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Mapping in the Antarctic

January 6, 2022
by chris
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Antarctic mapping in OpenStreetMap – a critical look

About nine years ago i did the first import of up-to-date data for the Antarctic followed by another with more detailed data a short time later.

The intention of those was to provide a solid basis – both in terms of main physical geography features as well as for establishing basic mapping conventions – for a continent that until then had been mostly unmapped in OpenStreetMap. Essentially back then there were a few dozen nodes of research stations and individual POIs as well as some named islands and a crude overall coastline which also formed one giant glacier polygon. Mappers did not really have any context to start mapping locally (either from on-the-ground observations or imagery) what they might be interested in mapping. My hope was that providing such context in at least a rudimentary form would encourage both mapping human infrastructure (buildings, POIs), characterizing and structuring the physical geography in more detail as well as improving and updating/replacing the imported features based on newer and more accurate imagery or to take into account the movements of the ice that constantly reshapes the continent.

This initial import work was also the basis to start some attempts in displaying the Antarctic on OSM data based maps in a meaningful way. This evidently in particular refers to interpreting the implicit mapping of land ice that was established with the imports. But it also included adding support for rendering bare ground (natural=bare_rock and natural=scree) in OSM-Carto – which until then was not shown and which evidently forms the vast majority of ground not covered by ice in the Antarctic.

The state of OpenStreetMap in the Antarctic

So how have these attempts turned out in terms of community mapping in the Antarctic? The result is rather sobering. On the positive side genuine local knowledge based mapping has established itself in the Antarctic quite a bit in the form of mapping of research stations – presumably by people working there or visiting. This involves mapping of buildings, roads and paths around these as well as other human infrastructure in the surroundings of research stations. More than 1000 building and about 500 road lines of various kinds have been mapped so far. This kind of mapping has the potential to be self sustaining in the future.

Research station mapping at the Antarctic coast

Research station mapping at the Antarctic coast


Research station mapping in the Antarctic interior

Research station mapping in the Antarctic interior

However this only covers a minimal part of a vast continent. Outside the immediate vicinity of the research stations it looks much more bleak. Over the past 8-9 years almost the whole continent of the Antarctic was potentially a highly rewarding place to map physical geography, especially since 2013 when Landsat 8 was launched and began providing up-to-date high quality imagery for most of the continent. Essentially you could have taken any not fully cloud covered Landsat scene and have started mapping based on that and in most cases immediately would have produced the most accurate mapping of the area in question in existence. While this is also true for some other parts of the planet, nowhere outside the Antarctic is it that much ensured universally. Some time ago i demonstrated this on two smaller areas – one in the Antarctic interior, the other at the coast of the Antarctic peninsula, based on recent Landsat and Sentinel-2 images as well as other open data sources:

Mapping of the Belgica Mountains

Mapping of the Belgica Mountains


Mapping of Cape Calmette

Mapping of Cape Calmette

However i am nearly alone with such localized mapping of physical geography. This became even more obvious when recently someone made a well meaning but misguided change to the Antarctic coastline disrupting the routine coastline processing by moving it to the location they saw on what is unfortunately 20 year old image data. I had updated the major ice shelf edges where the ice moves most rapidly over larger sections two times since the 2013 import already and i have updated it to the state of 2021 again now (which includes taking into account the major iceberg calvings of D-28 in 2019 on the Amery Ice Shelf and of A-76 in 2021 on the Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf). But with the exception of the mentioned ill-advised edit i was the only one who has ever worked on these ice edges during the nine years and made sure that they are not off too far. That is definitely not sustainable. And the rest of the Antarctic coastline – the majority of which is moving ice as well – has not been updated for at least nine years now (much of it for longer because the imported data was already older). This has led to inaccuracies exceeding 20km in some places.

Amery Ice Shelf edge history in OSM

Amery Ice Shelf edge history in OSM


Mismatch of OpenStreetMap ice edge data and present day situation in Lützow-Holm Bay

Mismatch of OpenStreetMap ice edge data and present day situation in Lützow-Holm Bay

At the same time the Antarctic has become kind of a playing field for imports and other mass additions of data as well as drawing of abstract labeling polygons with no connection to the observable geography. The almost complete absence of invested local mappers who could object to such edits makes it attractive for such activities.

Inconsiderate import bulldozing over existing data

Inconsiderate import bulldozing over existing data


Example for labeling polygon

Example for labeling polygon

The lack of invested mappers with interest and knowledge

The core of the problem is that OpenStreetMap in the way it functions is based on the collection of local knowledge. In the Antarctic this local knowledge is primarily in the minds of scientists and support personnel working there – not necessarily physically on the continent but on subjects related to it. And while – as pointed out – as far as this knowledge relates to human infrastructure and features significant in everyday life of people, OpenStreetMap has quite successfully recruited people with such knowledge to contribute, this does not extend beyond those narrow thematic fields.

In particular it is noticeable that OpenStreetMap has universally not managed to attract institutional scientists working on Antarctic topics to contribute to OpenStreetMap as part of their professional work. While OpenStreetMap would in principle be well suitable as a platform for scientists to exchange geographic knowledge about the continent, scientists seem to universally shy away from that. Primary reason is probably the very different work cultures and the concerns about everyone being able to edit the data in OSM and that being disruptive for any serious work (which is likely reaffirmed by many not very well informed editing activities like what i discussed before). Another reason could be that countries investing a lot of money into Antarctic research do so to support potential claims of sovereignty on the continent. A component in that is often maintaining a national cartography of the Antarctic or parts of it. And that obviously needs to be clearly attributed to the country to function as such – if mapping work would dissolve into a common international database like OSM right when being made that function would be less well served.

OpenStreetMap maintains the claim that it wants to create and maintain the best map of the world. For the Antarctic that goal has – despite some noticeable progress in the mapping of human infrastructure – become overall more distant and less achievable over the past nine years because – with very few exceptions – OpenStreetMap’s representation of the physical geography of the continent has remained static over that time period while the continent has continued to rapidly change and at the same time much better and more precise data sources have become available (in particular better and more frequent open data imagery) that increases the gap between what we have in OpenStreetMap and what would be available for mapping (and what is available to other mapping projects that compete to be the best map of the Antarctic – or parts of it).

Contributing factors

As already mentioned the Antarctic is different from other parts of the world in particular due to the absence of a larger local population from which mappers can be recruited. There are however also other circumstances that make mapping in the Antarctic particularly difficult.

Imagery is one of the main problems. Not because suitable images are not available – i already mentioned that a wide spectrum of recent open data images meanwhile exists covering most of the continent. The problem is that mappers are used to finding decent images they can map from in the main global image layers like from Bing and Maxar. But for the Antarctic that is predominantly not the case and mappers need to rethink their image choices. All global image layers use the 20 year old LIMA as base imagery for the majority of the Antarctic. And no one should map from that these days – it would be best if editors would actually prevent that.

I have made more recent images available for some quite extensive parts of the continent that mappers can use as a starting point for mapping. You can also use image layers featuring the latest data from low resolution open data satellites like the ones from GIBS. JOSM has meanwhile support for the time parameter of WMS layers – allowing you to choose the date of image recording in those. It does not work for TMS layers though and it is not very comfortable to find a day with no clouds in the area you want to map. Beyond that you are bound to manually looking for recent open data images from Sentinel-2 and Landsat and process them yourself. That might seem like a high hurdle to some – but compared to the time you also will need to invest in familiarizing yourself with the area you want to map this is actually not terribly much work.

In general OpenStreetMap’s focus on the Mercator projection also creates tons of additional practical hurdles when mapping at high latitudes like in the Antarctic. Most map styles are basically useless for feedback because you have to zoom in way too far for things to turn up. And for mappers the download area size limitations of the OSM API are annoying as well.

