IamA Founder of OpenStreetMap AMA!
My short bio: I'm from a small island in Northern Europe and started OpenStreetMap (OSM) there about a decade ago. OSM is a wiki map of the world. It's like wikipedia, but it's a map so you add roads and buildings (and a lot more) instead of text articles. We started from a blank page and have built a map that in places is the best available, better than commercial offerings. Best of all, it's free!
I'm here in part because I'm writing a book about it on kickstarter:
This follows my last kickstarter over here:
And, if you're in to kickstarter things then this talk I gave about it might be fun:
My Proof: I'll post a backlink here from my blog in just a minute... And here it is: http://stevecoast.com/2014/12/29/im-doing-a-reddit-ama/
EDIT Also see /r/openstreetmap and here's a talk I did on OSM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjjviFvGeho
Google people have been super supportive of OSM including funding our conference and so on. I think OSM just moves too slowly for what they're trying to achieve, and that's fine. The world can support more than one map or one ideology.
I think it would be hard for Google for a couple of reasons. First is the investment. Who wants to be the guy to write off billions of dollars? Second, the map isn't actually good enough yet for them, and they're not done yet. They're trying to get cars to drive themselves which in part requires great maps, and they're not there yet.
Will it ever happen? Eventually. I think it depends how long Google (and OSM) lasts, which depends on them (G) finding more than one business model, which enters in to the realm of speculation.
Think about it like this: Would you bet people wouldn't use wikipedia? In the end, if OSM is good enough at zero price, why wouldn't you use it?
On to the license.
The ODbL is a convenient thing to blame for not using OSM. I haven't found a use case yet where it wasn't really about something else, like a business decision. For example, some don't want to contribute addressing back to OSM and so "the license is bad". It's like saying wikipedia's license is "bad" because I have to credit wikipedia when I use it.
Is the license perfect? Absolutely not. But we're breaking new ground here. There isn't another large open data project close to the scope and size. Could we go public domain? Yes, but then it's an open question as to whether it would succeed without incentives to contribute anything to the pot. Hence discussion of Linux vs. BSD.
I will tell you 100% that the reason none of my business use OSM or contribute to it is because the ODbl license is as clear as mud. Even the FAQs leave me with more questions than I started with.
Ultimately it's just not worth the risk of using OSM data in anything commercial, at least for my usecases.
What are your use cases, and what is the risk?
Hi Steve, you're on record saying that you think the next big challenge for OSM is address data. Given the myriad of address systems in use across the globe, and how this is often perceived as 'less fun' than adding other features to the map, how do you see this challenge being met?
Also, and half-jokingly, how has OSM managed to get this far without a properly defined Polygon feature type?
Frankly it's hard to see it happen within OSM any time soon. Addressing requires some bold moves. For example, only show roads on the OSM website which have addresses. That would instantly make the world go blank, and create a lot of pressure to add address data, similar to how OSM was 5-7 years ago but with more people and resources. That kind of bold move is unfortunately hard to make happen these days.
OSM has succeeded, I think and in part, precisely because the data model (and other things) are/is so simple. When I started it, there were various calls for OSM to use all kinds of complicated schemas (like WFS http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_Feature_Service ). You'd blow your brains out just reading the specification. OSM to me in many ways was a people problem not a technology problem, and it's easier to fit the technology to the people (e.g. OSMs simple models) than it is to convince people to go use WFS.
What inspired you to start up OSM?
There's a few different answers to that question. On one level, it was just kind of obvious. Back then, in 2004, Wikipedia was hot new technology and the wiki idea in general was spreading. Why not apply it to maps?
On another level, I had an old laptop with Debian Linux on it and a USB GPS device. I tried to use some mapping software but there were no maps. So why not make them?
On another level, the maps that were available in the UK and Europe tended to be very proprietary and expensive. So why not open them up?
On another level, I was young and naive.
Let's not forget though that OSM is now many, many people from all over the world. It wouldn't have worked if I hadn't convinced a lot of people to join in and help.
I love OSM! I also love What3Words.com -- how about a mashup?
I think w3w is neat too, it's the first global code system with some actual money behind it so you never know where it will go.
Any w3w integration is up to the OSM sysadmins, and for some good reasons they tend to be cautious of new things. Maybe one day.
