Why it is essential for the OpenStreetMap community to actively pursue map design innovation


This is kind of a note on the general matter of map design in OpenStreetMap based maps – on which i am going to write more specifically in the following blog post. Like in various previous posts on map design matters i am going to write about new ideas and cartographic techniques to display the information mappers record in OpenStreetMap in a rich – yet hopefully intuitively readable – map, suitable for a large bandwidth of geographic settings. Unfortunately i am fairly alone in publicly writing about this topic in the context of OpenStreetMap based automatically rendered interactive maps aimed at global use. Even outside the OpenStreetMap world in depth discussion about rule based map design is rare and most of what is written in the wider context of map rendering focuses on purely technical aspects and improving rendering efficiency.

You can get a bit of an idea how this lack of innovation in map design in the OpenStreetMap community is damaging for the project and its public image from an article in Cartographic Perspectives published recently. In a nutshell this article’s failure is conflating OpenStreetMap with the mediocre OSM data based maps produced by a commercial map service provider tuned for cost efficiency in providing the map tiles rather than quality and information content of the map. That this is foremost a failure of the peer review of the article is obvious, but this is not my topic here. What this however also illustrates is that the vast majority of OSM data based maps do neither show ambition nor ability to aim higher than the products of Google, Bing etc. in terms of innovation and quality of map design. Roughly 80 percent of OSM based maps are the basic garden variety styles combining basic rendering of roads, buildings and static POIs and labels, sometimes with some purely decorative landcover depiction. The other 20 percent are specialty maps for specific narrow use cases – sometimes with considerable innovative ideas but always limited to a very narrow thematic field. With that background it is somewhat understandable if conservative cartographers unfamiliar with OpenStreetMap think it is identical data-wise to the poor Google Maps imitations commercial map providers have created using OSM data.

If the OpenStreetMap community wants to stay avant-garde in cartographic data collection and actively shape the future of that domain rather than swimming with the stream and becoming a mere data provider serving the cartographic data needs of data users with big pockets, it needs to be able to shape the map design depicting and presenting the data the mapper community collects. The few efforts from within the OSM community in that direction that we still have are hampered by the map design tools and rendering tools for automated rule based cartography available – tools which for many years now have been designed and developed almost exclusively for the needs of commercial map service providers like i discussed above. So the challenge for the OSM community is two-fold – nurturing and valuing innovative community map design work inspired by the values of the project rather than short term external economic interests as well as developing and supporting the software needed for these map design efforts.

When looking at comments and contributions on the OSM-Carto issue tracker and following map rendering discussions in the OSM community elsewhere i am frequently quite frightened by the lack of effort and more in depth interest in the topic. To put it bluntly – the attitude of most OSM community members w.r.t. map design seems to be one of two: (a) That maps based on OSM data will just happen to appear somewhere and develop themselves based on needs and opportunities without requiring any specific talents, experience or education or (b) that map design is essentially nothing more than occasionally adding rendering support for a new tag with some randomly picked new line or polygon fill color or adding yet another static poi symbol type using an icon more or less related to the tag in question.

This needs to change – significantly and rather urgently. I have been pointing this out in various forms for quite a long time already and i do here again with more emphasis. What i am occasionally discussing here with my OSM map design related blog posts is just one of many possible approaches to innovation in OSM related map design. All of them deserve more and more ambitious interest and more support from within the OSM community.

Although this post might in parts suggest something different – it is not my intention to assign blame here regarding who is responsible for the developments of the past. What is important is the realization that there is a need to act here and that an own and diverse innovative map design capability from within the OSM community that is not just piggy-bagged on the work of third parties outside the project but that is capable and willing to guide and shape design in its own direction, is essential for the long term success of OpenStreetMap. And that the technical foundations for this in the form of software that enables such innovative map design with flexibility, likewise need to be developed and shaped from within the project and can equally not just be attached to external endeavors which follow completely different economic goals.

If that does not happen OpenStreetMap would get in trouble and loose significance rather quickly. The idea that OpenStreetMap could compete on metrics like those of the Cartographic Perspectives article i linked to with proprietary cartographic data sources is unrealistic – those will be massively expanding on machine generated data for machine generated maps and OpenStreetMap will never be able to compete in that domain. What OpenStreetMap is good at and where the proprietary competition has no chance against it is producing a map based on local knowledge, by the people, for the people – both in the data collection and mapping part and in the actual map design and production.


  1. Very good observations.

    Last week there was an international cartographic conference. How many participants declared their affiliation with OSM – none! Unless there were more people like me who did not want to declare it because they feel that cartography is not only unwanted, but actively pushed out of OSM by conscious inaction (you’re not the only one trying to do cartography work in OSM, but most people quickly give up and do it elsewhere).

