This past weekend, we attended State of the Map US 2019, the annual get-together of the community around the OpenStreetMap (OSM). Two and a half packed days of workshops later, we came away with some takeaways valuable for anyone looking to leverage OSM and mapping as a whole.
Think of OSM as the open source version of Google Maps. It’s not quite identical, but this is a freely editable geographic map of the world, built by a global community. The geodata it produces, its primary output, is used by anyone from Facebook to individual GPS users.
That makes a get-together like the State of the Map conference well worth the attendance. Here, some of the world’s largest users of geodata intermingle with academics who leverage the same map for purely academic purposes. You can find professors, vendors, and anyone in between. The takeaways gathered here will likely remain relevant for the entire concept of digital mapping in the foreseeable future. These are the 9 things we learned:
1. AI in Mapping Has Come a Long Way…
Taking part in the State of the Map confirmed what we already knew: artificial intelligence has a future in mapping. The use of AI in maps has been discussed at length, typically in articles like this one, describing more automated ways in collecting geodata from aerial images:
The RoadTracer platform creates maps using a step-by-step approach. The software begins at a known location on the road, and then deploys a neural network to examine the surrounding area to determine which point is most likely to be the next part on the road. The platform then adds that point and repeats the process to gradually trace out the road one step at a time.
The Minneapolis conference had similar presentations making similar points. In a Saturday session, Jeff Underwood and Danil Kirsanov detailed the benefits of leveraging AI for better data integrity in mapping. Suddenly, it’s no longer impossible to imagine a world where maps like OSM rapidly scale in detail and accuracy because of deep learning tools.
2. But it Still Has a Long Way to Go
The conference, though, also led to another insight: while this topic is becoming increasingly approachable, it’s not yet built to the exact specifications where it can be immediately beneficial. Autonomous data input into the map still has a long way to go, largely because of the lack of manual controls over actual accuracy. It’s difficult to scale rapidly when that type of oversight is not yet superfluous.
Again, this echoes mapping experts who try to explain why, exactly, the AI trend (which has been a buzzword in every other industry) has been flying under the radar in GIS mapping. Cost challenges naturally play into the equation. But so has a lack of structured data, making it difficult to translate computer-generated data into a human-generated system. Yes, we’re getting closer. But we’re not quite there yet.
3. The Stakeholders in OSM are Many and Growing…
The OSM tribe is a global community, and at this year’s conference, that clearly showed. The attendees ranged far and wide, and the names in attendance go a long way towards explaining just what that actually means.
Big names like Microsoft, Intel, Facebook and Amazon were all in attendance. Many of these corporations actually sponsored the conference this year, proving their investment in the concept. They use the platform for their own applications; so naturally, these global giants want a piece of the development pie and understand it as much as possible.
Just as relevant as the big names, though, were the smaller names in attendance. Individual mapping enthusiasts were just as relevant as companies like us, coming to learn about new concepts and advancements in both the field and the OSM itself. We even heard from High School teachers using OSM in the classroom. That’s what makes the OpenStreetMap such a unique community: the interested parties come from everywhere, contributing to make it better for everyone involved.
4. But not Everyone Contributes Equally to the OSM
At the same time, learning about and speaking to each of these many stakeholders also brought valuable takeaways in its own right. A project this comprehensive is bound to have different advantages for different people. That was the case here, and it clearly showed — from the varied presentations all the way to the backgrounds of those in attendance.
Those differences, in turn, have a major influence on how everyone using the map contributes to it. The distribution here is far from equal. Instead, each user focuses on their own advantages, their own passions, and their own niche areas. For the OSM, that natural distribution could lead to potential problems down the road.
It’s important to remember that the map, an underlying data source for so many applications, has a stake in being comprehensive. With no single entity driving its development, however, achieving that comprehensive nature on a balanced scale could be difficult to impossible. It will be fascinating to watch where it goes, and if it could lead to imbalances down the road.
The brain trust, from right to left, Gordon Boyes, Steve Janisch, (and actually looking at the camera) Zack Mertz, and Gregg Larson.
5. Crisis Areas are Key Drivers for Contributing Map Data
One example of a clear focus for the OSM consists of crisis areas. Presentation sessions ranged from finding fire evacuation routes for urban areas all the way to disaster response opportunities through satellite imagery. Here, developers all over the world have clearly found a need that OSM can solve.
A broader overview of the mapping community validates that trend. In fact, there is a humanitarian OSM project, which focuses exclusively on disaster preparation and responses to events like hurricanes and volcanic explosions. If open source mapping can help save lives, it’s only natural to apply it in such a way.
