Thoughts on "Why OpenStreetMap is in Serious Trouble"

A recent bridge-burning post titled “Why OpenStreetMap is in Serious Trouble” covered a variety of issues the author (a former long-time contributor and advocate of OpenStreetMap) feel are holding OpenStreetMap (OSM) back.

It’s a pretty interesting read, and I recommend looking at the post for the details. When I read the post back in February, I took a few notes of the parts that caught my attention. Some of these points I already knew, but some were news to me.

  • There’s no review mechanism for edits, which allows bad edits to happen, leads to no mentoring for well-meaning new contributors, and enables vandalism to occur unchecked.
  • OSM objects have no permanent IDs, which can lead to a variety of issues.
  • OSM does not represent map data using layers. Instead, it uses a tag system, and this architectural choice makes things messy for tools and imports.
  • There’s a lack of enforced standards on how to represent features. The example in the article is that sometimes sidewalks are indicated in OSM by tags on roads, and other times, they are represented as their own ways. I’ve personally heard stories of difficulties working with OSM data due to no enforced standards and have experienced it myself.
  • The project has gatekeepers who are skeptical or openly hostile to change.
  • Many of the most influential members of the project have launched commercial services that use OSM data. The author argues that this creates conflicts of interest that incentivize keeping the project small in scope.

I can’t write about the validity of many of the author’s arguments, which I am sure are controversial, since I am not a part of the community. Given that, I would not normally write about it, but the post does reinforce some of my experiences using OSM data over the years. There was a discussion of the post in Hacker News here, and some of the people posting there likely have more relevant insight than I do.

I have mentally noted in the past that the tools from OSM seem to have not changed over the years I have worked with its data. Recently my work was interrupted due to a lack of validation in its data. In this case, a road speed tag had an invalid unit, which broke our importer. I was surprised to subsequently discover the project doesn’t enforce the values that are specified as valid in that field.

That said, I really appreciate the data that is available through OSM. I would love to see the project continue to grow, both in the completeness of its data and the quality of its architecture and tools.