    OSM was mentioned in a number of ICC presentations but always as a source of data, never as a cartographic map (although one presenter mentioned, that OSM map is getting better). I have talked with a number of people using OSM data and there was a shock for them to know that tagging is mostly heterogenic and can change dramatically without any good reason. It was also a surprise to know that wiki is just a pile of opinions and it does not represent any idea/direction/rule on how things should be mapped – even worse – there is no such idea and no move to create such idea. Nobody even considered using OSM-Carto map (as a map design) for the very simple reason – without real generalisation it is not a real map from cartographic perspective.

    There are some interesting moves on generalisation and multiple-representation commission. Some benchmarks should be appearing helping to evaluate the resulting map (well, evaluate generalisation result). This could be a way to understand position of OSM maps as well as get good ideas of where work is to be done to show OSM as a Cartographic work/innovation, not a basic geodata visualisation. There is clearly an overdependence on commercial software to provide functionality in cartography community, so it looks like a place where OSM can have an impact as we do have a lot of people with coding skills.

    But for this to work we need:
    1. a separate slowly updating but QUALITY carto product – so that people have a place to work on (OSM-Carto is unsuitable),
    2. most importantly – there must be some QA on changing of tagging both in terms of key/value as well as geometry/topology rules/constraints – so that people have means/motivation to work on cartography with stable base.

    • Well, i would not in any way look at institutional cartography as a role model for OpenStreetMap. Traditional institutional cartography has their own massive structural deficits – in particular the almost universal inability and unwillingness to question their traditional dogmas developed in the pre-digital age. The multiple-representation dogma you mention (trying to translate the pre-digital work processes to produce multi-scale map series 1:1 into the digital world) is probably the best example for this. The paradigm of rule based automated map rendering and seeing map design as a discipline to develop computerized and parametrized digital processes rather than the direct manipulation of cartographic data by a human cartographer is something that is mostly rejected by institutional cartography and OpenStreetMap as being fundamentally based on that paradigm with its generic geo-database approach is frequently despised by institutional cartography exactly because of that.

      As said – the options for the OSM community to innovate in the field of digital map design are still manifold, specifically also because of the failures of institutional cartography as well as large commercial map service providers to substantially innovate in that field so far. But this will not be the case forever and the OSM community needs to decide if they want to actively shape the future in that field or if they let others proprietize this domain and will be content with living of the scraps of others so to speak.

  2. Interesting insight into contemporary “institutional” cartography.

    Conference was also attended by NMA’s as well as educational, military institutions. And both are, I would say, VERY MUCH interested in automation of map rendering. Everybody was mentioning percentage of automation with a target being 100%. It was mentioned that NMA’s budgets are decreasing rapidly all around the world, requirements to update maps more often are increasing, and they are approaching this problem from two fronts: removing requirements which are not essential for final customers/users (therefore decreasing the quality of the product) as well as AUTOMATION – which mostly boils down to automated generalisation.

    SwissTopo usage of automated notification but manual updates of their famous maps was demonstrated and it is one of more conservative attitudes. They are (unlike most others) ready to pay a lot to keep the quality of their maps until automation catches up.

    Automation IS extremely important/interesting for “institutional cartography”. OSM is despised because of total lack of cartography, not because of the way cartography is being done. For some time OSM will have some advantages like possibility to adjust schemas to better suit cartography needs, augment data as well as simply test the automation on the scale not accessible to anybody else, but government data will get this pretty soon as well.

    Lack of Cartography movement in OSM is mostly because of lack of base and I would say very strong opposition to it.

    • We are leaving the topic of the blog post here and also moving into the domain of discussing terminology rather than substance. The term ‘cartography’ is problematic because traditional cartographers tend to think they own the term and there is not much meaning in saying there is no cartography in OSM because many traditional cartographers will think what people in the OSM community do can by definition not be cartography. I therefore prefer to use the term map design – which is much less politically and dogmatically loaded.

      As far as automation is concerned – that term is also used with very different meanings. For a traditional accountant automation is what you do with Excel. What the traditional cartographer thinks when they talk about automated generalization is that they have some [generalize] button in their flashy klicki-bunti GIS app that invokes some magic and does to the currently selected layer in the loaded data set in a few seconds what would have taken them hours of hard work by hand. What i am referring to when talking about automated rule based map rendering is, that the map designer is not actually designing a concrete map based on concrete data but is developing a process or rule set to generate a visualization from a generic geo-database. I have not yet met any institutional cartographer who substantially gets how much different and how much of a revolutionary departure that is from traditional cartography. For most traditional cartographers automation is essentially just the vague (and ultimately unrealistic) hope of cost reduction without the need to change anything in substance in the way they work and look at their domain of work.

      • Well… We’re on different planets then. For me (and ICA) “map design” is just one of the aspects of cartography… and not only according to ICA, but to carto education as well… Definition of carto IS different, but mostly it differs in if we define cartography as just drawing maps – communicating the message, or if we also include data collection, preparation, printing, sales and distribution.

        What is the difference of your understanding of cartography comparing to what is presented in these ICA publications: ?

        • As already said i try to avoid the term cartography in this context because of the political and ideological baggage it carries. People like M. H. Edney who have thought and written about this much more in depth than me tend to concur.

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