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sotm11logoThe fifth annual OpenStreetMap State of the Map Conference took place in Denver, Colo. from Sept. 9-11. The event drew its largest crowd yet, with an engaged international gathering of more than 250 attendees from 34 countries. The event drew a mix of volunteer mappers, developers of solutions that build upon the data, academic researchers, crisis mappers, and web-based mapping companies eager to harness the data.

sotm11logoThe fifth annual OpenStreetMap State of the Map Conference took place in Denver, Colo. from Sept. 9-11. The event drew its largest crowd yet, with an engaged international gathering of more than 250 attendees from 34 countries. The event drew a mix of volunteer mappers, developers of solutions that build upon the data, academic researchers, crisis mappers, and web-based mapping companies eager to harness the data.

Momentum

Steve Coast, founder of OpenStreetMap, put the growth of the community in perspective with his keynote address. He shared the typical “hockey stick” graph that showed the remarkable progress with the number of contributors since inception, with now more than 460,000 contributors worldwide. The main map has also spawned related projects such as OpenCycleMap, OpenTrailView and OpenStreetMap-3D.

Coast related the resources that he has been able to bring to the project with his employment at Microsoft that has precipitated the access to all of Bing’s aerial imagery worldwide, as well as other data sources and applications to ease the data entry work. Increasing quality of the dataset had spurred increased commercial provider interest and others are providing resources and tools to improve the data.

Several presentations mentioned the fact that the economics for commercial spatial data providers is bad and getting worse. The cost of constantly updating a map database is very high, and crowdsourcing is seen as the only viable way to keep the data updated. The interest in OSM by online mapping sites helps prove this viewpoint, with high-level representation at the event from Mapquest, Google, Microsoft and Esri.

Promise

Commercial use of OSM data is clearly of strong interest to both the Web mapping providers and developers that are building both businesses and solutions upon the data. The OSM dataset is unique in its ability to go offline with maps without violating use licenses. Among the other benefits of OSM for developers are flexibility with the cartographic representation in order to uniquely style your solution, the ability to contribute and share to build on the quantity and quality of the data, a dataset that is huge and growing, and with data quality that is good for a wide number of use cases and that continues to improve.

The utility of the data for the global greater good was presented at the event by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), who are building upon their remarkable work mapping the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti that hit Jan. 12, 2010. The global teams quickly mapped the country, and provided a means for communicating crowdsourced information on the ground about where aid was needed. The team is now working on several projects, including classifying buildings in Indonsesia and mapping Somalia‘s road network. Similarly, OSM users in Japan were able to provide quick context in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Community

Central to the entire conference experience was the connections among the volunteer community that often know each other simply from their mapping handle and interactions online. It was hard to miss the in-the-hall reunions of those that have known each other online for years, and met each other face-to-face for the first time at the event.

The international nature of the audience was quite striking, as related by the makeup of 250 attendees from 34 different countries. The success of German mappers was a point of repeated discussion, given their embrace and phenomenal contributions to OSM over the years. In fact, the success of the Japan OSM effort has benefitted greatly from a German who relocated there and helped spark a local mapping community. The ability for individuals to make a great impact on OSM is part of its appeal, and the connection to other committed participants is the purpose of the gathering.

Complexity

The licensing issue with OpenStreetMap has been an ongoing issue that has worked itself out to a great degree, but has also caused some backlash and the rise of some splinter groups. Peter Batty presented a keynote that touched on the splinter issue, emphasizing the importance of one central and evolvable mapping system rather than several separate and competing open data sites.

Data quality and content validation is an area of complexity that the community continues to discuss at length. The hope is for a more automated means of ensuring data quality, and a simpler means for data entry. An enlightening talk by Patrick McDevitt of Mapquest offered up several different possible routes to ensure data quality.

  • Direct contributors is the current model, but quality flaws are hard to find
  • Direct committers that are the chosen few that review what is committed could improve the quality, but then there’s an us vs. them mentality
  • A gated trunk is a peer review model where higher quality occurs without an us vs. them, but it is till error prone and harder to scale (McDevitt pointed to this blog post for more details on this model)

It’s obvious from the repeated focus on data quality and validation that much more work will be ongoing in this area.

Enticement

Obtaining regular global coverage, coordinating data collection, and enticing new participants is an ongoing issue that received considerable attention at the event. While the United States location provided the bulk of attendees, it was mentioned many times that this community needs to become much larger and more active in order for the data to be useful. Worldwide, there was also the assertion by one speaker that tens of millions of participants need to be engaged in order for the data to be up-to-date.

Founder Steve Coast emphasized the need to make the interface more user friendly. He also suggested that more can be done in the United States to improve usability such as the inclusion of address data, better road network connectivity, and the enabling of routing. Coast has worked on several of these problems through Microsoft, developing some interactive applications such as frontdoor.cloudapp.net that aims to port over Microsoft’s address data to OSM, and tools to speed the creation of road networks from imagery. While there has been good interest in these tools, Coast expressed some frustration at the slow rate of participation in order to make this data available.

Peter Batty pointed out the need to improve access to map editing through mobile applications, as well as a need to employ ‘gamification’ ideas to incentize and encourage more data creation and data editing. The gamification theme was repeated in several of the session, with examples of approches that different developers have taken to make data entry more compelling and fun. The fact that so many developers were present and engaged in enhancing the experience, shows a mature degree of committment to the mission of this map.

The three-day event provided an immersive overview of the community, the utility of this data, and the kinds of solutions that it enables. Many of the sessions were recorded via Ustream and can be viewed via the conference website.

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