What i have been asking myself – and where the title of this blog post also aims at – is if the data imports back in 2013 have helped or hurt manual mapping efforts. That is not easy to answer. What we can try to do to get an idea is using the northern polar region as a point of comparison. Here different regions have seen different intensities of base mapping and imports (in Canada) in the past. It does not seem that localized mapping contribution vary very systematically between such settings. Overall manual mapping contributions are rare and usually small, independent of if there is significant pre-existing data or not. Still my observation is that because mappers of human infrastructure seem to shy away from also mapping the physical geography, providing a basic context of that can help with supporting manual mapping.

Physical geography context of station mapping

Physical geography context of station mapping

That the presence of the imported data has in some cases discouraged mappers from engaging in physical geography mapping is a possibility. Some mappers definitely find it more appealing to map on a fully clean slate instead of dealing with pre-existing data. But the data from the import is rudimentary in detail so even when mapping from Landsat or Sentinel-2 images it is clear that you can in most cases simply get rid of the pre-existing data in your area of mapping and start with nothing if you want to. So i doubt this potential influence is that significant. And there are definitely also a lot of remote mappers who like working on pre-existing geometries and simply adding detail to existing ways. This can be frequently observed in other parts of the world.

Possibly the largest influence the Antarctic imports had were the establishment of the Antarctic mapping convention of all land being implicitly ice covered unless tagged otherwise. The problem with that decision is that it was technically without alternative because plastering the whole continent with glacier polygons (or with one big glacier polygon with tens of thousands of holes) would have been unfeasible. Yet this might have been a significant negative impact factor on mapping activities because mappers receive feedback from the map with delay and mapping in this inverse fashion is not always that intuitive, especially near the coast. And among map styles interpretation of these Antarctic mapping conventions is almost fully absent beyond OSM-Carto and derivatives.

Also with the two experimental localized mapping projects i have shown above i realized that there is a significant gap in properly established and documented mapping conventions for polar regions and glacial features. A mapper working in the Antarctic who wants to properly document the reality they see on images or on the ground will often need to think about inventing new tags and mapping rules to represent this. And inventing such specific mapping rules can be very frustrating, especially if you realize that because of the exotic nature of these features the chances that data users will actually make use of them at some time are rather small.

And while the combination of all these challenges is unique globally, each of them individually can also be found elsewhere on Earth. That also means the Antarctic with its fast changing physical features might give us a glimpse into what kind of problems we can expect in other parts of the world in terms of data maintenance in OpenStreetMap also elsewhere in the future.

Conclusions

Mapping of the Antarctic – which constitutes around ten percent of the Earth land surface – represents a significant challenge for mapping in OpenStreetMap. As the data of the continent in the OSM database ages while the geography changes rapidly and increasingly more and better data becomes available that provides information on the region, this challenge will become more pressing in the future. If the OpenStreetMap community wants to maintain its goal to become the best map of the world, it needs to invest systematically in mapping of this continent and in improving the conditions for mapping it in the technical and social framework of mapping in OSM to attract more competent volunteer to contribute in that region.

There might be voices in the OSM community that suggest essentially giving up on the goal of creating the best map w.r.t. the Antarctic and focus on the naturally populated parts of the world instead. That however would create a slippery slope because the universality of a global map – aiming to map the whole planet and not just select parts of it – is a significant part of the attraction and the usefulness of OpenStreetMap for the map and the data user.

But this raises also an important further reaching question – if and to what extent the success of OpenStreetMap depends on and is tied to a functional hegemony of the project in its domain. An interesting topic for future discussion.

January 2, 2022
by chris
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La Palma eruption – before and after

The volcanic eruption that strongly reshaped the island of La Palma since it began in September 2021 seems to have ended during the last days of the last year. Here is a before-after comparison based on Sentinel-2 image data comparing an image taken on December 29, 2021 with one from January – so approximately a year ago with similar lighting conditions and seasonal appearance.


La Palma in 2021 (large: before/after)

Apart from the area directly affected by the lava flow you can see changes in color over a larger area affected by the fall of volcanic ash. In particular large parts of the pine forest in the mountains close to the eruption have changed in color from green to yellow.


La Palma in 2021 detail (large: before/after)

Here for reference a ground picture i took in 2011 from the area just above the site of the new eruption.

La Palma in 2011

The ground in this image is formed by volcanic ash probably quite similar in color and structure to many areas newly covered by ashfall from the recent eruption now so it could be indicative of how the wider area in parts might develop over the next decades.

December 24, 2021
by chris
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Snow in the North American West

Extensive snowfall is pretty common on the plateaus of the North American West in Winter. The white of the snow, the reddish colors of the rocks in the region and the gray-green of the winterly coniferous forests make for a remarkable color combination as it can be observed in this mid December Sentinel-2 image.

Snow in the American West

The area of this view spans much of southwestern Utah and northern Arizona, including three fairly well known National Parks which i show in the following crops.

Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

December 22, 2021
by chris
2 Comments

Rethinking road access restrictions rendering

In my previous blog post on road rendering in OpenStreetMap based maps i focused on better and more consistent layering of road feature and depiction of additional physical characteristics of roads, in particular the ground unit with rendering, visualization of the number of lanes, differentiation of paved and unpaved roads as well as implicitly mapped sidewalks. I did not much look at the basic classification system for roads and other non-physical characteristics of roads depicted in the map.

Traditionally in OSM-Carto and derivative map styles roads rendering depicts roads primarily according to the road classes, that is the highway=* values assigned by mappers. This system of road classes is mostly a classification system based on primary mode of transport and intensity and purpose of road use.

In addition OSM-Carto traditionally depicts another non-physical aspect of roads – the access restrictions. Access restrictions are traditionally rendered in OSM-Carto in a very basic form – access=no and access=private are depicted with a broad and rounded gray dashing on top of the road line while access=destination is shown with a similarly styled dotting. For the narrow road classes (track, path, footway etc.) only access=no/access=private is depicted with a lighter/de-saturated line color.

Towards an intuitive interpretation of access restriction tags

This system is widely (and for a long time) considered a too simplistic interpretation of access restriction tagging, which is one of the strong points of OpenStreetMap since it allows for a very differentiated mapping of all kinds of access conditions a road might have. Picking just three very undifferentiated types of access restriction tagging to depict sends the wrong message to mappers wrongly incentivizing them to simplify a complex and differentiated reality to just these values already on the tagging level. And it is also of fairly little value for the map user because they really cannot tell much from this simplistic depiction regarding if a certain road can be factually used for a certain purpose in a lot of cases.

The starting point for my work on access restrictions rendering i am going to talk about here was that after introducing differentiation of paved and unpaved roads for all major road classes (see the previous road rendering post for that) readability of access restrictions rendering was kind of poor in some cases. This has led to considerations in OSM-Carto that it might be difficult to depict access restrictions rendering and paved/unpaved differentiation at the same time and considering the problems described in the previous paragraph it might be worth considering to simply drop the access restriction rendering in favor of the paved/unpaved differentiation. I reviewed the colors adjusting the gray tone used for the unpaved dashing individually for the different road backgrounds for a uniform contrast and readability and i think the results are fairly decent.

Access restrictions rendering on major road classes

Access restrictions rendering with adjusted colors of dashing for better readability (click to also show the unpaved version)

The main step towards an intuitive interpretation of access restriction tags in a map is in my eyes to focus on what restrictions actually apply to the main mode of transport of the road class in question. That requires interpreting a lot of different tags because of the way access restriction tagging in OpenStreetMap works.

Traditionally in OSM-Carto we try to have a relatively simple and easy to understand relationship between tagging and rendering results. We believe that this is essential for mappers to be able to use the map as a feedback instrument for mapping. If the mapper does not understand how their tagging results in a certain appearance in the map they cannot derive any hints from the map if they mapped things correctly or not. However for access restriction tagging a basic understanding of how the system of tags in OSM for that works is a fundamental prerequisite for correctly mapping things. The UI of editors can help with that of course. The map style however cannot. And once we as style designers accept that such basic understanding of access tagging on the side of the mapper is a prerequisite for us providing useful mapper feedback it quickly becomes clear that we can best support mappers and non-mapping users by interpreting the tagging in total for what it means regarding the primary transport mode of the road class in question.

