This is my view, the view of an ordinary OpenStreetMap contributor, on the reasons that led to the creation of the Overture Map Foundation.
It’s been a week since Overture Map1 was announced.
Reliable, easy-to-use, and interoperable open map data allows developers to build new map services that leverage the combined contributions of Overture members.
Amazon Web Service, Meta, Microsoft and TomTom, under the auspices of the Linux Foundation, announced the creation of the Overture Map Foundation.
This is not the first joint project in the field of cartography, because before that there were already various ways to involve ordinary people in creating maps. Some of them were purely proprietary, others open.
The most notable project, and one that has had a significant impact on the mapping industry, primarily through the collection of local data, is OpenStreetMap. There were other projects before OpenStreetMap, but they didn’t take off like OpenStreetMap did. This is a database of free open geospatial data that is maintained, collected, updated and published by the community on a volunteer basis. OpenStreetMap data is distributed under the terms of the Open Database License2. The project exists thanks to the contributions of OpenStreetMap Foundation participants and donations from project sponsors. The OpenStreetMap Foundation is a non-profit organization registered in Great Britain that supports the project3.
Over the course of its existence, OSM has gained great recognition primarily because of its openness. Anyone can start creating or modifying data in OSM after a simple registration process. In addition to creating data, you can use it both for your own hobby projects and for running a business. It has been some time since large corporations paid attention to such a source of data to provide services to their users. Among such large corporations that use data from the OpenStreetMap project, we can name Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Meta and many others, smaller in size.
Starting as a hobby project among friends, over the years OpenStreetMap has occupied a very significant niche in modern cartography. He made it possible, in the literal sense of the word, to add people to the map. People, especially in developing countries, have received a tool that allows them to plan their sustainable development. The project has taken its own niche in use by volunteer humanitarian organizations. To add your village, city or even a house, all you need is a computer and an Internet connection. After the first familiarization with the project, which will take you about 10-15 minutes, you can get to work.
The goal of the project founders was to simplify the process of adding of geospatial data as much as possible for unprepared participants who do not have a professional geographic education. And it bore fruit. The number of registered project participants already exceeds several million, and the volume of the database has exceeded tens of gigabytes.
OpenStreetMap has a rather simplified data scheme. This scheme has existed without changes for quite a long time. It became the driving factor that made it possible to quickly popularize the project. But now, with the growth of the database, these advantages have turned into disadvantages. It is no longer possible to take the database of the whole world and work with it, precisely because of these limitations and size. Your desktop computer will not have enough computing resources to do this. You will need about two days just to download the entire dump of the planet from the project’s servers. And in order to deploy all this data for further use, you will need a cluster of a dozen powerful servers, as well as time, and of course money - several tens of thousands of dollars, which is already an insurmountable factor for most ordinary project participants. Even not all scientific and research institutions and projects have sufficient funding for this. Even those who have such resources strive for their more effective use.
With the spread of OpenStreetMap, large companies paid attention to it. OSM has allowed them to close the data gaps that are present in the datasets they purchase from commercial vendors. Because of the open nature of the project and the policy of encouraging participation in it, corporations also began to contribute their open data to OSM.
The participation of corporate mappers has received mixed reactions in the OSM community. Some participants gave favourable or neutral feedback, while others complained that corporate mappers were doing things that, from the point of view of local mappers, did not coincide with their idea of mapping, its goals, motivating it by the fact that they know the place better, and where, what and how things have to be done.
However, due to the fact that OSMF does not establish formal rules about how and what tags to use for mapping certain objects of our world, in OSM there is a certain degree of self-regulation next to anarchy.
The use any tags the mapper likes rule coexists with the tags approval process. You can invent your own tags, ways of mapping, and speaking of cleanliness, no one can forbid you to do this, but at the same time, OSM may already have another scheme for marking them. In this case, you need to be prepared for the fact that one of the mappers may interpret your mapping as wrong and cross your own tags or mapping method with the one with which they (the mappers) are more familiar.
Such dualism does not contribute to reducing the costs of working with data on the part of their consumers. You need to keep track of all available changes so that the data you use in your own projects is always up-to-date and verified. In addition to possible errors and inaccuracies, the project may contain data intentionally distorted by someone. Although the percentage of such data is within the limits of statistical error, you would not want your customers to encounter such4. You would not want your data contribution to be constantly distorted, and sometimes removed from the project, and you would be criticized due to the whims of other participants. You will have no choice but to find a way to save those changes that are important to you, your project or business, which also requires additional costs.
In fact, the Board of OSMF has only nominal power in the project and mainly takes care of financial and legal issues: raising funds to finance the operation of servers that store data and operate the infrastructure necessary for the operation of the project; and funds for the State of the Map annual global conference. All other work is delegated to working groups. Unlike the Board, whose members are elected by the Foundation’s members, the composition of working groups is not formed in such a transparent way. We can even say that the formation of working groups takes place on the principles of meritocracy, which can border on nepotism. Of course, no one would want to see an untrained driver behind the wheel of a bus. This requires certain experience and knowledge. Server maintenance requires one set of skills, legal work requires another. However, even if the working groups have the most experienced and worthy members, I have questions about whether their actions are consistent with the stated principles when they are not accountable to anyone. OSMF, delegating authority to working groups, has almost no levers of control and influence over their work. Among the members of the OSMF Management Board, there is no clear division regarding the accountability of working groups. Some workgroups operate almost 100% autonomously.
A couple of years ago, a discussion on the mailing list raised the question of countering a possible takeover of control over the project by corporate participants. If someone seizes control, someone loses it. Who actually controls the project? This is a rhetorical question that can be answered by the OSMF, first of all, by streamlining organizational issues regarding the existence and activity of working groups, the order of their formation, the rotation of participants in working groups and their accountability to the Board, created by greater transparency in their activities. Also, each member of any working group must clearly understand that he or she will not be able to be incognito hiding behind his or her pseudonym in the project. Their entry into the working group makes them public figures of the project with all the consequences that follow. The future of the OSM lies primarily in the creation and maintenance of transparency in the activities of not only the Board of the OSMF, but also in the activities of its working groups.
Due to this lack of transparency, it is difficult for corporate participants to find appropriate channels of communication, to understand the driving forces that influence decision-making, and to have a certain influence on the development of the entire project. However, they don’t give money for charity. These funds are considered as investments in the future not only of OSM, but also of its participants, both corporate and amateur.
The lack of a constructive dialogue between the community (opinion leaders) of OSM and corporate participants became a decisive factor for the creation of a parallel governing body, which aims, first of all, to create clear rules of interaction between its participants.
Reading the discussion on the new OSM community forum about Overture Map shows a whole range of opinions, from admiration to outright rejection . Some say that this is the best thing that could happen for OSM, while others, on the contrary, do not share this optimism. Creating an Overture Map is like adding new yeast to old leaven, OSM can get a new impetus for innovation and further development, reevaluating the role and significance of the project for everyone. Or, on the contrary, no longer have the strength to create something new, and only repeat the tricks learned long ago.
The ball is now in Overture Map Foundation’s side. We are waiting for the next steps from them.
Statement on the establishment of the Overture Map Foundation – https://www.linuxfoundation.org/press/linux-foundation-announces-overture-maps-foundation-to-build-interoperable-open-map-data ↩