The Essence of OpenStreetMap


Yesterday Frederik has asked in the German language OSM-Forum what community members perceive to be the Essence of OpenStreetMap (in the sense of “What are the essential aspects of OSM without which it would not be OSM any more?”). This is a very interesting and important question. And i believe that the answers people would give to this question and how this develops over time says a lot about the state and development of the project. Unfortunately it is of course quite difficult to get accurate answers to such an abstract and difficult question.

Here my attempt at this. For me the following aspects are essential for OpenStreetMap:

  • Mapping by people for people – this means data acquisition is under control and responsibility of equal individuals and the purpose of data acquisition is primarily use by individuals.
  • The verifiability of data – the core of this for me is in particular the differentiation from projects like Wikipedia, which reject the on-the-ground observation and instead try to document the dominant view of a society of the reality.
  • Regarding the not directly mapping oriented parts of the OpenStreetMap project – i am primarily thinking of tagging discussions, development work or the development and discussion of practical rules etc. – for me the meritocratic principle is of essential importance here. This means decisions are founded on an evidence based discussion using arguments and verifiable observations as basis.
  • The social contract – which on the one side consists of the open license and the duty to attribute OpenStreetMap and the share-alike rule for the data as the social contract between mappers and data users. On the other side there is also a social contract among mappers – based on the principle of equal rules for everyone and the primacy of the local community (giving local mappers ownership of their map).

As most probably see these principles are strongly interrelated, removing one of them would lead to a significant imbalance and immense social shifts in the project.

That these principles are questioned by individuals from time to time is natural and not a particular problem – on the contrary it helps encouraging people to question their own assumptions and principles. A question i have asked myself just recently is however if there is still a majority among people active in OpenSteetMap for these principles. Just because someone likes the advantages and conveniences the success of the project offers this does not mean he or she necessarily embraces the principles and values that led to the success of the project and that are necessary for the future continued success of it. What i more frequently observe recently is that people – often because of short sighted and egoistic motives – question core principles of the project without realizing that this essentially means putting an axe to the tree you are sitting on.

The principles listed above are just my personal view of the essence of OpenStreetMap of course. Others might set different priorities here. But i would recommend to everyone to reflect and critically question

  • if what you perceive to be the essence of OpenStreetMap is actually a viable basis to carry the project in the long term.
  • if these principles are shared by the majority of OSM contributors.

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