OSM Community…pause…NOT!

Oct 20, 2013 | GIS, Open Source GIS, Open Street Map

**Updates are at the bottom of this post**

Let me be clear, I like the concept behind Openstreetmap (OSM), as I understand it – a map made by volunteers that supports communities. I’m sold. I’m ready to support. I want to contribute! I live in an awesome community and want to volunteer to help them through mapping. Others here in Athens seem interested in volunteering and contributing.

But how on earth am I, are we, going to create a mapping community in Athens if the OSM “ambassadors” don’t try to connect with their contributors in supportive and constructive ways? …Welcome to the Fall 2013 US Openstreetmap Editathon and the OSM Community.

OSM promotes getting outdoors and mapping. You can use a GPS device or apps for your smartphone (Android or iPhone), like OSM Tracker, or you can even create Field Papers for drawing in your edits and uploading them later. But what if you have a community member, like a local government agency, that has data that could speed up map development and stimulate other parts of the community to map what interests them most (i.e. community gardens, bike routes, bars and restaurants)? Datasets, like building footprints, that cover larger areas need to be imported into OSM a bit differently. The rules for standard, in the field collection, is easy and pretty straight forward – go forth and collect. The rules for importing data, not so much. In fact, there are disputes about whether imports should be allowed at all. You can read about a few of them here, here, and here. (All found on the OSM Import Wiki page – more on that later.)

Several years ago, while at Gainesville State College (R.I.P.), I offered to help with imports then when OSM was still gaining footing here in the States. I was even helping with tool development that I hoped would make the process easier. You know, to help the OSM community. I couldn’t find anyone on the OSM side willing to enter into a constructive discussion about imports. After many failed attempts to connect with anyone, I threw my hands up and walked away from OSM. The reason then was; why would I want to be in, support, and contribute to a community that didn’t want me, especially if I’m volunteering my free time to do so?

Since then, Randy has been heavily involved with OSM, even having served on their board. I’ve been edging closer to it again and actually feeling that desire to get more involved. It’s a good thing. I see the potential of it and the impact it could have. I felt ready to give OSM another try.

This helped. The BBQ was tasty as well.

This helped. The BBQ was tasty as well.

Friday, I met with Athens-Clarke County Planning GIS. I explained what I wanted to do, got the data, and was giddy. Giddy, I tell you! I couldn’t wait to start adding building footprints to the County. I even invited my new GIS contact to come to our little unofficial Athens OSM Editathon that we had yesterday for a few hours at Pulaski Heights BBQ. FYI, for anyone wondering, local government and their employees are very often part of your community. So, yes, I want to invite local government and anyone else living, working, studying, and enjoying in Athens to contribute since it is their community too. That means their OSM contribution can be their data for importing.

In my excitement, I started processing building footprints. I came up with a systematic approach in ArcMap that involved separating out areas by Census Block Groups with a little model I built. I even joined it with Zoning data to help with some of the general attribution, like “residential” and “commercial”. I also created new fields that would be their keys and values for tagging, including the previously mentioned attribution. It’s base data, that’s all. Part of a framework. I did make one fatal error even with all my planning; tags are case sensitive. The first two grids I uploaded didn’t display properly because of this oversight and Randy bailed me out by reverting to a previous version to remove my bad data. Mistakes happen. Nothing serious. Moving on. I started my uploads again after corrections were made and I was getting in a groove. It’s here that I received a message through OSM from one of their Data Work Group members. This is when I first learned about the OSM Import Wiki and at the same time I was being informed that the work I was doing, this time correctly, was going to be removed. There was no effort to connect or discuss, just to inform me of what they were going to do. I replied letting them know I was being instructed by someone knowledgeable in OSM imports and figured that would be enough and continued, unsure if I would get a response. Several hours later and quite a number of grid imports later, I had almost gotten all buildings for downtown Athens up when I got this in mid-import:

Error while using JOSM for OSM imports.

Error while using JOSM for OSM imports.

Yep, I was blocked. Stopped dead in my tracks. I messaged them again to ask why I had been blocked and received “You continued importing.” with another message finally responding to my previous reply. And then I got to watch as my contributions began to disappear from the map. The block on my account was eventually lifted, but what incentive did I have at that point to continue? This was the second time, after all, that I tried to contribute in my own community and was failing again.

What I learned from this is if I want to pursue imports again, I will have quite a wait and there is no guarantee that my request will be approved. I understand there is a protocol in place now, which I just became aware of, but something that confuses me a bit is that you can download the OSM planet files with all the data to create an alternate branch of the OSM map. The source code for everything OSM-related is out there seemingly to encourage people to do just that. You can add this dataset to your server and edit your alternate version there using JOSM, I think, and maybe others. You can add all kinds of stuff to that map either by field observations, GPS, or importing. When you are done, the OSM licensing agreement says you must upload any changes back to the main OSM map. So at that point, how will OSM know where the data really came from, if it was digitized in or imported? How will OSM know if you followed the guidelines in the OSM Import Wiki? How will they manage such an import back into the main map? This isn’t even my revelation as I have read a bit about others branching the OSM map because they knew their data would not be appropriate or acceptable for the main OSM map. Of course this is also not something OSM really wants because, well, it’s one map for the OSM “community”, right? I am hoping someone from the OSM community will eventually like to discuss these things with me or perhaps they will choose to just further alienate me, and others like me, instead. I am seeing a few rising up slowly to the surface that may just be ready. So, yes, I remain hopeful.

In the end, I think OSM has a very different interpretation of what community and open is versus what others of us might consider it to be. That’s perhaps my biggest misunderstanding in all of this. Anyway, here’s hoping we can resolve this. Cheers!

Click here to visit OSM and see what's left of the building footprints in Athens.

Click here to visit OSM and see what’s left of the building footprints in Athens.

Update – 10.22.13: Some of our concerns were brought up in last night’s OSM-US Board meeting and we are encouraged that we might move forward soon with continuing to map Athens. If all continues to go well, the next step will be completing the documentation in the OSM Wiki for our project and begin the formal/informal (unsure which) training process or some kind of overview for the importing process. I’m very interested to learn what I was doing wrong and what the right process is.

Update – 10.23.13: Interesting timing. MIT Technology Review posted an article called The Decline of Wikipedia which seems to also explain some of what we have been observing with OpenStreetMap. Fascinating.

Update – 10.30.13: Giving a shout-out to all the folks from OSM Blog.DE! Ich gruesse Euch alle! Also, I’d like to make a tiny correction (nur ein ganz kliene Korrektur) to what is posted there. This blog was about my (Carol’s) experience attempting to contribute data, but more importantly, it discusses my experience as a new contributor in the OSM Community.

Update – 11.05.13: This is ongoing but appears to be making some progress, at least I think so. If you would like to follow the discussions going on currently within the Import-US mailing list, you can view  the archive here: https://lists.openstreetmap.org/pipermail/imports-us/. Interestingly enough, there is another mailing list I found out about through our discussions called Diversity-Talk that “was created as an explicit acknowledgement that the OSM Community is not an inclusive as it should be, claims to be, or aspires to be.” You can view or join that group here: https://lists.openstreetmap.org/listinfo/diversity-talk. Randy has mentioned that there might need to be a mailing list group for GIS working in OSM to discuss GIS data submissions before they are sent to the Import groups for further evaluation but we aren’t sure how many GIS folks are in the OSM world who would be interested in that. Are you? Let us know!

Update – 11.24.13: I seem to have hit a wall communicating with OSM. I’ll be approaching this from a different angle. The thought is now that we follow all the steps to do an import and document that process to share its success or failure. Once we begin, I’ll start a new blog post and keep updating it.

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