Hello, I’m Minh Nguyen (though I style myself Minh Nguyễn, with all the wonderful diacritics), a graduate of St. Columban School and St. Xavier High School and currently a sophomore at Stanford University. Passing by my dorm room, you might’ve seen me staring at the monitor, the monitor mutually staring back, as I type… click… type… click— blog

December 31, 2023

In 2008 and 2009, I was one of the many starry-eyed computer science graduates Microsoft hired through the front door at the very moment the company used the back door to send longtime workers packing. Coming into the industry at a time of historic layoffs had me counting my blessings. It also taught me to look over my shoulder, as if that weren’t part of basic training for a level 59 Softie anyways.

Eventually I left the stodgy corporate world for an Internet startup, against the advice of everyone around me. This job was too good to be true: somehow getting paid to productize a mapping hobby that I had kept low-key until then. I was surrounded by bright, empathetic colleagues willing to tolerate my eccentric hobby, and they were even willing to fly me around the country to meet likeminded eccentrics.

I was going to be a company man for this company. But a startup is a gamble, and I am not a gambling man. After my first day and a two-hour train ride home, I drafted up a goodbye letter like one I had just written to my colleagues at Apple, addressing it to my new colleagues at Mapbox. I kept it in my back pocket just in case. Over the next seven years, I reread and revised that letter periodically, fine-tuning the dad jokes inside it as I flirted with the idea of leaving for something newer and shinier. If I had thought to put my letter under version control, as any self-respecting software engineer would do with their code, I wonder if I would see reflections of the company’s various mid-life crises or just the chipper naïveté that got me through them.

In January, I saw the unmistakable sign that what came around would finally come around. Just before I put on a brave face for my exit interview, I dashed off that letter to as many colleagues as I could. Of course, after seven years, most of the intended recipients had already left the company or vice versa. The new folks that came through the front door in 2023 will only know the narrative of the surplus workers that every tech company gorged on during the pandemic and had to let go of when the irrational exuberance subsided. They’ll see the other side of that equation eventually. Hopefully their time on unemployment will be brief like mine was, and hopefully there won’t be another pandemic to pin the blame on.

The best thing Mapbox did for me was to indulge my mapping hobby. It’s the closest thing to professional development I’ve ever gotten from an employer. Once, a business trip to headquarters even gave me some personal closure. I was ready to say goodbye to the company from day one, but not to my hobby. My new employer has nothing to do with maps, but they similarly bring me down to their headquarters in Austin on a regular basis. It’s a stone’s throw from the University of Texas map library. If the hobby doesn’t take me somewhere, it sure knows how to find me.

December 31, 2022

My steady diet of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS during the ’90s prepared me well a hobby and career in mapmaking. The show taught me, an utter non–football fan, how to scream at the TV set as the seconds flew by while the contestant fumbled an easy opportunity to land a marker on the Central African Republic. Looking back, it isn’t surprising that my clever hack to procrastinate on studying for finals turned into something much more obsessive. In a couple months, I’ll be wrapping up a whirlwind four years on the board of OpenStreetMap’s U.S. chapter, three of them as president. I’m term-limited, which I guess is another way of saying that I procrastinated on seeking higher office.

One of the highlights of my year was keynoting at WikiConference North America + Mapping USA, the first-ever online conference organized jointly by the OpenStreetMap and Wikimedia communities in the U.S. and beyond. I used my keynote address to encourage the OSM community to think beyond OSM and consider the other open geography projects that could complement it, just as the Wikimedia community branched out from its breakout hit, Wikipedia, many years ago and has so much to show for it. I don’t want OSM to be a one-hit wonder. We insiders know the work to build a world map never ends, but the project’s relevance to the real world is not a given and not a constant.

This year I started contributing to OpenHistoricalMap, an OSM spinoff that’s mapping the whole world throughout history. For the time being, it’s very blank, just a cut above a cool technical demonstration, but it holds a lot of promise. Historical mapping has long been the domain of academics studying certain sites or themes in great detail. But there’s also a “lowercase” history that ordinary folks need to tell, about their own communities, about the sacred, the profane, and the mundane.

