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.