The primary transport modes i assume as well as hierarchy fall-backs are as follows:

road class primary transport mode fallback access tags
main road classes motorcar motor_vehicle, vehicle, access
highway=track motorcar motor_vehicle, vehicle, access
highway=cycleway bicycle vehicle, access
highway=bridleway horse access
highway=path foot access
highway=footway foot access
highway=steps foot access

In terms of access values i interpret

  • destination, customers and delivery as light (previously destination)
  • no and private as no
  • yes, designated and permissive as yes – for highway=track also agricultural, forestry and agricultural;forestry
  • all other values are ignored

This logic is implemented in a Postgresql function you can find in roads.sql. Here is how this looks like in principle.

De facto access restriction rendering based on primary mode of transport

De facto access restriction rendering based on primary mode of transport

So far we have been treating access restriction as a simple binary yes/no or ternary yes/no/light classification regarding a single mode of transport considered the primary one. This is often insufficient to decently depict the practical reality of the road use and its restrictions and permissions. This is why i also looked into situations with something like access=no, but… – in other words: Roads that are closed to all forms of use with a single exception. The practically most relevant cases of this type for the normal road classes are access=no + bus=yes for bus only roads and access=no + bicycle=yes for cycling roads. These i tried to indicate by coloring the access restriction dashing in a pale version of the colors of the respective roads.

Access restrictions with exceptions

Access restrictions with exceptions

Implicit access restrictions

Experienced mappers among the readers will probably have noticed that so far i have left out two pretty common road classes in my discussion and illustrations. Those are highway=pedestrian and highway=living_street. In contrast to most of the other major or wide road classes (those drawn with a fill and casing as opposed to the narrow classes drawn with a single line and a bright halo) these are defined mostly by implicit access restrictions. highway=pedestrian is for roads that could be used with a car but that are not allowed to be used with a car and reserved for pedestrians. They essentially have the implied access tags access=no + foot=yes. The exact meaning of highway=living_street regarding use permissions is a bit more vague and varies from country to country – mostly it means pedestrians have precedence over vehicle traffic here while vehicles are still allowed, often with some restrictions.

There are other road classes with similar implicit access restrictions suggested and partly used by mappers in OSM, specifically highway=busway and highway=bus_guideway. The suggestion to add support for highway=busway to OSM-Carto and the difficulty to do so in a consistent way was one of the factors that inspired me to work on this topic here.

There are two possible ways to integrate rendering of such road classes with implicit access restrictions into a map style. The first is to render them like a normal road with the implied restrictions tagged. That would – for highway=pedestrian and with the above scheme for rendering access restrictions – mean like highway=residential with red-orange access dashing. The advantage is that this would be intuitively readable for the map user who knows about the system of access restrictions rendering without learning specifically about the highway=pedestrian road class. The main disadvantage would be that highway=pedestrian roads often form fairly dense networks in town or city centers and all of the red dashing would create quite a lot of noise on the map. And by displaying the implicit access restriction you essentially have no room left to show any explicit tagging of access restrictions and permissions. The other – and commonly used way of rendering – is to treat them as a distinct road class. This is the approach OSM-Carto takes and that i took for the alternative colors style so far. And i unified highway=pedestrian and highway=living_street to avoid having too many distinct road colors. This was not quite satisfying though because the practical meaning of the two is quite different.

The situation with highway=busway is yet another difficulty because those mappers who introduced this tag want it to be used for some – but not for all – bus exclusive roads. Hence the aim would need to be to distinguish between highway=busway and normal roads tagged access=no + bus=yes in a meaningful and intuitive way or to unify them in design. And to not be confusing the approach would need to match that for highway=pedestrian of course. As an additional quirk we have in OSM-Carto for a long time rendering of highway=bus_guideway in a railway like fashion – which might make some sense from an engineering perspective but makes very little sense from the practical map user perspective.

To demonstrate how all of these issues can be addressed together i went for a base design as shown in the following with a violet color for highway=busway/highway=bus_guideway (which works better in the ac-style than in OSM-Carto because of the violet color for transport related symbols) and the previous light gray for highway=pedestrian and highway=living_street. In contrast to OSM-Carto which does not render access restrictions on highway=pedestrian (likely because that would clash with the implicit restrictions of this road type) i do so – based on the paradigm that the access dashing represents the de facto restrictions for the primary mode of transport. This is not that common practically for highway=pedestrian but there are cases where this applies – for example for pedestrian roads in military complexes or non-public parks.

Road classes with implicit access restrictions

Road classes with implicit access restrictions

But there remains a serious question with roads with implicit access restrictions: How to depict exceptions from the restrictions like i do with the colored dashes for explicitly access restricted roads? We can’t use the colored dashing because we have made the choice to not use that for the implicit restrictions. Yet this implicit restriction with exception situation is a fairly common case – in particular for pedestrian roads where bicycles are allowed. The solution that i chose and that i think works quite well is to use a continuous colored center-line for additional permissions compared to the primary mode of transport. This also nicely allows for a general differentiation between highway=pedestrian and highway=living_street – by indicating highway=living_street to be like a pedestrian road with additional permission for vehicles. How this looks like can be seen here:

Additional permissions on road classes with implicit restrictions

Additional permissions on road classes with implicit restrictions

Two final points – first: If you followed my previous post on roads rendering you might notice that the use of a solid center-line signature kind of interferes with using the same context to visualize lanes. Yes, it does, but the two still work decently together with some limitations to readability and also this is a rare combination – lanes tags on highway=pedestrian and highway=living_street are really rare. And second: Yes, on busways the center-line rendering is fairly poor in contrast and can be hard to reliably read, especially in the unpaved version. Again – this is a very unlikely combination practically and i included it here mostly to demonstrate the design and tag interpretation concept in principle, not because it is such a practically relevant combination. The colored center-line rendering could equally be dropped on the busways.

And i am not even sure if at this time a distinct rendering of highway=busway is advisable because there is not a clear and well established semantic difference between that tag and normal roads with access=no + bus=yes independent of local culture specific conventions. I included it here mostly as a demonstrator to have another type of implicitly access restricted roads in the mix and show that this rendering concept allows for such extensions.

Practical examples

Here a few practical examples of this new rendering using real world data.

Access restrictions rendering example

Access restrictions rendering example

Access restrictions rendering example

Access restrictions rendering example

Access restrictions rendering example

Access restrictions rendering example

Note in particular how – with the colored center-lines and colored access restriction dashing – you can pretty well spot continuous routes for cycling in a network of predominantly pedestrian or otherwise access restricted roads for example.

What these examples also show in some places is that both the changes introduced here and the previous road rendering related changes in the ac-style interpret a lot of tags that are not that frequently interpreted by maps elsewhere. This makes the map fairly difficult to read in some situations because of errors and inconsistencies in the data. Even just the mapping of certain aspects being incomplete and patchy can add a lot of noise to the map and make it rather difficult to read. But ultimately that mainly means that maps providing visual feedback on these features to mappers are badly needed.

Conclusions

So what did i show here? I presented a new system of interpreting and displaying access restrictions and permissions on roads that is close to the tagging system of OpenStreetMap by following the main road classification system but applies a considerably higher level of tag interpretation on the access tags to generate a meaningful and intuitive rendering.

Of course this adds quite a lot of design elements to the map that a map user needs to get acquainted with. In particular the added use of color makes the map fairly colorful in some settings – even though the color semantics are consistent across the whole domain of roads making it quite intuitive overall. Still it stretches the limits of what you can reasonably claim to be a map that can be understood without a map key.