This is another takeaway from the State of the Map conference that will be interesting to monitor going forward. If disaster response remains a major focus point of these communities, what about communities where these disasters are less likely? Will we have enough resources to build out both? We’re optimistic, but the question is worth raising.
6. We are Starting to Define the Criteria for Open Street Mapping Inputs
What belongs in Open Street Maps?
Talk about an open-ended question. At first glance, the answer might as well be the counter: what doesn’t belong in OSM? However, as the conference showed us, it’s a bit more complex than that. Especially given its importance as a data source for applications all over the globe, the only thing that should go into it is measurable and verifiable physical data.
That doesn’t leave room for more speculative inputs, and including these inputs can actually become confusing or even misleading. Building out the map based on individual preferences or projects becomes dangerous when it goes away from a core, data-based truth that has made OSM so reliable for so many applications.
Generally, developers should stay away from concepts that apply to specific use cases. That includes inferences, descriptive data beyond its physical properties, regulatory data, or the measured quality for a specific purpose. Those might have a place in the final application, but not in the core underlying data source.
7. With Great (Corporate) Power Comes Great (OSM) Responsibility
The next takeaway takes us back to the corporate giants that have become such an integral part of the OSM community. The major players have fed in large amounts of data over the years, and are increasing their input. Judging by their sessions throughout the conference, their focus is changing and expanding, benefiting the entire community.
At the same time, to borrow a line from Marvel: with great power comes great responsibility. Yes, the most powerful users of OSM are also some of the most powerful players in the technology space around the globe. That doesn’t mean they can bring in only the location information they care about. Just as they benefit from the larger community feeding in data-based truths for each individual map, they have to return the favor in kind.
8. Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple Contribute to the Map…
It’s not that these contributions aren’t there. Apple, Mapbox, Microsoft, and Intel all emphasized the fact that they contribute to the map on a major scale. Their resources and buy-in is crucial to new topics on the horizon, such as the AI mapping opportunities discussed above. However, their focus still tends to be relatively simple.
Giants like Intel, who leverage OSM for their own mapping solutions, tend to focus on streets and buildings. That makes inherent sense. It’s how they build navigational routes for pedestrians and cars alike, driving the physical build-out of urban environments where users have become so reliant on Bing or Apple Maps.
However, that leaves a gap. Bringing in location information that the major corporations do not focus on only becomes more important. Almost three days of presentations focused precisely on that (with a presentation that even had the title Buildings! Buildings! More Buildings, This time in Canada!) made it obvious just how an expansion of focus has to become.
9. But the Focus Has to Go Beyond Streets and Buildings
Yes, focusing on streets and buildings makes sense for cars and able-bodied people looking for navigational queues. It’s how mapping solutions have operated for years, and they will continue to operate in that way. But what about other populations? An overt bias towards cars and ‘regular’ pedestrians could introduce significant problems down the road.
That’s why some of our favorite presentations came against mapping as a tool for handicapped or elderly people. These maps focus on alternative data inputs, such as light posts, trees, fountains, and benches. All could be used to help people navigate. Imagine a senior citizen being able to map their way to the nearest bench to take a break.
PhD student Achituv Cohen focused on precisely that kind of question. His presentation, Route Planning for Blind Pedestrians using OpenStreetMap, was essentially a case study of alternative mapping designed specifically for this part of the population. The result, according to Cohen and tested by blind volunteers, “improved their lives in terms of mobility, accessibility, and independence, assisting them to integrate into society.”
Our own Justin Huffman featured during the conference, photo from a Denver ‘importathon’.
Leveraging OSM and State of the Map for Better Mapping Solutions
It’s difficult to come away from a conference like State of the Map and not feel inspired. Here are countless individuals, all working to both improve the solution they all feel so passionate about and leverage it to help the world around them. Cohen’s presentation on mapping for the blind was only one of the many examples. As always, it was a great opportunity to examine the present and visualize the future of OSM.
Just what exactly the future holds, of course, still remains to be seen. But if the various presentations at the conference are to be believed, it will be something to behold. We’re entering an age in which mapping can become much more than just simple, visual, static wayfinding. The modern map is dynamic, integrated, and provides real-time data designed to maximize user experience and usability.
That’s what makes us so passionate about this space. Our clients, from healthcare to higher education, leverage the various features of modern maps to transform user experience for their patients and students. Every day is a new challenge to break with tradition, encounter new opportunities, and build better maps.
All of that is only possible through an underlying foundation that’s as powerful as OSM. When the world contributes to it, the world can benefit. The next time you work with us, ask us about how OSM contributed to the project. In some form, whether directly through providing the data needed to build your map or indirectly through learnings at conferences and exchanges like this, it likely has.