Progress and Retreat

There are probably too many projects I have an interest in but too little time for. On these I generally cheer lead when needed and make connections to other people and efforts, and give little nudges occasionally so that they’re rolling in the right direction.

Chris Schmidt has built a working version of the OpenAerialMap concept. Excellent. We’re moving from talking to hacking, and this seems poised to grow rapidly. I’m going to add imagery from Merano when I have the chance.

I’m disappointed that UNDemocracy has gone on strike. This seemed to me to be a landmark project, for pushing forward transparency in the UN governing bodies and agencies, and I know it has already had an effect inside and outside the UN. Julian has found the reaction too slow, but I’m not surprised since the UN is slow moving. There’s now discussion on how to raise a phoenix from the ashes…

South Tyrol and OpenStreetMap, Free Data, Language, Mountains and Art

Again I returned to Italy last weekend, to participate in the South Tyrol Free Software Conference, an OpenStreetMap workshop, and OSGeo Code Sprint. And receive the newly liberated data of the city of Merano! And then bum around Venice for a day.

Communist Party in Venice, Alter Adjacent

It’s a funny pattern emerging — 4 weeks ago I was in Lancaster in North England, then Rome, then back to North England for the Liverpool mapping party, then Tyrol and Venice. I’m hoping to get invited to Newcastle soon, cause a trip to Florence would for sure be coming after that. Sorry, I hate to drop into cliché — Lancaster is lovely and I was pretty won over by Liverpool. It has a spaciousness and air of possibility, kinda reminded me of Berlin in that way. Though no one would back up that observation, perhaps I’m just bummed my trip to Berlin next month is cancelled.

Liverpool Cathedral

The South Tyrol government has a very high level of support for open source software. South Tyrol is an autonomous region, so is quite free to pursue its own policies. This doesn’t mean there isn’t any struggle in getting open source adopted in government, and beyond. They are refining the arguments and strategies, and I’m sure learning lessons that will be useful more widely.

The conference itself reflected this, with a heavier emphasis on policy and economics and high level perspectives than you’d see at most geek events. I suppose even my standard talk on OpenStreetMap is about half policy. Karsten Gerloff from the United Nations University (the UN has a University?!) spoke about the economics of open source. Leon Shiman, founding director of the XOrg Foundation, had interesting things to say on the politics of open source projects.

I did find myself getting frustrated, perhaps unfairly, with OpenOffice during Davide Dozza’s talk. OpenOffice’s strategy is to closely match Office features, so that it’s easy to switch. This is useful and I’m so thankful for OpenOffice. But I think this is like slowly following a sinking ship which will pull you down as well. The trend is Office going to the web. People don’t want more desktop features, but easier collaboration and publishing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google Docs overtook OpenOffice users soon, or perhaps already has. Zoho is offering a similar suite of tools for enterprise. Of course, Google supports OpenOffice, and uses components on the server side to run Docs. And maybe that’s the problem here, with innovation put beyond the scope of open source. There are problems with Google Docs and I’d love to just install my own open source install for collaborative editing. Ok, big digression..


Open Source in Tyrol in spilling over into Open Data. In the first move of its kind, the city of Merano changed the data license on their substantial GIS data set to be compatible with OpenStreetMap. Merano liberated their data for OpenStreetMap! Merano libera i dati. I’m hopeful this is the start of a trend, and I’m eager to write up a white paper on the motivations of Merano, and of AND in the Netherlands, to give governments and companies arguments to release data. The group in Tyrol is very mobilized too, so could soon see other releases in Tyrol.

The data set is incredibly rich. There’s one layer for the road network, which would be the first to be imported into OpenStreetMap, but that’s just the start. Outlines of every building in town, 3D models, sub meter orthophotos. Everything in the cities GIS, beyond the capacity for OpenStreetMap itself to absorb. The OSGeo Geodata Projects and OpenAerialMap have plenty to dig into here, and I hope to get them involved. If anyone wants to help with this data set, get in touch.

Paolo Viskanic of R3 GIS was instrumental in having the data license adapted. In his view, most governments have nothing against sharing and redistribution of their data, they are simply not aware of the issues. R3 GIS built the GIS infrastructure for the city of Merano, and other municipalities, based entirely on open source software. It even has some aspects of OpenStreetMap — data is maintained by all city employees, not just a specialized, centralized team. So gardeners keep track of the location of every tree in town, traffic wardens maintain traffic restrictions.

Merano Mapping Result

On Sunday we mapped.


