Open Geo interview - Jerry Clough
26 Apr 2015
After a bit of a hiatus I am pleased to announce our interview series is back. This time we chatted with Jerry Clough, a long time prolific mapper. Besides mapping Jerry also often writes on OSM related topics over on his blog, Maps Matter.
1. Who are you and what do you do? What got you into OpenStreetMap?
_My name is Jerry Clough.
I have had a portfolio career (a useful term I discovered very recently). I started out as a research scientist working in embryology and genetics, then in an industrial lab mainly doing computer science based projects. From there I moved into consulting on business information systems (executive dashboards, data warehouses etc), initially in healthcare, then retail, and more recently financial services. I like to joke that the common link is that I still work with mice!_
However, this background had precisely nothing to do with me getting involved in OpenStreetMap. The proximate cause was I was given a GPS as a Christmas present in 2008, discovered some roads missing locally, added them, and was hooked. The GPS was to help record the locations of insects and flowers, but I also planned to use it for walking and skiing as well.
I returned to my childhood interest in natural history around 1995 when living I was living in Paris. I became very conscious that I was missing the countryside and made a deliberate decision to do more to learn about it. I was a slow learner. About 10 years later a digital camera made it much easier to build on my existing knowledge. At this point I stopped being a passive observer and started recording things in a more systematic way.
My OSM user name, SK53, comes from the way in which biological data are recorded in Britain. We use various sized squares from the National Grid. SK53 is the 10km square where I do most of my naturalising.
Maps were another childhood interest. My twitter avatar shows me doing a map jigsaw shortly before my 5th birthday, and I learnt to read maps about a year later. I have been buying maps for about 40 years, limited these days by available storage space.
In summary I came to OSM as a lover and user of maps, and as an existing contributor to large crowd-sourced datasets.
2. You’re a very prolific mapper / geo-enthusiast, often blogging on many different topics related to mapping. Tell us a bit about your projects.
I assumed my focus at the outset with OSM would be on the natural environment in the countryside. In practice I never really got started : there was so much to map in my home city.
Re-exploring the city, I had known as a kid, turned out to be fascinating. So much had changed. That led to my latent interest in Urbanism turning into something much more active. Only recently have I returned to my initial interests.
Lastly, as someone who designs & builds databases, but rarely gets to properly play with the data, OSM (and OHM) enables me to scratch that itch.
My projects, therefore, tend to fall into 4 categories: Urbanism (including historical maps), the Environment (notably woods), the Mapping process, and Analysis of OSM data. It is the last which binds everything together, my mapping is often aimed at creating a complete enough data sets for meaningful analysis. For urban data I use Nottingham as the test bed.
3. You’re one of the people behind OpenHistoricalMap. What is it? How far along is the project and how can people best contribute?
My interest in historical maps and mapping pre-dates my OSM involvement, and also has roots in natural history. In 2007 I put together some display boards for my local Nature Reserve as part of a project about Willows. The documented history of these trees at the site goes back to Domesday Book (1086). We tried to pull together as much information from historical maps as we could. In doing so I first learnt about map rectification, and the complexity of interpreting old maps. I also discovered the richness of available historic mapping, and started collecting some examples.
Mapping historical objects has been part and parcel of OSM from long before I got started: Frankie Roberto gave a talk at the first SotM in Manchester back in 2007. However, whereas OSM is fine for mapping existing things which have historical interest, it is less suitable for things which have disappeared, particularly when they have changed into something else.
Round the time of SotM-US 2013 this gelled into a loose collective of people who decided the way forward was to replicate the OSM infrastructure, but for mapping places in the past. A server was set up, and some trial data was added: in particular, the OSM data for Burning Man in 2008 and 2009, and 19th century buildings from New York. Burning Man was used as a test for rendering different time periods.
Also in 2013 Susanna Anas (Wikimedia Finland) led a workshop at SotM Baltics in Tartu. Susanna has been working tirelessly to improve historical map resources on Wikimedia, especially through building links with GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums). She has a vision which encompasses collections of raster maps, vectorised maps (OHM) and sets of historical data (e.g., population figures) as a set of federated databases. I bought into this vision, and since then have seen my role as creating data sets which are interesting enough to demonstrate some of these ideas. An example is a vector map of Soho at the time of John Snow’s Cholera map (inspired, of course, by a #geomob talk).