Overall i think this is a viable demonstration how access restrictions like they are mapped in OpenStreetMap can be depicted in a manner that follows a consistent inner logic in terms of the symbology and presents the restrictions and permissions of roads in a meaningful way to the map user, significantly increasing the practical usefulness of the map compared to OSM-Carto. And as i discussed above i think this also significantly helps mapper feedback compared to the selective depiction of access=no/private/destination known from OSM-Carto. While the mapper cannot directly see the tagging in the map display any more with the new system and need to understand how the system of access restriction tagging in OSM works up front to make sense of the rendering, i think this practically is more useful and more valuable.

Most of the complexity of the tag interpretation logic is in two Postgresql functions which are generic in nature and not specific to the visual design used. Technically the same could be implemented with a lookup table for the different tag combinations which some developers might consider more suitable depending on individual preferences and taste.

December 20, 2021
by chris
6 Comments

Why it is essential for the OpenStreetMap community to actively pursue map design innovation

This is kind of a note on the general matter of map design in OpenStreetMap based maps – on which i am going to write more specifically in the following blog post. Like in various previous posts on map design matters i am going to write about new ideas and cartographic techniques to display the information mappers record in OpenStreetMap in a rich – yet hopefully intuitively readable – map, suitable for a large bandwidth of geographic settings. Unfortunately i am fairly alone in publicly writing about this topic in the context of OpenStreetMap based automatically rendered interactive maps aimed at global use. Even outside the OpenStreetMap world in depth discussion about rule based map design is rare and most of what is written in the wider context of map rendering focuses on purely technical aspects and improving rendering efficiency.

You can get a bit of an idea how this lack of innovation in map design in the OpenStreetMap community is damaging for the project and its public image from an article in Cartographic Perspectives published recently. In a nutshell this article’s failure is conflating OpenStreetMap with the mediocre OSM data based maps produced by a commercial map service provider tuned for cost efficiency in providing the map tiles rather than quality and information content of the map. That this is foremost a failure of the peer review of the article is obvious, but this is not my topic here. What this however also illustrates is that the vast majority of OSM data based maps do neither show ambition nor ability to aim higher than the products of Google, Bing etc. in terms of innovation and quality of map design. Roughly 80 percent of OSM based maps are the basic garden variety styles combining basic rendering of roads, buildings and static POIs and labels, sometimes with some purely decorative landcover depiction. The other 20 percent are specialty maps for specific narrow use cases – sometimes with considerable innovative ideas but always limited to a very narrow thematic field. With that background it is somewhat understandable if conservative cartographers unfamiliar with OpenStreetMap think it is identical data-wise to the poor Google Maps imitations commercial map providers have created using OSM data.

If the OpenStreetMap community wants to stay avant-garde in cartographic data collection and actively shape the future of that domain rather than swimming with the stream and becoming a mere data provider serving the cartographic data needs of data users with big pockets, it needs to be able to shape the map design depicting and presenting the data the mapper community collects. The few efforts from within the OSM community in that direction that we still have are hampered by the map design tools and rendering tools for automated rule based cartography available – tools which for many years now have been designed and developed almost exclusively for the needs of commercial map service providers like i discussed above. So the challenge for the OSM community is two-fold – nurturing and valuing innovative community map design work inspired by the values of the project rather than short term external economic interests as well as developing and supporting the software needed for these map design efforts.

When looking at comments and contributions on the OSM-Carto issue tracker and following map rendering discussions in the OSM community elsewhere i am frequently quite frightened by the lack of effort and more in depth interest in the topic. To put it bluntly – the attitude of most OSM community members w.r.t. map design seems to be one of two: (a) That maps based on OSM data will just happen to appear somewhere and develop themselves based on needs and opportunities without requiring any specific talents, experience or education or (b) that map design is essentially nothing more than occasionally adding rendering support for a new tag with some randomly picked new line or polygon fill color or adding yet another static poi symbol type using an icon more or less related to the tag in question.

This needs to change – significantly and rather urgently. I have been pointing this out in various forms for quite a long time already and i do here again with more emphasis. What i am occasionally discussing here with my OSM map design related blog posts is just one of many possible approaches to innovation in OSM related map design. All of them deserve more and more ambitious interest and more support from within the OSM community.

Although this post might in parts suggest something different – it is not my intention to assign blame here regarding who is responsible for the developments of the past. What is important is the realization that there is a need to act here and that an own and diverse innovative map design capability from within the OSM community that is not just piggy-bagged on the work of third parties outside the project but that is capable and willing to guide and shape design in its own direction, is essential for the long term success of OpenStreetMap. And that the technical foundations for this in the form of software that enables such innovative map design with flexibility, likewise need to be developed and shaped from within the project and can equally not just be attached to external endeavors which follow completely different economic goals.

If that does not happen OpenStreetMap would get in trouble and loose significance rather quickly. The idea that OpenStreetMap could compete on metrics like those of the Cartographic Perspectives article i linked to with proprietary cartographic data sources is unrealistic – those will be massively expanding on machine generated data for machine generated maps and OpenStreetMap will never be able to compete in that domain. What OpenStreetMap is good at and where the proprietary competition has no chance against it is producing a map based on local knowledge, by the people, for the people – both in the data collection and mapping part and in the actual map design and production.

December 14, 2021
by chris
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Antarctic spring 2021

The Antarctic satellite image observation season has already started a few months ago meanwhile. Here are – somewhat late – two impressions from the beginning of the 2021/2022 Antarctic season. The first is a rare sunrise glimpse of the McMurdo sound area from Landsat 8 from early September this year – somewhat similar to the sunrise image of the Antarctic peninsula i showed in 2015.

Antarctic sunrise 2021

Antarctic sunrise 2021

The exact lighting conditions in this kind of view depend a lot on the atmospheric conditions making this kind of image very interesting and individually unique from a photographic perspective – but at the same time limiting its use for classical satellite image interpretation purposes.

The second is a mosaic from the same region but with lager coverage, composed from several Sentinel-2 images from about a month later with much more conventional lighting conditions – though still with relatively low sun and long shadows.

Antarctic spring 2021

Antarctic spring 2021

At the coast you can see that McMurdo sound is still largely covered by land fast sea ice and the Ross sea is largely se ice covered as well. Further inland the conditions are much less dependent on the season – snow cover is much more dependent on snow fall and wind patterns than on summer thawing. Not just the McMurdo dry valleys but also significant parts in the Transantarctic mountains further south are essentially free of snow cover throughout the year because of the lack of significant snowfall. Glaciers in such areas appear blue in color due to the ice being free of snow.

Both views are available in the catalog on services.imagico.de for licensing.

October 31, 2021
by chris
2 Comments

The OSMF – last year’s predictions and a look into the future

Last year i predicted a number of trends i identified in the OSMF that seemed to be likely to further develop during this year. I will here have a look at how this turned out so far. Note many of these predictions were a bit more long term than just a single year so it is a bit early for a final assessment of them. If you have not already done so you might also want to look at the previous post where i analyzed the developments in the OSMF during the past year in general.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Centralization of the OSMF

This year has shown mixed developments in that regard. With the adoption of Attribution Guidelines designed by the board essentially rejecting significant parts of the LWG proposal the board kind of continued the centralization trend. The creation of new committees where the selection of members was done by the board goes in a similar direction. On the other hand the board has – as mentioned in the first part – so far not really made use of the new instrument of board committees with members that are not part of the board. And as i also mentioned in the first part in my analysis already with the behavior regulation plans the board showed a remarkable reluctance to take any influence or even make suggestions on the work so far. But that does not necessarily disprove my prediction of a tendency for more centralization. Obviously if the work of working groups and committees goes to the board’s liking there is no need to impose top-down influence. An interesting test during the coming year will probably be how independent the newly created EWG will be in their work.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Decreasing diversity and brain drain

Last year i predicted that the OSMF would become increasingly a domain of people with economic interests around OSM – either people who volunteer as part of their career or people who get paid for OSMF work. Developments in composition of the working groups seem to confirm this. The newly created EWG seems to consist predominantly of people with an OSM related job and a clear connection between their career/job and the EWG work. The CWG seems now dominated by people with HOT affiliations. And on the newly created Software dispute resolution panel four of five members have OSM related jobs.

