Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Personal Musings on the Authority of OpenStreetMap

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There has been a lot of fairly excitable posting recently about the continuing rise of OpenStreetMap, and how it’s now being used in place of Google Maps,  in particular since Google started charging for data. People have been talking about how “authoritative” crowd-sourced spatial data can be, and to be honest, I’ve found that the discussions seem to have missed the point a little bit. For me at least. So- here’s a few of my personal thoughts about OpenStreetMap and why it will be a while before I will consider it authoritative at least.

Firstly, a caveat. I love OpenStreetMap data and the whole ecosystem of “stuff” that has evolved around it. I contribute occasionally, though not as often as I’d like to. I’m pleased that it has forced the “traditional” data providers to reconsider what they offer, and perhaps to raise their game. I think it’s one of the main reasons why the idea of “open data” is so well known that even my Gran knows about it.

However, in the process of trying out WalkingPapers (my favourite addition to the OpenStreetMap ecosphere), I printed out the area around my house- in the centre of Lancaster. Not London, I admit, but still in the centre of a city. My road wasn’t on there. Read on, before you give up in disgust, saying “pah, you should just correct any errors you find”. How did I know my road was missing? There wasn’t an unfinished stub, with a note saying “I went home for my tea and I’ll finish this section tomorrow”, it was as if my road did not exist. I only knew my road was missing because I live there, and I have no readily available tools to help me judge the accuracy of an area that I am not familiar with. So, the idea that the end-user should correct any errors they find doesn’t really hold because you’re not always going to know that there’s an error!

I am aware that the traditional data providers do not produce totally error-free data. However, I would expect Ordnance Survey (for example) to have a workflow for their surveyors that doesn’t allow them to simply give up when they get bored or have to go home for their tea, or perhaps not survey a street because they don’t go down it very often.  I can also go to the site and find published information on positional accuracy if I need it. I guess I’m equating “authority” with trust, or reliability, and the issue is less about what’s there, than what’s not there.

When OpenStreetMap is being used as a static base map, by which I mean a backdrop to the information your map is really about, this is less of an issue. But, if like me, you come from a discipline where maps are collections of data to be manipulated and analysed, then you need to be able to trust your data a little more, or at least have a quantitative understanding of what the error is likely to be.

I know that this is not an easy question to answer, and I know people are trying to figure out ways of answering it. I also know it’s not that important for a lot of people, but I would like to see a more nuanced debate- I think that would be better for OpenStreetMap in the end.

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