Do you see OSM ever being purchased for say $1billion dollars (that seems to be the popular # these days)? Or is OSM firm enough in its values to not buckle?
There's nothing to buy. The primary asset is the dataset which is open anyway, and there are a fair amount of controls to make sure it stays that way.
Looking forward to the book, but to preempt it - Are there any decisions you made in the early days you now regret ?
I'll split this in to two. Mistakes and regrets.
Mistakes abound. OSM could have had an exit like waze. Segments (a data model we had prior to ways) diverted energy away. Trying to run mapping parties by telling people where or what to map rather than letting them self-select. Calling it OpenStreetMap when it's much more than streets.
Defining "mistake" would take too long, but we should note that many of these things are only mistakes when viewed under a certain light. Mistakes of some kind are inevitable when doing something new. I'm happy making mistakes because it means I'm learning something. What I discovered is that this doesn't apply to most people, for whom mistakes or even trying something which has a chance of becoming a mistake is... not something you do.
Which brings me to my only regret: Giving up too much power. I thought that everyone in the world thinks like I do, and would also give up power and try new things like I did. That for the most part simply didn't happen. It's worked out very well, and the people are great, and OSM hums along... but the days of taking big bets and risks is over. That drives me nuts, since there's so much more out there to do with open mapping than just making the map slightly better every year and running another conference. For example, addressing.
We've done very well, as you know. We blazed a trail for others to follow too. I just have a much higher set of ambitions, including OSM being "done" by now (which would include addressing, of course).
Steve -- are you saying that you wished that OSM had gone down the route of for-profit crowd sourcing a la Waze, rather than non profit a la Wikipedia? Have you thought about these two modes and pros and cons of each?
That's why I mentioned "certain light" above, there are tradeoffs here. Being able to monetize would speed things up. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, open or closed. You can make data open after two years, or something.
The downside is you don't get the same unexpected use cases like the Humanitarian OSM Team ( http://hotosm.org ) going and saving the day in Haiti.
How does the future of OSM look like?
Every day that goes by makes it harder to justify not using OSM in some way, because the map keeps getting better and the price is staying the same. I've said enough about addressing elsewhere here already, but it's the missing piece.
What do you think of OSM community? Is it good at making and resolving its arguments? Generally and regarding addresses.
There isn't a homogeneous community. We have 1.9 million registered accounts across the planet and roughly 10% of them will have done anything substantial so call it 200,000 real users. Out of that I think 150 or something on that scale voted at the last opportunity to do so in the OSM Foundation.
The numbers involved in anything like going to a conference or being on a mailing list or forum are tiny subsections of that 200,000 user count. I think most would be appalled at what goes on within the mailing lists, which as just one example are a terrible communication medium in any case. Luckily most OSMers aren't even on the mailing lists!
I love the OSM community, you just have to remember it's a lot bigger than the mailing lists, which are very Inside Baseball.
Would you ever be ok with someone created a GPS app using your maps?
Absolutely. In fact many people have already. Here are some for Android:
If you look around the OSM wiki you'll find many more for other platforms too (including Scout by Telenav, where I work).
awesome answer thanks.
Dude you live in Denver? Ever down for grabbing a beer with random people on the internet?
Of course, PM me!
Can you tell us more about the current status of routing with OSM data? How does it compare with the other alternatives?
OSM routing is great if done well, at Telenav we did the first commercial consumer-facing mass routing (download Scout!) focusing first on the US. There are a variety of projects to use routing in OSM:
Do you think OpenStreetMap is prepared for 3D data or images(like Mapillary) or it isn't the purpose of OpenStreetMap?
I'm amazed at some of the progress in 3D that people have achieved within OSMs data model:
Images are harder. We could have become "flickr for maps" or gone and done an openstreetview but a) it's a different problem class and, b) mapping the world was hard enough to start with :-)
It's probably better to have these things outside but complimentary to OSM.
Has Flickr ever approached OSM about an open collaboration that would link images to things or places found on OSM? Would you or OSM consider something like that? Flickr users could opt in to have their images applied or linked. (I have no affiliation with Flickr. Am a registered user of both.)
Flickr has evolved a lot over the years. In fact, it was one of the first commercial users of OSM data back in the day. I think mapillary is making progress on this front, the question is to figure out a business model to make it sustainable.