Regarding the related trend that the OSMF seems to become culturally more narrow as a result of that – We had in particular a remarkable case in the LWG when the request of Séverin Ménard to join the working group was rejected for fairly questionable reasons which was clearly an act of discrimination because of differences in cultural background and values and personal style and character.

Also matching this trend is the list of candidates for this year’s board election where five out of six candidates have an OSM related job and the sixth (Guillaume) has – through the payment for board work i discussed in the first part – also qualified himself for that category in a way.

This assessment, based on OSM related jobs and OSM related economic interests, is of course only a rough indicator – someone with an OSM related job can in principle decide to volunteer for OSM without that being guided by economic interests. And someone volunteering without an OSM related job might none the less do that to foster their career or to get an OSM related job. But it is still a reasonable rough indicator. And the overall trend that the OSMF is becoming increasingly a domain of people with economic interests around OSM seems to be confirmed quite strongly by it. This is not really that astonishing, given the increased amount of money the OSMF now has and wants to spend. The important thing is that these personal economic interests of people active in the OSMF of course also affect the interests pursued by the organization – more on that below.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Seeking influence on OpenStreetMap

This is the trend where i made the most concrete predictions last year so lets see how these turned out:

Community communication channels:

On the behavior regulation front my prediction was spot on i think. The behavior regulation regime is not in place yet but the intention to roll it out soon is clearly there. My guess is what stalls things at the moment is that it is difficult to find people for the moderation team that (a) look somewhat diverse at least on paper (b) are not too obviously unqualified because they are no active users of the mailing lists in question and (c) are willing to take on such a thankless task.

The other front on which the OSMF worked last year towards more top down control and more centralization of OSM community communication channels was the work towards a new centralized communication platform (using the web based forum software discourse) on which according to the OSMFs vision ultimately all community communication the OSMF facilitates is meant to be unified.

Early comments, warning (a) that all the different communication platforms and channels we have and use in the OSM community have very different communication styles and cultures and serve very different purposes and (b) that it would be counterproductive to attempt unifying those into one platform, were quite clearly ignored in the OSMF. As i mentioned last year there are strong voices in the OSMF calling for culturally homogenizing communication in OSM and more top-down management of community interaction. That this ultimately is very likely to backfire – possibly leading to an emphasis of the OSM community separating into distinct filter bubbles with very little substantial communication between them – as i also already indicated last year.

We will very likely see the rollout of both the new unified communication platform and the new behavior control regime next year. It will be very interesting to observe what happens when the community management and cultural homogenization ideas practically collide with the OSM community in all its diversity.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

The OpenStreetMap website:

So far nothing of substance has happened on that front but the matter has recently been put on the agenda of the board again so it is possible that my prediction was just off by a few months. On the other hand the board would still need to find someone qualified and willing to implement the OSMFs wishes here – which could be quite difficult.

From the board minutes:

the www.osm.org website works well, but there are opportunities for better experience and to grow the community.

That is quite clearly code for we want a more corporate style and less map centered website – hence confirming my prediction from last year. As said there: If that is going to be successful, considering the OpenStreetMap website is traditionally out of scope of the OSMF, is not sure.

Mapping and tagging:

In this point my prediction was clearly wrong or at least much too early (though i mentioned this is a point i was not very sure about). That might be partly because iD development was essentially stalled for the past year so there was no opportunity even for the software dispute resolution panel to make any decisions.

Interesting point on that – the strategic plan outline contains an obscure point called curated tags proposal that might indicate further plans within the OSMF to take influence on mapping and tagging. Can’t be sure about that though.

Because it is unclear where iD development is going in the future i would not want to make a new prediction on this point right now. We will probably see this more clearly in a year or so.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

In my conclusions last year i also indicated two possibilities for the OSMF to develop into a more positive direction.

The first one (reorganizing the OSMF into a more federated organizational structure with checks and balances and meaningful subsidiarity rules as part of a move outside the UK) is still an option. The board seems to be looking into moving the OSMF. Changing the organizational structure as part of such a move however does not seem to be on the agenda and my reminder that this would be highly desirable did not produce any resonance.

The second one (turning the OSMF into a neutral infrastructure provider for the OSM community under the premise of neutrality and non-discrimination) – given the developments during the past year this seems to have become increasingly less likely – in particular because the OSMF has meanwhile attracted quite significant interests that build on the non-neutral directed money spending under the people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm that is pursued right now. So in short: Sadly that ship has probably sailed.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Corporate takeover

There has been some discussion about my blog post from last year and the claim that the corporate takeover has already happened. The problem with my claim of that was that i defined it as the inability of the OSMF to make decisions that are against the interests of its corporate financiers. And proving that inability would amount to proving a negative – which is hard. But, as i discussed in the first part of this post, the strategic plan outline the board has approved this year essentially codifies the alignment to business interests in substance – or in other words: The intention not to make decisions that are against the interests of the OSMFs corporate financiers. And i think a clearly articulated intention makes proving the inability superfluous.

The strategic plan outline has now documented clearly that the OSMF has shifted in their direction from supporting OpenStreetMap as the social endeavor that it is to re-shaping it to the ideal that business interests around OSM in large parts would like it to be – a project with the primary goal being a collection of useful geodata and all social aspects of the project being subordinate to that material goal. It can of course be questioned if this can be classified as a corporate takeover. But the result is similar, the OSMF has over the course of several years mostly adjusted to and adopted the goals and interests of corporations as their own.

And to be clear – this shift in focus is not exclusively for the benefit of large corporations or against the articulated interests of most people around OpenStreetMap. Many people view this shift to be an attractive opportunity for their career or business interests or a chance for a job or some paid work related to OpenStreetMap. And they are not wrong about this. But make no mistake – such small scale interests are just along for the ride. The key influence comes from where the money to satisfy all these smaller interests ultimately comes from.

The long term developments resulting from this shift in direction of the OSMF are hard to predict because they depend mostly on how resilient the OSM community will be against an OSMF increasingly pursuing external economic interests. In the past – essentially for the last ten years from the time when OSM started to become an international cross-cultural social project until today – the OSM community has shown a fairly solid ability to cope with a changing and in parts hostile environment. But that does not necessarily mean much for the future.

The spectrum of possible futures ranges from a quick collapse into what i described elsewhere as a new edition of the International World Map in the digital age using crowdsourcing to scenarios where the core ideas and social mechanisms of OSM essentially continue to work and thrive unaffected by an OSMF in concert with business interests trying to re-invent OSM in their filter bubble. That scenario is essentially based on what HOT has been doing rather successfully for many years. They have made a business out of selling OSM as a platform to perform centrally organized crowd sourced mapping projects and with free maintenance of that data afterwards to aid organizations of various types. The OSMF could try to do a similar thing for the data user market – trying to sell their ideal of OpenStreetMap as a mere collection of useful geodata while the OSM community underneath continues to work under a very different paradigm. It is somewhat doubtful that such a constellation would be stable in the long term but i would not rule it out.

As i have written more than two years ago – no matter how this will turn out, the idea to collect and share local geographic knowledge through egalitarian self-determined cooperation of individuals will survive in the long term because it is something that resonates very strongly with people of very different cultural backgrounds all over the world. The question is only if it will survive within the project that is called OpenStreetMap or outside of it. And maybe a more materialist, more centrally organized and managed OpenStreetMap is what is needed as a counterpoint for this idea to elsewhere continue to thrive and to develop to the next level. In a similar way as the self centered monopolist mapping agencies of the UK and Europe, serving specialized interests but not those of the people, were the necessary trigger for the original idea of OpenStreetMap to form and gain support.