OHM is at an early stage, perhaps similar to what OSM was 7-8 years ago. Although it shares a technology stack with OSM, it is quite different in many ways. Firstly, it is intrinsically research, not survey led. This not only means that collecting data is slower, but there is more of a need for metadata to facilitate how people interpret the data. Secondly, the core users are likely to be from the Digital Humanities (whether as professionals or amateurs) rather than hard-core programmer types. Lastly, it is a temporal geospatial database, with lots of interesting issues: both technical and user interface. Right now our focus is just showing that it can be used for people’s projects.
4. Recently you’ve written about projects like tree mapping in depth. What motivates you to go into such detail?
I started out blogging fairly short pieces, but over time have found I prefer to write something with more detail. My motivation is two-fold: I wanted to read more thought-provoking articles about OSM, and thought others might too; but in the first instance, I write for myself. The process of writing helps clarify and generate ideas.
It can be extremely difficult to predict which posts resonate with a wider audience. I thought the piece on Woodland Cartography might be of interest to tens of people. Someone put it on Hackernews and it is easily my popular post.
Blogs enable one to explore ideas when they are unformed or provisional. Throughout my professional life I’ve been largely frustrated by the difficulty of getting interesting ideas down on paper and working them up from there. I’ve been in many lunchtime seminars, workshops etc. where exhilarating trains of ideas have been spinning around, only for them to vaporise quite quickly afterwards. A blog is a great place to pin ideas down, without having to worry about inconsistencies and detail.
Ideally, I like to link together some apparently disparate ideas, mainly because I’ve always been excited about how ideas from separate domains often have a lot in common. It is an advantage of being a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ that its easier to spot the common ground.
Lot of ideas have a fairly long gestation, like this interview, and then some event enables me to pull them into a specific context. The tree trail blog is a great example. It started with Oliver Pescott’s desire to have maps of city trees for education purposes. I immediately recalled Dimi Stanko’s walks.io. I heard Dimi talk at #geomob in October 2013 so knew a little about how he generates the walks. I instantly linked the two different ideas together: all the detail of the blog followed from trying to imagine how one could automatically generate the kinds of metrics used in walks.io.
5. As a long time, very active mapper, what steps do you think the OSM community should take to engage more mappers? Is this even a worthy goal?
I am a firm believer that we need to do more to encourage more people to map. However, I’m really not sure that we know of any single method which truly works.
Local meetups are great to get to know fellow enthusiasts, and I think help knit the core community of mappers more closely, but in 3 years or so we have not acquired a regular mapper that way in Nottingham. The London pub meetings have many of the same people attending them now as in 2009 when I first went along.
I’m not even sure I would participate in OSM if I came to it new now. It was missing features which got me mapping, whereas now I can use 18-month old data for most purposes (other than mapping). I have friends who are botanists, cyclists and walkers who all use OSM-based data regularly, but would not consider contributing. The more data there we have, the more people worry about breaking it, and I’ve seen plenty of extremely IT-literate people in this category.
I see lots of parallels between the collection of biological data and OSM. For instance the British Dragonfly Society recently published an Atlas showing where these creatures are to be found. It was based on 5 years of survey data contributed by roughly 9000 people, a similar number to overall number of contributors to Great Britain on OSM. My contribution was a small number of records from places I know well. However, the bulk of the records will have been contributed by a small core of enthusiasts, enthusiasts who are not only more dedicated, but also more skilled, and who actively search out places.
The tradition of biological recording in Britain is well over 100 years old. It has always relied on this type of small core of enthusiasts, often a handful for each biological group in each county. For better known groups: plants, butterflies, dragonflies, there is often one person, the recorder, in each county who acts as guru, referee, publicity officer, database entry clerk, documenter and generator of enthusiasm for everyone else. Besides all these things the recorder should also endeavour to identify and mentor a successor.
I suspect that OpenStreetMap will evolve in this direction, but it is so young that we have no idea about how we might replace prolific mappers who stop mapping. Equally we don’t know how big the niche is for prolific mappers, other than it is nowhere near saturated.
6. OSM recently celebrated its 10th birthday, where do you think the project will be in 10 years time?
I’ve already said a lot about how I think we might evolve based on parallels with older crowd-sourced citizen science activities, and I’ve also summarised some other views on the wiki, so I’ll keep my remarks to the one thing I hope will happen.
Let’s work so that ordinary folk can actively participate in OpenStreetMap. Geographic knowledge is a universal, we must step away from the techy focus of the first 10 years.
Many thanks Jerry! For any readers near London on the 19th of May, Jerry will be one of the speakers at that evening’s #geomob. You can also follow Jerry on twitter.
You can see all the Open Geo interviews here. If you are or know of someone we should interview, please get in touch, we’re always looking to promote people doing interesting things with open geo data.