Back in 2015, when I finally got around to mapping San José, years after moving here from Cincinnati, one edit turned into hundreds because I couldn’t round a corner without seeing something else that needed fixing. So it is with OHM. It’s amazing how much historical knowledge you hold in your head until an opportunity arises and you open the floodgates. The school that was replaced by a church. The church that was replaced by a school. The favorite ice cream parlor. The building whose name never made sense until I came across a news clipping about its original tenant. The restaurant that was teetering before the pandemic did it in.

I’ve detailed my birthplace, my hometown, and ever increasing bits of my surroundings. This effort will never hold the same commercial appeal as OSM, but it is a unique outlet for anyone with a sense of nostalgia. There are enough of us nostalgic people around to build an incomparable resource for genealogists, journalists, and students.

I could never watch Where in the World’s spinoff, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? Same thief, same Chief, but you can’t just replace geography with history, swap out Rockapella for people in jumpsuits dancing around a metal detector, shelve the round-trip tickets to far-off lands in favor of a static copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and expect a kid to like it. There’s another side to history – it’s about time we put it on the map.

May 1, 2021

From 2011 to 2013, English Wikipedia editors passionately debated whether to prominently spell Vietnamese names with Vietnamese diacritics. Should there be an article on “Vung Tau” or “Vũng Tàu”, “Dien Bien Phu” or “Điện Biên Phủ”, “Dang Huu Phuc” or “Đặng Hữu Phúc”, “pho” or “phở”?

In its early years, Wikipedia’s content management software, MediaWiki, adopted then-state-of-the-art Unicode support to accommodate a quickly growing roster of foreign language editions of the encyclopedia. Drunken with this capability, English Wikipedians systematically embedded inscrutable IPA pronunciations in lede paragraphs, umlauts in the names of heavy metal bands, and zalgo text when signing their own names in discussions. But somehow the privilege of advanced Latin typography didn’t extend to Vietnamese people and places without a great deal more controversy. Superficially, the disagreement was over article titles, but due to how Wikipedia is written, any decision would gradually affect links to those titles, other mentions in running text, and articles translated into other languages.

The debate spread across dozens of discussion pages as editors attempted to get individual articles renamed, to put facts on the ground supporting their positions. One of the most prolific editors on Vietnamese topics eventually got banned for using disingenuous sockpuppet accounts to manufacture consensus to their liking. Even Jimbo Wales, cofounder of Wikipedia, weighed in with exasperation at the “excessive”, “ridiculous”, and “appalling” sight of stacked diacritics in English.

Wikipedia prides itself on being descriptive, rather than prescriptive. It relies on other reliable sources instead of trying to ascertain the truth by itself. One common refrain was that English-language published works routinely strip diacritics from Vietnamese names as a matter of policy. By 2012, some niche book publishers had begun printing Vietnamese diacritics. But the Associated Press stubbornly stuck to the basic English alphabet, the New York Times admitted accent marks for only a few favored European languages, and National Geographic specifically singled out Vietnamese for second-class status. News organizations heavily influenced the debate because their daily articles accounted for so many Google search results. Somehow, some of the most hastily written documents in the entire publishing industry was to set the typographical standard for the most deliberatively written reference work in history.

Ultimately, all the spilled ink came to nothing: per project policy, a lack of consensus means preserving the status quo. In practice, many articles have remained titled with diacritics, because diacritics distinguish completely unrelated words in every case. But editors have had to tread carefully around latent controversy when titling new articles or trying to make existing titles more consistent. The encyclopedia that anyone can edit has some advice for you: don’t go there.

The issue of diacritics on names is inherently personal for me, but I didn’t take offense at the many melodramatic, misinformed comments against Vietnamese diacritics. Surely the excess consonants and syllables in Welsh names would’ve elicited the same calls for simplification. My vote was essentially a sigh of resignation. I knew English language purists could only delay the effects of globalization for so long.