I'm working on a 'web scale' ( sorry for the Web3.0 jargon ) database to serve Geographic data ( OSM is among the data sets ). Primary functions will be 1) kNN lookups e.g. geocoding, 2) Point in Poly e.g. geofence and 3) bulk polygon storage e.g. OSM structures / ways.
a) Can you recommend a back-end? b) what does OSM.org use to serve data currently?
a) That all looks read-only so PostGIS? b) Postgres with some magic on top
Thanks for the response, I'll check out the Servers wiki.
I've historically found issues scaling Postgres a) especially sharding Relational Databases across the globe b) with that much data, serving soft-realtime geospatial queries e.g. kNN, PostGIS crawls to a halt.
So far I've checked out GeoMesa as a drop-in, but I also love what I've seen from the mapzen folks re. the Pelias geocoding project.
Let me know if you have any further thoughts!
Can you do something clever to make some of this stuff static and put it on a CDN or S3?
I bought your book on kickstarter and I'm looking forward to reading it.
Ireland is finally getting post codes. And it looks like turning into a mockery if a travesty of a sham. How could open street map have helped ireland get better cheaper post codes than purely commercial methods?
I don't know about the history of post codes in Ireland. I'd be surprised if it was more than the local post monopoly or postal union dictating the scheme by fiat? I have a friend who always joked about writing a history of post codes & zip codes, maybe someone's done that already.
There are a variety of systems of addressing out there. It sometimes surprises people to learn that not everywhere uses the geographically linear numbering scheme used in much of North America and Europe. For example, numbering on a block not per street, and numbering based on how old the house is, not on distance from the start of a road.
I'd be cautious about unifying things. Part of the richness of the world is having different systems.
I don't know about the history of post codes in Ireland. I'd be surprised if it was more than the local post monopoly or postal union dictating the scheme by fiat?
Irish person here. I don't think the national postal company (An Post) were in favour of postcodes in Ireland, because they already knew where all the addresses were. Postcodes will help non postal uses like couriers.
One problem with Irish Postcodes is due to politicians deciding on the politically easy thing, like not forcing people to change town/Street name
Of course the post company would be against it, why didn't I think the obvious? :-)
Do you map? What do you like to map the most?
Yes I still map under a variety of usernames. I've been attacking addressing to get a feel for the complexity of it. I used to spend a lot of time cleaning up TIGER data. Map roulette is a good way to find random things to fix in the map:
What would you say to someone responding that your use of multiple accounts waters down ability to check authenticity/reliability of edits? I.e. a script might see an edit, and based on the account's lifespan/geography-span and other edits, it would then try to evaluate a level of trust.
i'd say in the general case you're right but as the founder I've had satirical fake blogs set up about me, people follow me and other internet weirdness. So I take a degree of anonymity.
Would you agree that your current view of OSM is a tad focused on or colored by your current workplace requirements, as at Telenav you are looking at the perfect routing algorithm with addresses in a portion of the world where commercial services are already abundant with the sum of them all making for a complete map (but not one of them is there yet)?
Have you for example taken a look at how superior OSM is to Google Maps and other providers in the parts of the world where commercial support is very limited, for example obviously most of Africa (where I myself have been running Mapping Botswana - another slowly growing project like many others).
I'm from Iceland where we have OpenStreetMap rivalling the commercial services of not only Google Maps but also local providers, and the pace just picks up every year with more and more data getting opened up. But this abundance of data and rivals has only shown me how incredible OSM is for the places where all of this infrastructure is lacking, HOTOSM does put the focus on such places but it is a vast world and awesome things are happening outside of them too.
It's the other way around, my bias on my workplace is because of OSM.
OSM is great in lots of places in the world - that's fantastic, thanks to work by people like you. But I also want it to be great where I come from and where I live, which is the UK and USA respectively. It's not there yet, and it won't be there without address data.
This isn't mutually exclusive. OSM can be great in other places too!
Good work on OSM Steve. OSM and G seem to be the only viable maps on the web nowadays. Do you think it is time that maps are part of the web fabric i.e. a "map" tag in html? What is missing for that to happen?
Nokia and TomTom exist too, let's not forget them. They had/have a different approach to collecting data and a different business model (selling the data) which just makes it harder for them to compete on the same playing field as OSM (no business model) or Google (adjacent advertising).
