automated generation of a cartographic visualization from generic geodata. I previously presented this idea with a somewhat different focus back at the FOSSGIS conference in Bonn.

Thinking about this subject i remembered the realization i had some time ago that while the success of the OpenStreetMap project is usually attributed to the openness and the community production of the data this is only half of the story. I will go out on a limb here and say that – although i can obviously not prove this – the success of OpenStreetMap is at least to the same extend the result of OSM taking the revolutionary approach of producing a completely generic database of geographic data. In the domain of cartography this was completely unheard of. And i am not even sure if this was a conscious choice of the project at the beginning or if it was just the luck of approaching the subject without the preconceptions most cartographers had at the time.

And today it is my perception that it is not so much the volume of data, its quality or its free nature that makes even more conservative people in the field of cartography realize the significance of OpenStreetMap but its ability to maintain and widen its position in a quickly changing world with very little changes in the underlying base technology and with hardly any firm governance. There have been quite a few voices in the OSM community in the past few years criticizing technological stagnation within the project – a critique that is in parts not without basis. But one of the most amazing things about OSM is that despite such issues the project is able to manage the growth over the past 14 years without fully re-building the foundations of the project every few years like almost any comparable more traditional project would have had to. And there is no reason to assume that this cannot continue for the foreseeable future based on the same fundamental principles. Although i specifically only refer to the core principles of the project and not everything that developed around it.

All good you could think and proudly lean back but that is not the whole story of course. Since OpenStreetMap at the beginning was relatively alone with its revolutionary approach to cartography it had to do most of the things on its own and out of necessity became a significant innovative force in cartographic data processing. Later the huge domain of Open Source geodata processing and open data formats and service standards developed parallel to OpenStreetMap with also a few tools having OSM data processing as a primary initial use case so OpenStreetMap continued in many ways to drive innovation in cartographic technology (although you need to also give some credit to Google here of course).

With institutional cartography starting to adopt the ideas of rule based cartographic design these tools and the possibilities they offer are not exclusive to OSM any more though. While 5-8 years ago you could usually spot an OSM based map from a distance simply due to the unique design aspects resulting from the underlying technologies this is no more the case today. Map producers frequently mix OSM and non-OSM data, for example based on regional cuts, without this being noticeable without a close look at the data.

In other words: OpenStreetMap has lost its complete dominance of the technological field of rule based digital cartography. This is not a bad thing at all since OSM is not a technology project, it is a crowd sourced geographic data acquisition project – and in that domain its dominance is increasing and not decreasing. Still this development has a significant impact on the project because OSM does not operate in its own separate ecosystem any more it originally formed by being so very different from traditional cartography and where the only visible competition were essentially the commercial non-traditional cartography projects (Google, Here etc.). Now this field has both widened and flattened. And in this widened field there are other data sources used, in particular on a regional level but also global data sources generated using automated methods and crowd sourced data like from Wikidata as well as value added derivatives of OSM data and OSM competes with those on a fine grained level without there being that much technological separation any more due to different cartographic traditions.

As said the risk OpenStreetMap faces as a result of this development is ultimately not its position as an open geodata producer. The main risk in my eyes comes from the reflexes many people in the OSM community seem to react with to this development because they at least subconsciously perceive this as a threat. I see two main trends here:

  • turning away from the principle of generic geodata and the principle of verifiability that made OpenStreetMap successful. People see the strength of OSM being its large community but don’t have the faith that this will in the long term be able to compete with the combination of institutional data producers, bot mapping and remote sensing in the field of verifiable geographic information. So they want to re-claim the field the institutional data producers abandon at the moment because it is no more sustainable for them, the field of subjective, hand designed cartography data – and the part that is so far specifically not included in the scope of OpenStreetMap.
  • trying to hold on to the comfort of isolation from the rest of the cartographic world by ignoring what happens outside of OpenStreetMap or by declaring everything outside of OSM as irrelevant. The large gap between OSM and traditional cartography always brought with it a constant risk of becoming self referential in many aspects, especially as the project grew. The wide adoption of OSM data outside the immediate project environment however counteracted that quite well. But still there is a trend among some people in the OSM community trying to blend out the complexity of the world and in a way trying to become self sufficient.

I think these two trends – no matter if they are exclusively a reaction to the developments described before or if there are other factors contributing to this – are probably among the top challenges OpenStreetMap faces these days. As said the project’s core ideas (generic, verifiable geo-data based on local knowledge of its contributors) are solid and could likely carry the project for the forseeable future but only if the OSM community continues to put trust and support in these principles.

I will probably write separately in more detail about the anti-verifiability tendencies in OSM in a future post.

Another development related to this is that while in the OpenStreetMap ecosystem we have an almost universal dominance of open source software the world of institutional cartography is also strongly shaped by proprietary software. It is no coincidence that Esri a few months ago showed a map service based on proprietary software that clearly imitates the OSM standard style, which is kind of a symbol for rule based cartography in OpenStreetMap. It is clear that companies offering proprietary software will not stay away from rule based cartography. And with institutional customers they are not in a bad starting position here.

This is of course less of a problem directly for OpenStreetMap and more for the OSGeo world.


  1. Do you think your resolution (avoid distractions and keep mapping as usual) is a kind of the second trend you present (to ignore what happens outside)? To me, it should be a blend of 1 and 2, which is archieveable if we change the definition of verifiability. We have been too far past the “truth on the ground” anyway, since the introduction of the Bing imagery.

    • As said i am going to write separately about verifiability. This in OSM is a principle that is very often misunderstood and abused in arguments, in particular in the conflict craft mapping vs. armchair mapping. The term verifiability is problematic because even if it has been used by OSM in almost exactly the meaning it has in science the same term is used elsewhere (like in Wikipedia) with a very different meaning.

      I have no future strategy for OSM ready for implementation and even if i had one that would be meaningless because it would not have the support of the OSM community. But i think neither of the trends described or a blend of both of them would do OSM any good. It could very well amount what we in Germany call suicide out of fear of death or in other words: A drastic form of shooting yourself in the own foot.

      What i am pretty sure about is two things:

      • as a crowd sourced mapping project OSM has no future without the core principles described (local knowledge and verifiability). The idea of a Wikipedia for geodata many of those advocating the first trend seem to desire has no future outside a very small niche maybe that would put it forever lightyears away from OSM’s goal of becoming the best map of the world.
      • to continue playing a meaningful role in the field of rule based digital cartography in the future OSM developers on the data use side would need to abandon the isolationism many have been following in the past and would need to engage with the challenges of digital cartography in general. This is not essential for OSM as a mapping project but a largely self referential developer community on the data use side would likely have a very negative effect back on the mapping community. This by the way is a subject where i am currently unsure about where the journey of the big corporate OSM data users is going. Many of them have stronger connections to the OSM community developer world than to the world of institutional cartography and many are actually in many ways less cartographically innovative than OSM community projects.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

By submitting your comment you agree to the privacy policy and agree to the information you provide (except for the email address) to be published on this blog.