I had already seen these forces cut the other way, pressuring the Vietnamese Wikipedia to eschew the traditional names for overseas people and places in favor of bewildering, often unpronounceable English spelling patterns. Otherwise, it might’ve had to mimic the Vietnamese government’s official encyclopedia, which tries so desperately to hold the line on traditional phonetic spelling that it effectively invents its own novel alphabet: “Anhxtanh” (Einstein), “Penziat” (Penzias), and “Uynxơn” (Wilson) all contribute to the discussion on “Bich Beng” (the Big Bang). Imagine a generation of schoolchildren recalling the role of “Rudơven” (Roosevelt), “Tơruman” (Truman), and “Sơcsin” (Churchill) in World War II. Why would an English encyclopedia stop at stripping diacritics? Why not make Vietnamese names truly intuitive through phonetic respelling?

Sure enough, the tide is slowly turning. In 2019, the AP – which not long ago insisted on ``eyesore quotation marks'' – began to incorporate diacritics into personal names. As a wire service, its style guide has outsized influence. Yesterday, I was surprised to see the Times Opinion section publish its first-ever byline with Vietnamese diacritics, right on the homepage. The article contains several references to Vietnamese people, places, and terms replete with diacritics. Rather fittingly, the op-ed by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai calls attention to a far more serious double standard in the lack of compensation to Vietnamese Agent Orange victims. Even if the extra attention to typographic detail doesn’t make its way into the print edition, due to typesetting constraints, I hope it’s the start of a trend online.

Yes, it’s Minh, like with a G at the end.

Some Vietnamese diacritics also appeared a few weeks earlier in this interactive in the Arts section, and more recently in a Hawaiian name in the Sports section, both articles dealing with issues of identity.

April 18, 2021

It was homesickness combined with an interest in roads that got me into OpenStreetMap originally, but I keep getting more deeply involved in the monumental task of completing the map in every imaginable way because it’s for a good cause and because, paradoxically, it’s unfinishable. Even a pandemic, for all its horrors, presented an opportunity to make a difference through mapping.

Tragedy of the commons

For several years after I moved to Silicon Valley, I kept contributing to OSM’s coverage of Ohio and never paid much attention to its coverage of my new surroundings. I assumed the capital of high tech would have an open-source map fully figured out by now. But in fact, when I finally got around to zooming into my part of San José in 2015, it had basically been untouched since the initial nationwide import of the Census Bureau’s low-quality road data, with far less detail than one would find in many Midwestern cities. It was reminiscent of how Google Maps and other proprietary maps had long neglected my hometown in Ohio. I guess everyone around here made the same assumption I did.

OSM is a far cry from proprietary maps. For one thing, we don’t have product managers deciding which cities should get a dedicated surveying team based on market potential or good PR. Perhaps that is how OSM’s corporate mapping teams prioritize, but they don’t have boots on the ground, so they can only help in so many ways. Setting priorities for the volunteer grassroots mappers, the ones who can really transform a map into something eye-catching and unexpected, would be harder than herding cats.

To my chagrin, Silicon Valley has an unearned status as the book cover of every world map out there. All too often, a product manager making purchasing decisions for a tech company will judge a world map solely on how it performs as they search and run errands in their neighborhood – which more often than not is somewhere in the Bay Area, right in Google’s backyard. A poor first impression here means OSM never gets a chance regardless of its coverage elsewhere. If only they knew about our gems, our labors of love, in random other parts of the world!

Mapping on a shoestring

By now, OSM’s map of Silicon Valley is also a labor of love. As soon as I started mapping in San José, I wanted to get it up to par with Cincinnati, but this time I didn’t have the advantage of knowing my way around town. I was never as bad a driver as when I struggled to jot down notes at stoplights or dictate to my phone while training my eyes anywhere but the road. It didn’t help that I kept saying the shop was on the right when I meant left – or was it right? As soon as I could get through my backlog of voice recordings, I’d have to resurvey the same places because new restaurants had replaced the old ones.