I think there's use in a map tag, but it'd be instantly limiting. Mapping isn't stagnating yet, there's lots happening. So a map tag would work if we mean "google maps circa 2008" or something, but would pretty quickly become obsolete (3d, new imagery types, imagery transitions...). And you'd introduce all kinds of competitive issues. If I own a web browser (like Microsoft and Google do), can I just replace every map with my one?
Given there will be no licensing discussion in The Book, what were the biggest licensing problems if there were any?
Some licensing might creep in... Do you mean the process of moving to the ODbL? There were lots of issues but two come to mind from a strategic point of view.
First was stopping the bleeding. We had people signing up every day under the old license. It took a long time to stop that and only deal with older data.
Second was the meticulous detail required in going over every piece of data to make sure it was relicensable. We lost some data (people don't reply to email, die, disagree with the change...) that was quickly replaced. That process had fractal complexity and would have lasted until the heat death of the universe if allowed to.
Another question/answer was about regrets & data structures. I'm surprised you didn't include it would be good if users could note their choice of license either on sign up or per changeset. Would you have liked that?
Although in the first few months GPS trace upload form had a license option, and for a spatial dataset a mix of licenses would be very complex & limit the coverage made.
I think you vote with your feet on the license. There were "more open" projects that span off and bombed, and you're welcome to start one of course. Introducing license complexity to the data model doesn't appear to have a lot of upside...
What future projects are you looking to get involved in?
I think there's a lot out there in the world that can be fixed. Search can be a lot better as an example. There are a lot of closed databases in the world that could be freed up. It feels like local businesses should have better services to help them with their online presence.
Then there are simple things. I'm noodling with this:
It feels like companies and startups need evangelists more than ever, but they're hard to find and retain. Why not contract that?
I like that evangelist idea. It's quite novel.
Do you get a lot of people pitching you on ways to leverage your previous mapping project, for for-profit ventures? It would seem to be a logical choice, given your knowledge and experience.
Yes - I'm on a few different advisory boards now for example. Notably Auth0 and ParkNav, the others are stealth.
Do you think drones might play a role in OSM in the future?
I'd love them to. I got one for Christmas. Imagery will of course be super useful.
When a drone is the size of your fist, completely automated and magically uploads rectified imagery to the cloud for a few hundred dollars it'll change everything. Right now it's still relatively expensive and bespoke but it'll get there.
Big OSM fan, thank you!
What is it exactly that you do with Telenav? Do you honestly believe that Telenav will continue to give back to OSM, even when more and more useful proprietary data is collected (average speeds, traffic data) etc.?
We've been actively trying to give everything back but it's slow because of the consensus viewpoint on imports and people being "on the ground". They are mostly reasonable viewpoints by the way. If you look at map roulette you'll see a ton of data contributed - the road block is people have to look at it.
Great thank you. Sorry if that came across accusatory -- it wasn't meant to and I'm genuinely interested. I use Scout everyday and am very hopeful that that will also feed back into the map.
If you report an error it gets sent to OSM :-)
Hi Steve. How fast is the OSM community growing? Are you seeing an uptick or a slowdown in newcomers, core contributors, activity? Do you have a community manager or similar role?
I'm the community manager at another wiki project (wikiHow) and am always curious about how other similar communities are doing :)
The nice thing about exponential curves is they look the same but the numbers change every year :-)
We don't have a community manager. We should have paid people to help things along but it's a difficult subject in a volunteer community.
I'm toying with the idea creating a web app that would use OSM data that I'd have to download from geofabrik or a similar source, and presumably update semi-regularly. What's the best way for someone using OSM data to be a good citizen and give back to the people you're downloading data from?
I'm particularly interested in data for particular buildings / addresses, which is sometimes sparse in my area. I'm reluctant to contribute personally because I'm not sure I understand the expectation of accuracy - I can't exactly provide GPS measured coordinates for corners of buildings, especially for conjoined addresses. How do I know if my data is "good enough?"
I'd ask this on the osm forum or /r/openstreetmap
I'd say if you data is better than what's already there, then it's good enough. So if nothing is there, you're better!
do you know of any wiki-style software that is geared towards creating/imputting data in databases in general (versus for maps or encyclopedia entries)?
Danny Hillis and others did some groundbreaking work with freebase which Google has since shut down. Now, there's wikidata:
I'm not super familiar with it. But, I'd say that trying to cram every possible use case in to MediaWiki is the wrong way to go. But like they say, when you have a hammer...