I have during the past year strongly reduced my commentary of the OSMFs day-to-day activities. Main reason is that with an OSMF increasingly acting like a business and serving economic interests providing such commentary increasingly feels like providing free consulting services – which is not what i like doing (i commented more on this mechanism in the past). I will probably continue to observe and analyze the publicly visible activities of the OSMF (for their influence on OpenStreetMap and out of intellectual curiosity regarding the social dynamics within the organization) but i will likely write less spontaneous comments and limit myself mostly to long term afterwards analysis like this.

What i really would like to see in the future is more people from the OSM community coming together and working on projects decidedly outside the sphere of influence of the OSMF. JOSM some time ago made the remarkable decision to reject the offer from the OSMF for financial support and this way making a clear statement that they want to stay independent of such influence. It would be nice to see that kind of becoming a role model for other projects.

As for the OSMFs future – in principle the organization still has the potential to change quite dynamically and to take a more positive direction in the future. With that i mean in particular more enlightened decisions, more based on arguments and reasoning and with a tradition of regular public discourse discussing those, and less based on negotiations of interests as it is done right now. That is most certainly not going to happen next year, given the candidate portfolio in this year’s board election. And with every year of course the influence of external interests in the OSMF gets more strongly solidified, making such a change less likely overall.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

October 30, 2021
by chris
0 comments

The OSMF – looking back at the past year

About a year ago was the last time i wrote on this blog about politics of the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) and with the annual general meeting and board elections coming up i think it is time to look back again at the past year and review the predictions i made last year. In this first part i will provide a summary of the most significant developments of the past year from my perspective.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Overall developments

Before i get to specific things that have happened during the past year and their analysis i want to describe my impression of the overall trends. Concerning the board the bottom line is that relatively little has changed compared to the year before (where i saw the changes made quite critically in many aspects as you can read up). That means the three board members elected in the end of 2020 (one re-elected who was on the board before and two new members) did not leave much of a distinct signature so far and seem to be standing mostly in the shadows of the more extrovert and more voiceful members whose seats are up for election this year.

That means overall trends that started last year which i described in my analysis back then mostly continued during this year. The plans of the board to expand their own work capacity by creating board committees with additional committee members not from the board so far did not yield any practical results. The board formally created three board committees but only one of them is documented to some extent beyond that (the personnel committee) and there is no documented activity of that so far either.

That also means public activity of the OSMF in general shifted a bit from the board (which massively dominated the previous year) to working groups and special committees this year. This is paired with a further decline in transparency in some parts of OSMF work also outside the board. Several working groups and committees ceased any form of regular reporting to the larger community (LCCWG, Microgrants committee already in 2020, Diversity and Inclusion Special Committee in 2020 and the SotM working group already in 2019) Of many of their activities we only know through reports to the board made during the board meetings (which fortunately are still minuted). Of two newly created committees (Software dispute resolution panel, Special Committee on Takeover Protection) we don’t know anything about their status. Overall the lack of publicly available information meanwhile means we do not only lack knowledge of what the OSMF is actually doing in many cases, we also don’t know if they are doing something or not in large parts. On the positive side i like to mention the newly formed Engineering Working Group which seems to try to be transparent in their work from the start with meetings open to the OSMF members and minutes published in a timely fashion. It will remain to be seen if that level of transparency will be maintained once it comes to making substantial decisions but the will to start with a culture of openness is quite clearly there.

So let me get to a list of key topics that we know the OSMF dealt with or worked on during the past year. A more complete list can be found on the OSMF wiki. I will try here to discuss the most important points only and their political significance and the potential impact on the future of the OSMF and OpenStreetMap.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Banking issues

After the OSMF has had already serious trouble in 2020 because their long term bank threw them out there were apparently a multitude of new issues this year. It seems the OSMF had moved to a bank with fairly high fees and to mitigate that used non-bank financial service providers for most of their transactions. And since there was no redundancy in that system of banking and financial services the OSMF was in a pretty bad situation for some time after two service providers blocked their accounts.

What i am not sure about and what worries me is if these two big issues in two consecutive years have lead to introducing serious redundancy into the financial management of the OSMF – in other words: If the OSMF could now survive a similar case (any of their banks or financial service providers freezing their accounts or terminating their contract ad hoc) without running into serious operational troubles as a result. There is nothing in public communication of the board indicating that there have been precautions and redundancies introduced for this kind of situation. I don’t want to assume this not being the case but the question arises of course.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

The dangerous precedent of paying a board member

In the course of these banking issues the OSMF board made the decision to pay one of them (the treasurer) a rate of EUR 100 per hour for working on the problem. This decision did not gather much attention back then but i consider it highly problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Evidently all board members had a conflict of interest with a decision that sets a precedent for paying a board member for board work. Even if the other board members have no interests in getting paid for OSMF work themselves and will never have such interest in the future (which is something only very few of them can convincingly claim) that does not change anything about this. A conflict of interest is the possibility that there is a secondary interest (the personal financial interest of the board member) colliding with the primary interest the board member is to pursue (the interests of the company). That is evidently the case here (all board members could profit from a precedent in paying a board member for board work). Therefore i think anyone would assume that the decision to start paying board members for board work – no matter if in general or only in specific cases – would be one that can only be made by the OSMF members during a general meeting. And even if that is considered not to be an option the obvious alternative (to hire an outside professional for that work) does not seem to have been considered at all.
  • The financial impact of this decision on the OSMF will in the future probably far exceed the amount paid (and the board as far as i can see still has not informed the membership how much that is by the way). Because this sets a reference point for any future contractor the OSMF might want to hire. If for work to resolve the current blockage of PayPal and TransferWise accounts for which the treasurer has neither a specific formal training qualifying him nor substantial work experience (beyond the 1.5 years as treasurer) the board considers EUR 100/hour an appropriate fee that will in the future likely be a bottom limit for anyone working for the OSMF as a contractor with any substantial formal qualification or work experience in the domain in question. Just for comparison: The people hired for software development work by the OSMF during the past two years (see here, here, here and here) received EUR 50/EUR 62/USD 66 per hour and all had many years of work experience in the specific fields they were working on (and with software development experience being a qualification in very high demand on the market in general). It is unlikely that the OSMF will in the future be able to contract anyone that cheap if the board itself has essentially set the lower bar for work without substantial qualification at EUR 100/hour.
  • On a meta-level (and i realize that many readers probably consider this a too abstract possibility) this decision could in principle incentivize board members in the future to work towards leading the company into precarious situations similar to this one by not creating redundancies and safeguards where that would be prudent and then – if the problem becomes acute – offer to solve it when getting paid. To be clear – i am not saying this specific problem could or should have been foreseen and prevented. But the decision to pay a board member in exceptional circumstances creates an incentive for board members to work towards similarly exceptional circumstances in the future.

This was not the only case by the way of the board giving money to a board member last year. The other case was when the board granted a request by Amanda to finance a Mastodon server she runs. Now you could argue of course this is nothing more than reimbursement for expenses. But it seems quite clear that this request was handled differently than it would have been if Amanda had not been a board member. If not in any other way then at least because someone else asking the board for money for something like that could not have created a circular like Amanda did.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Attribution Guidelines

The most visible policy decision during the past year and in particular the one most widely recognized in the OSM community was the adoption of new Attribution Guidelines. I wrote last year that this could be a significant test case for the amount of influence corporate interests have on the OSMF. The board here managed to adopt guidelines that clearly go against the wishes of large corporate data users. I have discussed this in more detail and as written there the board in return gave the corporations a pacifying gift by essentially declaring an exception of the ODbL for use of OSM data in data driven algorithms (a.k.a. training of machine learning models). Independent of that so far the Attribution Guidelines are just a piece of paper. If the OSMF does not act on data users, in particular the large financiers of the OSMF, not complying with those guidelines the decision to adopt them in this form will not be that meaningful. So the board has done a step towards pushing back against the hand that feeds them so to speak. But without more concrete actions this is not that substantial. You could also say the board has essentially delayed the decision if to initiate an open conflict with either the corporate financiers or the craft mapper community.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Change in strategic direction of the OSMF

Something that went more below the radar during the past year was the adoption of a so called Strategic Plan Outline. This at the first glance looks like a fairly vague, harmless and non-controversial collection of matters the OSMF has and should have on their radar. But at a closer look it is not, it is essentially a political program outlining a fundamental change in strategic orientation and core values of the OpenStreetMap project and how the OSMF can try to pursue such re-orientation while maintaining the lip service to support but not control OpenStreetMap.