A few of us grassroots mappers found each other by chance and set up shop within Code for San José, even though mapping doesn’t really involve coding. We started scheming to build out the kind of superb coverage one would expect from an OSM community ten times our size. We copied some 3,500 miles of sidewalks, 250,000 buildings, and 200,000 addresses from local government databases, instead of mapping them by hand as larger communities often do. We’re like a scrappy startup (with no hope of a business model).

Blind spots

With streets, sidewalks, and buildings, San José now has a respectable level of coverage on OSM compared to other major U.S. cities. But these days, an ordinary user would consider a street map lacking businesses and other points of interest to be akin to chartjunk. Ask anyone who works on map and navigation software and they’ll tell you that most user feedback has nothing to do with the color scheme, turn instructions, or estimated travel times – it’s about the relevance and accuracy of search results.

Until this year, our approach to mapping businesses largely entailed collecting street-level imagery, then waiting for people to enter the businesses manually using the collected imagery. Occasionally, one of us would drive around taking notes, or a business owner would spam the map with an advertisement. (We’ll take what we can get.)

This organic approach helped us cover roughly 20% of the businesses in Silicon Valley. This shortcoming is by no means unique to this part of the country. I think it’s fair to say a lot of mappers have come to view comprehensive POI coverage as a Hard Problem and unattainable luxury.

Worse than being incomplete, our POI coverage was extremely uneven. You could generally rely on OSM for prominent, car-culture-friendly businesses like gas stations, but not for professional services or healthcare. Downtown areas and some suburbs had dense POI coverage, but working-class, minority neighborhoods and new suburban developments had sparse coverage.

Catching up

When the pandemic hit, the county’s first-in-the-nation lockdown threatened to shutter many businesses and render all the years of ad-hoc POI mapping useless, especially in the minority neighborhoods where we were already falling behind. How would we catch up to the proprietary maps now?

Luckily, the county public health department required every business to submit a site-specific protection plan online as a condition for reopening. At a brainstorming session in September, we discovered that the county was publishing these forms on a website, including the name and address of every kind of business, many in the very places we were finding difficult to cover well. It’s as if the county has dropped a phone book in our lap, but this phone book is machine-readable and updated daily with businesses that are sure to be open during the pandemic.

We turned the county’s dataset of forms into yet another massive import. Eventually, this import will result in 20,000–30,000 new POIs, making it the third largest POI import in OSM’s history, larger than most countrywide imports.

Unlike our previous imports, this import is especially labor-intensive because each entry needs to be hand-reviewed for accuracy. So we simplified the workflow so that even the most novice mapper can contribute from the comfort of a Web browser. It’s convenient enough that even I can comfortably contribute despite shying away from the usual import tooling. Now the challenge is to recruit more participants before the pandemic ends and this dataset starts getting stale. If it were just up to the few of us longtime mappers, it would take us years to complete the import, so we really need help.

Though we’re still mired in the 15% range, this import is already making an impact. Whenever an iOS developer tests their location-aware application in a simulator, the simulated routes around Cupertino feature many more POIs than they used to, including childcare centers and offices we never thought to map all this time. The map looks full like never before. It’s a baby step toward changing outside perceptions about OSM. Meanwhile, we seem to be filling in gaps in places like Milpitas and East San José that had gotten neglected all these years. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up covering this county’s many ethnic enclaves better than any other map.

I’m hopeful we can build up an active mapping community that can not only fill in these gaps but maintain our momentum for years to come. In time, the businesses that survive this pandemic will benefit from being included in OSM. Maybe we’ll even serve as a model to other cities’ mapping communities, so that our coverage of Silicon Valley will be more than a mere book cover.

Please help

First, if you aren’t familiar with contributing to OSM, go to openstreetmap.org and create a free user account. Once you’ve logged in, zoom into your neighborhood and click the “Edit” button at the top of the page. Spend a few minutes completing the interactive tutorial to get a feel for editing, then dive in and add missing details to your neighborhood.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of basic mapping, go to this MapRoulette project and follow the instructions to get started. It’s a safely socially distanced activity and a small way to help the local community come out stronger after the pandemic.

