Talking about OpenStreetMap Cartography


Earlier this week i gave a talk in Dresden for the local section of the DGfK about OpenStreetMap cartography (in German). Since i got several requests for the slides of this talk i am publishing them here.

The talk is primarily about open community maps developed within the project in contrast to commercial OSM based maps but in preparation for the talk i also noticed that in terms of cartographic innovation commercial OSM maps are actually not really that meaningful in either past or present. This is kind of disturbing considering that development of digital cartography outside of OpenStreetMap does not stand still of course. So while OpenStreetMap pioneered many techniques of digital automated rule based cartography in the past at present it seems that the commercial OSM data users are satisfied with focusing on the technological side and show very little interest in actual cartographic progress.

And this despite the fact that there are actually quite a lot of aspects of the cartography of digital interactive maps which above the level of testing random ideas and playing around on a technical level have hardly ever been analyzed and discussed.


  1. Could you explain this part: “in terms of cartographic innovation commercial OSM maps are actually not really that meaningful in either past or present”? Thank you.

    • Considering the number of different commercial OSM based map styles and style variants that exist the amount of cartographic innovation coming out of them is very small. At most there are some interesting color schemes being developed but overall most of them are just applying visualization methods that were originally developed elsewhere or just playing more or less randomly with the options their technological framework offers them.

      This makes sense from an economic standpoint of course – doing things fundamentally different than the competition in terms of cartography is primarily a risk factor.

  2. These aren’t specific to OSM, but the top cartographic problems I think right now are:

    1. Designing maps that dynamically adapt to your context. eg. if you’re walking around at night time then restaurants and bars are probably more relevant to show than cafe’s which are closed. If you’re on a bike, then show cycle infrastructure with more weighting. If you’re in a city that you’re never visited maybe show tourist activities more prominently. This is more than just swapping between OpenCycleMap and OpenStreetMap and OpenTouristMap, it’s about having one map that dynamically changes elements of the style.

    2. Factor map density to determine what to show at what zoom level. My biggest gripe with most online maps is in some areas they appear blank and empty and only when you zoom in does the detail show up, and other areas they are too cluttered and show details too soon when you’re still zoomed out.

    3. Indoor, seamless flow into indoor maps of multistory buildings.

    4. Incorporating live information into our maps, showing an area where people are gathering for protest, major events that are happening, live weather.

    5. Generalisation. For example when zoomed out instead of drawing two lines for a dual carriage highway that mostly overlap and then, the two streets should be generalised into a single line and only expand out into dual carriage lines when you zoom in.

    • The problems you describe at least in the way you describe them are technological problems rather than cartographic problems. To give you an example – in problem 2 you describe essentially the problem of handling the diversity of global geography in a common rule set of a rule based digital map style. You propose a specific technical approach to this problem (to factor map density and use that to determine the starting zoom level of features) and formulate the problem as the technological challenge how to implement that – which is an interesting and non-trivial problem of course. But the cartographic problem is more the question if that is actually a suitable approach to the challenges of global geographic diversity. The question of selection, i.e. what to show and what not to show on a map alone is much broader than the very specific idea of selecting a starting zoom level of features based on some form of map density measurement.

      Don’t get me wrong – there are lots of technological problems that would be important to solve for enabling better cartography in digital maps. But it is important to keep in mind that these are always just means to the end of producing high quality maps, not ends in themselves.

  3. Well, you should mention OpenMapSurfer in this regard — Maxim did a lot of researching on styling OSM maps.

    • Unfortunately OpenMapSurfer is not an open style making analysis more difficult and less interesting than with open projects. It is also difficult to identify which parts of the style are updated continuously and which parts depend on preprocessing. But compared to the majority of commercial styles there is definitely an above average number of interesting cartographic ideas being implemented in there. And it is one of the most feature rich non-open styles out there.

  4. From the images, this looks really interesting. Bit of a way off before proposing, but would could make a great State of the Map talk about cartography and style.

    • Well – the problem here is that for the State of the Map conference as it happened in the past few years this is kind of too specialized. I would very much like it if SotM would develop more in a direction where this kind of subject could well be discussed and people working on map design and cartography subjects would be eager to visit the conference – in parts selfishly motivated because i always enjoy talking to people in this domain on an international scope of course. But i am not sure if that is feasible within the concept of a general OSM conference that covers the full range of topics in the OSM community. You can’t really aim at both breadth and depth at the same time.

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