If you had to redo the map project from scratch, what sort of system would you use or design to handle crowdsourcing map data?
I think I'd pretty much do it the same with some tweaks.
I'm trying to be careful to assign credit. The addition of change sets and relations for example. I had similar ideas but I didn't implement those, and they're critical.
I think exploring tags beyond just keys and values, since we hack in third values by doing things like "addr:housenumber=42" for example. You can find more here:
Beyond the data model itself, waze really nailed some aspects of crowd sourcing. The human element of getting people to contribute certain things.
Addresses have been mentioned a few times here. Clearly we need more of them in OSM. Are there any plans to make importing addresses easier?
Personally I'd like to see that happen, there are too many barriers to getting data in. Some are technical, some are philosophical but mostly it's ideology.
Could you explain, in layman's terms, what is the advantage of using your maps over, say Google Maps? Are there specific purposes for which OpenStreet maps are preferable?
For the end consumer, you should use Google or Bing or whatever today, since OSM doesn't match those in consumer features like finding a house or routing to a destination everywhere.
But that is the end goal - to be that good.
OSM is that good in some places and has many other benefits. Like you can access all the data, you can fix things, we can rapidly map disaster areas (like Haiti), there's a real community behind it and so on.
Hi Steve, thanks for taking time to do an AMA, big OSM fan. I have three questions, so i'll hope you'll bear with me. Firstly how did you find your time studying at UCL, and how much of an impact do you think this lead into you founding OSM? Secondly Does it feel strange that it has become a big topic of academic research with people like Muki Haklay writing papers about it? Lastly, what's your opinion on the open/proprietary software situation in the mapping/GIS industry and do you think open tools and data will eventually take over?
UCL. I was working in a couple of PhD research labs and not paying much attention to studies. That mean I had the time and resources (computers with direct access to the internet, no NAT!) to go do OSM and other things.
Muki was in one of those research labs (as was Paul Torrens, Martin Dodge, Sean Gorman and others), so it's not entirely strange.
I don't think open software will take over because it's always playing catch up and very rarely customer-focused or original. As an example, select a group of numbers in Excel and it takes two clicks to color the cells by value. That is, green for low numbers through orange and red. A simple visualization that's very valuable that I use all the time.
Go try that in libre/open office, apple numbers or google docs. It's essentially impossible by comparison. Everyone tries to copy Excel (and ESRI and so on) but they always end up copying the wrong thing. See my talk and the part about Dubai copying New York:
What a great idea- to harness the hive in regards to map making. How are you able to accurately add information to the map without surveying equipment?
It depends on your definition of accuracy. For most use cases GPS is what you're using to VIEW the map, which is accurate to roughly 30ft or 10m. So if the data is roughly that accurate then it's good enough. Since a lot of data is also COLLECTED with GPS then it's good enough for the use case. We aren't putting in sewer lines or anything mission critical, so a few feet accuracy is fine.
Also, more people and more data brings the accuracy up with time. There's a cost curve where higher accuracy leads to dramatically higher costs. GPS accuracy is essentially free since everyone (in rich places) has a phone with GPS. If you want higher accuracy then you need to pay a trained surveyor who needs a reflective jacket and expensive equipment...
How often does the Skobbler/Scout (UK) map data get updated? Is it only when the app is updated (every few months) and if so, why so slowly?
It's more frequent than that, and transparent to the user. Roughly monthly I think. The reason is, we do a lot of checks to make sure everything works and they take time to process.
Forget mental regrets... looking back 10 years, is there a physical item(s), or data from a specific trip, you wish you you kept/saved/rescued?
I tend to throw things away. I remember the anecdote that when Jobs went back to Apple in '97 they had an Apple Museum with all the old computers and stuff in it. He closed it down. Or as I think Gates said, he doesn't spend a lot of time looking in the rear-view mirror.
I find those items like mapping t-shirts, paper maps, conference pens, old GPS units tie me to a past that is gone anyway. I'm much more interested in the future.
Do you see Google ever moving to OSM for Google Maps/Earth data? Other major players have done it -- at least partially (Microsoft, Apple, MapQuest, Esri). I heard lots of folk in the geospatial community claiming that it's OSM's ODbL license that reduces OSM data reuses. Thanks Steve.
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