June 6, 2020

Who am I to comment on the terrible things that keep happening in this country? Me, I’m just someone who’s lived a sampler platter of a life. I have just enough musical talent for the honkytonk pianos at the airport, but not enough to survive another lesson. I had Tourette syndrome just enough to be teased at school, but not enough to need medication. I’ve crisscrossed the U.S. enough times to amass a mound of maps, but I was so clueless on my first visit to Europe, two years ago, that I needed help turning on the lights in my hotel room.

I’ve experienced just enough racism to know it still flourishes in this country. As an Asian American growing up in a nearly all-white, conservative Ohio town, I got to know the stereotypes pretty well. My grade school initially dumped me in a remedial English class assuming I didn’t speak my only language. (What I actually needed help with was math.) If I missed a pop culture reference, it was because I needed to “learn more about America”, my country of birth, not because I’m a bookworm. There was the time a white classmate assumed I was a Democrat because I’m non-white, then half-jokingly ridiculed me for sympathizing with slaveowners. (If that sounds absurd, consider that American history teachers dwell on antebellum politics, but they skip the civil rights movement and party realignment of the 1960s, ostensibly for lack of time.)

Racial profiling is not an abstract concept for me or my family. For example, when the town redid the street outside our neighborhood, they stationed a white police officer there for a week to enforce a “Local Traffic Only” sign. The only person she pulled over was my father on his way home. She refused to acknowledge that he lived in our tidy suburban neighborhood. Instead, she booked him and falsely accused him of assaulting her. Ultimately, he got the citations thrown out in Mayor’s Court, but that incident colored our impression of Loveland as just another Reading.

I wonder: do white parents berate their 10-year-old children for leaving a convenience store without a receipt as proof of purchase, worried that, next time, the store clerk will turn around and call the cops on them for shoplifting? I still think of that eagle-eyed store clerk every time a gas pump runs out of receipt paper.

In Ohio, most adults described racial profiling as a hypothesis, the race card as a certainty, and racism in the past tense. That made it difficult to share a different perspective candidly. I do use the past tense to describe these experiences of mine, because upon moving to California and finding a job in Silicon Valley, I’m technically no longer underrepresented and most of the racism I experience is much more subtle. In a sense, I’ve escaped, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.


I’m writing about these experiences not because I want your pity, but rather because I don’t want anyone I know to be complacent about racism in this country. It would hit close to home if you knew how it affects the friends and acquaintances of yours who have to suppress their frustration like I suppress my Tourette ticks, just to get on with life. Racism needs to be acknowledged and addressed, led by those who aren’t its victims. As a society, we need to work on not only the symptoms, like racial profiling and excessive use of force, but also the pernicious lack of representation that leads to it. For me, as a coder, addressing the lack of visibility and fair representation is how I can most readily make a dent in systemic racism, because increasingly people rely on software and online services as gateways to society.

When I started working in earnest on Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap and later joined Code for San José, I thought my efforts were about narrowing the digital divide and plugging holes in education, but it turns out everything is interrelated. Now the challenge is to make these open source projects more authentic: not just for marginalized communities but, more importantly, with these communities. An effective code of conduct against harassment is now a baseline expectation, not much to write home about. But what to do about a project that celebrates outdoor mapping as the gold standard, looking down on “armchair” mapping, when a Black person wouldn’t necessarily feel safe surveying by foot or by car in their own neighborhood, let alone an unfamiliar one?

It would be wrong for me to say I feel anything like the weight of racism that the Black community faces in this country – that would be like saying I know what it’s like to be hospitalized for COVID-19 because I had a nasty cold in March. None of the encounters I described above were life-or-death situations, because the model minority myth shields Asian Americans even as it stifles us. I even have the luxury of nostalgia for the town that sometimes embraced and sometimes slighted me. But that awareness makes me all the more concerned about people who are served the full entrée, and more determined to do something about it.



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