Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
January 2nd, 2019


Windmills for now

This April marked ten years since I started mapping for OpenStreetMap. Then as now, mapping has always been a hobby for me, even as I picked up a day job writing OSM-powered software.

I seem to have a knack for playing double duty, awkwardly. That was on full display this year, as I juggled personal and employer-sponsored engagements back-to-back at State of the Map U.S. in Detroit, then traveled to WikiConference North America in Columbus to repeat the process. Fortunately, my first trip overseas, for a workshop at the international State of the Map in Milan, was less demanding. It was also an opportunity to witness firsthand the political fault lines running through the OSM community.

For a couple years, some community members have insisted on distinguishing between hobbyists on the one hand, and commercial interests on the other hand, with the phrase “craft mapper”. Some mappers literally wear the term as a badge of pride, in response to a blog post that questioned their influence on the project’s methods and atmosphere.


To hear it from them, craft mappers seem to be defined by angst about a future where computer vision and machine learning and import bots and teams of paid mappers run circles around hobbyists. But I prefer to focus on the motivation rather than the method: call me a “grassroots mapper”. It’s an important distinction, and not only because I’m a teetotaler.

At its best, grassroots mapping is about leading by example and having fun all the while. Freed from short-term business justifications or even the need to focus on anything at all, grassroots mappers are continually at the vanguard of what’s worth mapping. I don’t have to have a plan for mapping all the restaurants in order to map just a few that keep getting neglected by industry. There doesn’t have to be a point to mapping corn mazes, or lavishing world-class attention upon a provincial town. What looks like tilting at windmills today will before long be the domain of paid mappers and artificial intelligence, as we move onto the next set of ideas to prove out.

Yet grassroots mapping is fundamentally uneven and small-scale, which makes the results suboptimal for just about any practical use case. As a grassroots mapper, I want my mapping to benefit ordinary people. Ordinary people need guarantees around reliability and consistency before they can even consider the special touches we put on the map. It would be unfair and counterproductive to saddle grassroots mappers’ spirits with the daily grind of making the map reliable and consistent. That’s what imports, organized mapping, and bots are for. The map can achieve that level of quality, and we can still have our fun, but only as long as the OSM project remains a big tent, welcoming all the help it can muster.


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  1. I keep getting more deeply involved in the monumental task of completing OpenStreetMap because, paradoxically, it’s unfinishable. Even a pandemic, for all its horrors, presented an opportunity to make a difference through mapping.


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