The key to understanding this text lies in the Preamble – which essentially outlines a vision of OpenStreetMap the board has during the past two years increasingly communicated in their statements and policy documents (first noted this in the discussion of the so called diversity statement and further discussed here and here for example) – that OpenStreetMap is viewed primarily as a project to collect useful geodata and no more as a social endeavor and that all social aspects and all other things traditionally considered core principles of OpenStreetMap are subordinate to that goal.

The rest of the document is then essentially just a sketch of a strategy how the OSMF can support OSM turning into a project that follows this vision. That hollows out the support but not steer paradigm at its core because the vision of OpenStreetMap as a materialist project aiming primarily to collect useful geodata through crowdsourced labor goes completely against the core of what OpenStreetMap traditionally stands for and what made the project successful. And the Preamble goes even further – it puts the volunteer mappers contributing highly specific local knowledge on the same level as large corporations contributing satellite imagery and artificial intelligence tools.

So far this text has received no substantial critical reception and discussion in the OSM community.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Conflicts of Interest – unwillingness to address obvious problems and impose more substantial regulation

After last year’s events around the Microgrants program have demonstrated clearly that existing Conflict of Interest rules in the OSMF (which rely on people universally being able and willing to recognize their own Conflicts of Interest) are grossly insufficient, an attempt to make the rules more strict at least in some minor ways from within the board has been non-successful. The comments on the circular indicate a continued fundamental lack of awareness of there being a problem at all. This continued also otherwise during this year – the decision discussed above about paying a board member for board work being just one example. The board is currently discussing a second round of the Microgrants program and despite even the committee from the first round (who did not see the need for public oversight on their work in the first round and who decided to ignore the requirement to do all work openly) suggesting in their final report that clearer rules on that are needed, the board in their discussion so far has shown no indication that they see the need for changes from their side or that they even see there is a significant problem at all.

I have written about the whole topic of corruption risks and Conflicts of Interest in the past.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Behavior regulation on OSMF channels

One other topic that was fairly prominent during the past year and that i predicted to be a key trend this year was the attempt to impose behavior regulation on communication channels of the OSM community operated by the OSMF. I commented on that quite a bit already.

The interesting thing about this project is that in contrast to other OSMF topics (like the Attribution Guidelines) where the board saw no problem with taking the initiative and requesting changes to document drafts and ultimately writing their own document or the Microgrants program where the board afterwards hand picked several projects not selected by the committee for separate funding this way overruling the committee, the board here seems to very clearly shy away from taking any influence and for the most part from even commenting in substance on the plans and drafts of the self appointed group that developed these.

This is remarkable in my eyes because as i indicated in the above linked text already what i find noteworthy about this project is how uncritically people in the OSMF seem to embrace the totalitarian and culture imperialist tendencies that can be observed around this. My impression is that different people project very different hopes and visions into this endeavor – some see it as a beachhead to ultimately turn all of OpenStreetMap into a managed community where everyone adjusts to certain behavior standards in everything they do and adopts certain cultural values while others view this as a fig-leaf to pacify certain loud voices without changing anything of substance. The bottom line is: No matter how this will further develop quite a lot of people (possibly all) will be miserable.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Further Transparency rollbacks

I have already mentioned several more cases during the past year of decline of transparency in the work of the OSMF above (adding to the general trend in pointed out last year already). But there were further examples of transparency rollbacks. As i linked to above it has been established tradition for the OSMF to publish contracts for paid work. This is very important both for oversight over decisions with potentially high impact on the OSMF’s finances but also for fairness between different contractors (equal terms and pay for equal work) and for making sure the OSMF lives up to their social responsibilities towards people working for them. Not to mention that the latent conflicts between volunteer work and paid work are significantly reduced if the contractual terms and payment for paid work are known to everyone.

Now with the hiring of a new iD developer the board seems to intend to break with that tradition and keep the contract secret. Not only that – they seem to have signed the contract without a formal board decision (which likewise would be a first in OSMF history).

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

What is not on the list

In addition to the list of matters the OSMF worked on what is also important to look at are the matters that are missing on that list. During the last general meeting there were three resolutions approved by the members that have not been implemented by the board yet. One was the investigation of paid votes in elections – which the board delegated to a committee in July but where there are no results yet. The other two were related to the membership system – one meaning to allow active contributor members (who don’t have to pay the membership fee because they have contributed to OSM significantly during the past year) to become regular members rather than just associate members. The other to work on membership prerequisites. None of these has been addressed so far. Given the board members are volunteers and there has been significant unforeseen work during the past year as described above it is not advisable to assign too much blame for that to the board. One could of course question the board’s priorities here, especially since they clearly have put items on their own agenda above the tasks they have been given by the membership.

Anyway – the board seems clearly a bit embarrassed by having forgotten about these points and intends to schedule an additional general meeting within the next half year to then decide about a proposal from the board (to be developed until then) on the last point.

While i think more frequent active involvement of the membership in OSMF politics is a good idea, planning to ask the members for approving a resolution on a membership related matter while the previous resolution the members have approved in this regard has not been implemented yet is kind of weird and does not inspire a lot of confidence.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Very successful active contributor membership program

To end with a clearly positive point – the active contributor membership program that has been started last year has turned out to be very successful with more than one third of the members now having made use of it. In what ways exactly this changes the membership structure still remains to be seen – the geographic distribution in terms of country of residence does only provide limited information on that. But it has the potential to lead to significant positive effects in the long term.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Conclusions

That was my – certainly rather subjective – summary of what happened in the OSMF during the past year.

While last year i had the impression of the board’s actions and decisions being rather erratic, this year – with there not being that many new projects of the board and the OSMF more consolidating its direction – i also have a much clearer view now of the direction in which the OSMF seems to be aiming.

In a nutshell – what the current boards seems to try to do is to re-invent OpenStreetMap in a way that avoids the OSMF having to decide between its financiers, the hands that feed them (the large corporate OSM data users) and the interests of the project. And from a perspective from within the OSMF this makes total sense. Making OpenStreetMap more business compatible by giving it a business like material goal (collection of useful geodata) avoids a conflict that in the long term would have the potential to destroy the OSMF.

I have explained in the past on multiple occasions that i consider the key for OpenStreetMap’s success in connecting people from all over the world across language and culture barriers to be the egalitarian cooperation between individuals sharing their local knowledge. And i think that cannot be substituted with the goal of producing a collection of useful geodata without loosing the social cohesion of the project and the basis of its success. But of course i cannot prove that, i can only describe how my understanding of OpenStreetMap has led me to that conclusion and how – over the years – many further observations of the social mechanisms in OpenStreetMap (in particular regarding how the OSM community tends to deal with conflicts and cultural differences) have confirmed this hypothesis repeatedly so i offer this as an explanation to understand how OpenStreetMap works and why it is successful as a social endeavor.

When the board however believes the opposite to be true, that the core principles of OpenStreetMap can be substituted with or subordinated under the common goal of collecting useful geodata without adverse effects on the social cohesion across language and culture barriers and they act upon this belief to re-invent OpenStreetMap along these lines they essentially put the whole project on the line based merely on their belief regarding the social mechanisms of how OpenStreetMap works – a belief for which they have no corroborating evidence.

But enough for today. In a follow-up post i plan to look back at my predictions from last year and to what extent they came to pass and see if i can make some predictions for the future again.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

October 10, 2021
by chris
0 comments

Autumn and Spring in October 2021

Together with the two Landsat image visualizations i showed for the Landsat 9 launch featuring northern hemisphere autumn impressions i have added two more Sentinel-2 images to the catalog on services.imagico.de as well.

