We start off this week with another installment of our interview series with open geo thought leaders. Today we chat with Simon Poole, long time OSM community member and current chairman of the OpenStreetMap Foundation

1. Who are you, what is your background in geo?

Like so many OpenStreetMap contributors I have no formal background at all in geo. My OpenStreetMap adventure started off with the training log program I use to document my outdoor activities having a rather empty map of the trails around here. But having a slight technical bent I’ve learnt a lot about the field in the last couple of years.

2. One of the criticisms leveled at OSM is that it the hobby of geeks from the developed world. Indeed a recent study showed 58% of mapping is in just five countries. On a recent OSMF email thread you mentioned you’d like to see OSM develop editing functionality for low or no bandwidth environments, something akin to Wikipedia Zero. Can you expand on your idea?

Outside of our core developed countries we have lots of barriers to contribution. The major one is, naturally, that you can’t expect people just on the brink of survival to have the time, resources and inclination to contribute to a volunteer project.

HOT (the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) has done lots of good work, besides direct disaster response, in educating authorities, agencies and other groups and contributing in some of these regions. These groups are however not necessarily the source of the core contributors, the dedicated hobbyists that make OSM the most detailed source of geo-information in some areas.

We can’t remove all the issues that face somebody not living in a first world country from becoming such a major contributor, but there are some that we can.

One of my observations is that we still seem to be propagating a contribution model that involves dedicated GPS devices, people sitting at real (desktop) computers and editing the data with programs with slightly obscure user interfaces.

Now there are clearly some things were that remains the best way to add and edit data in OSM, but a large part of it can just as well be accomplished with a mobile phone. And given that there is a global trend towards having a mobile device as the main, if not sole computing device, we should be embracing other ways of contributing.

This particularly because that trend is strongest in developing countries, be it 2nd or 3rd world.

Now the software is already there. Editors for both major mobile device camps are available and there are services like Mapillary that allow you to take geo-referenced photos for use as reference by all OpenStreetMap contributors. We really simply need to take a good look at the messages we are sending.

A further aspect is that while the world is moving rapidly to mobile devices, using mobile Internet access is still a costly proposition in a great many countries, and following the lead of the Wikimedia Foundation maybe we should investigate a “OpenStreetMap - zero”, getting at least those costs from the table.

Disclosure: I am a large contributor to vespucci, an OpenStreetMap editor for Android.

3. With a massive community spanning the globe, OSM has become many different things to many different people. Is it possible (or needed) to coordinate such a diverse group?

The OSMF should seen more as the OpenStreetMap service organisation than as a governing body. Or differently put: we provide the infrastructure that is needed to keep the project running and on the other hand support in situations which are outside of what the community can, or wants, to handle, for example dispute resolution, licensing issues and more.

Further we are the focus point for outside groups that want to contact an official representative of OpenStreetMap, very often this will simply result in us redirecting such queries to the community, but at least we can soften the culture shock a bit. I expect local OSMF chapters to play a similar role going forward as we take them on board starting this year.

4. One of the specific challenges the community has wrestled with in the past years is managing the needs and interests of individual mappers with those of organizations, be they non- or for-profit. How do you see the situation?

The OpenStreetMap ecosystem works best when there is alignment of goals, but obviously this cannot always be the case. I don’t consider the resulting tensions necessarily bad, they can be one of the driving forces for development and improvement of the project. But profiting from it requires all that participate to have an open mind and not go off in a huff if they don’t “win”.

5. OSM just turned 10 years old. where do you see the project in 10 year’s time?

OpenStreetMap has shown an extremely constant development since it __really got off the ground in 2007, making some predictions really easy, __others not so.

Easy: we will have lots more of everything, which in turn implies that __some issues that cause heart burn right now, for example addressing, or __missing meta data in our core countries, will have vanished out of sight.

More difficult: our place in a global market with one player with a __monopolized, geo-product independent source of income, OpenStreetMap at __the other extreme, and two desperate players caught in the middle with __no real way out. Throw in more government open data becoming available __and things become interesting. But I think it is safe to predict that we __will be the default choice for aggregated global geo-data in 2024.

Easy again: I’m sure that we will have re-visited our licence at least __once in the upcoming decade, but I’m just as sure that it will still be __a hot topic.

6. As a long time contributor to OSM, what is the most unexpected use case you have come across?

That clearly has to be the “Motorville” animation by Patrick Jean.

Thanks Simon, for your answers and also all your work on OpenStreetMap. Lots to chew on here. We look forward to the realization of your prediction that OSM becomes the default choice for global geo-data.

Please let us know what you think in the comments. 

You can see all the Open Geo interviews here.