The first is a fairly clear early spring image of South Georgia showing the beginning of the thawing season.

South Georgia in early October 2021

South Georgia in early October 2021

The second is a nice autumn view of Mount Aniakchak on the Alaska Peninsula in late September with some fresh snow around the rim of the caldera contrasting with the darker surrounding.

Aniakchak in late September 2021

Aniakchak in late September 2021

September 27, 2021
by chris
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Landsat 9 launch

Today Landsat 9 was launched. As i mentioned before i typically do not discuss Earth observation satellite launches here because the more interesting and practically meaningful date is when the data starts becoming available. But i make an exception for Landsat because of its historic and present day significance for Open Data satellite imagery.

Landsat 8 image recordings for 2020 – see here for more details

Since images from Sentinel-2 started to become routinely available Landsat has kind of lost significantly in attraction to a lot of data users primarily because of the higher spatial resolution and higher revisit frequency of Sentinel-2. However as i have pointed out on various occasions of the two systems Landsat is the only one with a more or less unbiased coverage of all land surfaces of Earth while Sentinel-2 recordings are scheduled based on short term political and economic interests. And with a second satellite providing high quality data and thereby reducing the uniform quality revisit interval from 16 to eight days Landsat certainly is going to get more attractive.

Still of course with Landsat 9 being more or less a copy of Landsat 8 – which is 8 years old already, probably does not seem like the most exciting news to many. What comes after Landsat 9 is still unclear at the moment – there seem to be some studies on possible concepts running at the moment and some not very specific considerations have been published. For quite some time there were indications that Landsat 9 might be the last Landsat producing completely open data and that the US government would look into privatizing the program. With the current US administration giving larger budgets to publicly financed earth observation that seems less likely now but what direction this will go in is unsure as ever. In light of that the boring nature of Landsat 9 offering merely continuity in available data is not necessarily bad news.

Here – to give an idea what to expect from Landsat 9 – two examples from the past few days from Landsat 8.

Mount Katmai and Naknek Lake, Alaska – September 26, 2021

Landsat 8 - Mount Katmai and Naknek Lake, Alaska

Landsat 8 detail

Landsat 8 detail

Northern Greenland – September 13, 2021

Landsat 8 - Northern Greenland

Landsat 8 detail

September 25, 2021
by chris
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About the lack of progress in quality of satellite image visualizations

Satellite images and their use have become much more popular in recent years. There was already an earlier wave of broader popularization of satellite imagery with image layers being widely introduced in popular map services on the internet between about 2005 and 2010. This for the first time exposed a large number of people to satellite imagery as a source of information and spatial orientation and not just as mere anecdotal photographs.

What i am talking about here however is the more recent trend of the past roughly five years – so about ten years after the first wave. In contrast to the first wave which was primarily about casual use of imagery this second wave of popularization of satellite imagery involves in particular also more serious or semi-serious active use of satellite data by both professionals and hobbyists with diverse (and often not image processing and not earth observation related) backgrounds. Driving this recent trend is in particular the advertisement and PR which satellite operations – both private businesses and public institutions – invest to create interest in the use of their data and services. This combines with many providers of cloud based services trying to attract paying customers for use cases involving satellite data.

Some might disagree with me identifying these two distinct waves of popularization and instead would see a continuous trend. But i see a distinct period of stagnation in popularization between these two phases and i have been actively observing the field over the whole period so i think i have a pretty good read of it.

Anyway – what i want to write about here is not so much these waves of popularization of satellite imagery but how quality of satellite image based visualizations has developed during this. The technical quality of satellites’ image sensors has improved massively over the years – i have written about many examples showing this. Interestingly this trend in satellites is paralleled by a similar (and technologically related) trend in ground based digital photographic technology as well as its use. To illustrate the point i want to make about satellite image visualization i will therefore make a quick excursion into the development of digital photography over about the same time period.

Since the beginning of mainstream digital photography in the late 1990s sensor and camera technology have seen a similar quality development as satellite image sensors. And the use of the image data produced by these cameras has seen a similar development. With that i am not talking about exotic methods employed by a small elite of experts, i am talking about mainstream image processing methods available to and used by many photographers. Based on this development both in sensor and camera technology as well as in processing methodology even a cheap mobile phone camera will produce images out of the box that would have made a professional photographer of the early 2000s using the most state-of-the-art equipment envious. And with some rudimentary learning and training in use of broadly available tools and techniques (either in-camera or in post processing) you can easily improve in the quality of ground level photographic data visualization if you want so far beyond that.

example of the technical level of the quality of ~2005 consumer digital camera technology with low dynamic range, high noise levels and poor color depiction

Example of the technical level of the quality of ~2005 consumer digital camera technology with low dynamic range, high noise levels and poor color depiction

out-of-the-box results from a present day (2020 model) mobile phone builtin camera showing excellent dynamic range and low noise, very decent color rendition (which can be much improved on with larger image sensors available these days) and an equally decent automated visualization for an sRGB color screen

Out-of-the-box results from a present day (2020 model) mobile phone builtin camera showing excellent dynamic range and low noise, very decent color rendition (which can be much improved on with larger image sensors available these days) and an equally decent automated visualization for an sRGB color screen

Getting back to satellite images now – as said the technical development in satellites’ camera technology pretty much reflects the sensor and camera technology development in ground level cameras. But in data processing and visualization technology employed in broad popular use it does not. Since at least the start of Landsat 8 in 2013 – which marked a significant step up in quality of open data imagery available in larger volume – i have been amazed by the stagnation and sometimes even decline of technology and sophistication in processing methods in the visualization of satellite image data. I have written about this previously in a specific case which – through non-sophisticated processing in visualization – excessively undervalued the quality of the image data used. But this is just a single case example of a much broader phenomenon.

Mediocre quality visualization with clipped colors underselling the much better underlying image data

Mediocre quality visualization with clipped colors underselling the much better underlying image data

Better visualization of the same data

Better visualization of the same data

The amazing thing is that this is evidently not a problem of missing innovation because the innovations not used that would be of value to produce much better visualizations have already been developed and are broadly used – in the domain of ground level photography.

A large fraction of the many people working with satellite image data these days and proudly presenting visualizations of such as testimony to their expertise in the domain work without making use of some of the most basic technological and methodological innovations that have been developed for digital image data visualization over the past decade in photography and that are now available routinely in every phone.

Poor visualization of recent Etna activities from Sentinel-3 OLCI data with distorted colors and unnatural color clipping

Poor visualization of recent Etna activities from Sentinel-3 OLCI data with distorted colors and unnatural color clipping

More consistent visualization of the dame data giving a more balanced and more accurate impression of the setting

More consistent visualization of the dame data giving a more balanced and more accurate impression of the setting

So in a way you could for many of the mediocre visualizations you can see these days both on social media and more serious channels essentially comment: The 1990s called, they want their crappy, distorted colors and overexposed JPEGs back.

As for the reasons for the described phenomenon – a huge part of that is probably because people predominantly do not view satellite images as photos but as a more abstract type of depiction.

The reason why even in the most low end sectors of the digital photography market we have over the past two decades essentially had a continuous competitive pressure for improvements in technical quality is because users of these devices and related software assess and judge quality and are able to do so through comparison with their direct personal visual experience. That is not the case with satellite images. To put it very simply: People tend to expect upfront that satellite image visualizations in many ways do not match or are consistent with their personal viewing experience of the areas shown on the images. Therefore they are more inclined to accept badly made visualizations of satellite images.

That does not mean people are unable to appreciate quality in satellite image data visualizations if they are confronted with the difference like in the examples above. So in a way by aiming for excellence in visualization of satellite imagery you show respect for the needs of your recipients without requiring them to articulate those needs as demands.