Since Merano city itself was liberated, we went up into the hills and mapped walking trails and villages in three groups. Beautiful and fun. Some kids came along, they seemed to really dig the GPS. Showing them the display I said “the GPS is talking with satellites in space. the little person is you, and you lay breadcrumbs as you walk.” and this was enough to get their eyes wide and their legs running.

Monday was the OSGeo Code Sprint. Mostly I was mapping the OSM data collected the day before (somehow Sunday afternoon post-hike relaxed into some serious tasting of local spirits), and planning a strategy for import of the Merano data. But did get a chance to meet and chat with Markus Neteler, who pointed me to two methods for importing OpenStreetMap data into GRASS, and some people involved in Agent Based Modelling and GIS, which is a direction I want to explore.


South Tyrol was part of Austria until WW1, when Italy gained the territory. The war was fierce in the Dolomites, vertical trench warfare. Even today, about half the population of Tyrol is German speaking, and there’s even a very small lingering but friendly hostility. South Tyrol is autonomous, and so does feel very different from the rest of Italy.

Most all public signage is in both German and Italian. Merano (in Italian) has it easy, since the German is just Meran, and the tourist office can simply publish it as Merano. Everyone has compromised and is pretty much ok with that. So very timely, and interesting to reflect on the current edit war in Cyprus, which I have neglected a little the past few days and need to bring to some conclusion.

I want to thank everyone who helped organize the events in Tyrol and brought me over. I was made very welcome, had a great time and really enjoyed meeting everyone. Hope I find chance to return there soon.


Venice. I made a super quick stop there, <1 day. It must be the most beautiful city in the world. And such a rhythm to walk through -- from alley, over canal, suddenly a small piazza, alley, an archway, along the canal, completely lost. Musical. And wandering through the dense back streets is intensely human and then .. emerge into St Mark's Square and the bay opens up, and it's sublime and exalted and triumphant. Venice GPS trail

And a great place to get lost. Even with GPS, I managed to make a full circle back to my hotel in the morning stroll.


Then the Bienalle. I’m working through my photos, making comments and giving impressions. Taking photos is better than lugging home a three volume catalog. Again, the Giardini was bizarre, great and nationalistic. The Arsenale was kinda overly political this year, heavy (though there were some standouts).

The Bienalle is intensely political. Each pavilion is like an artistic embassy — actual sovereign national territory — filled with art somehow representing the country. Sometimes it does, but most often the art could’ve been made anywhere and really has its own cross border allegiances. The Giardini is full, so newer countries like Ukraine and Georgia take over buildings in town. Northern Ireland had its own show. Taiwan didn’t have a full “Pavilion” (some kind of official recognition) but did have a show of its own. Few Muslim countries are represented, but there was a show on Venice and Islam — I can bet it didn’t mention Cube from 2005.

I enjoy the political aspects, they are important, but the pieces that made the most impression on me this time were very personal or of great spectacle.

The politics of art at the Bienalle reminded me of something. We really do want to keep politics out of OpenStreetMap. I do believe that OpenStreetMap itself is intensely political (as everything) and has and will lead to great change, but within the database itself we want to stay non-partisan, represent all points of view, and accurately reflect the physical reality on the ground.

Rome for Rome. Rome for OpenStreetMap.

Last week I had the pleasure to be in Rome for the FAO Geonetwork Workshop, and hold an OpenStreetMap mapping party.


Geonetwork is an infrastructure for sharing geodata among UN agencies and NGOs. It’s open source, an OSGeo incubator project. They produce GeoRSS. The week long workshop hosted representatives from many UN agencies and NGOs, all interested in issues of data sharing and open source. And in its way, an OSGeo conference at the FAO (not an uncontroversial agency anyway) is a bit subversive. Despite official support from high levels of the UN for open source software in development, the UN rarely eats its own dog food.


Wednesday was OSM. We convened in the India room. FAO seems to have a charming tradition of nations adopting meeting rooms and decorating them in their local style; in the left of the photo above is Gandhi, and the OSM Banner is hanging form two wooden goose carvings. (Otherwise I was hanging out in the Scandinavian lounge, where the wifi was good and ICCROM were holding a high level meeting). Participants came from the FAO, the UNJLC, UNEP, WFP, Government of Catalonia, and elsewhere. Edoardo Marascalchi came down from Milan, he’s been active getting OSM Italia going. And Andrea Giraldi came from Florence; I’ve known him online for years for work he was doing with worldKit.

FAO Headquareters in OSM

I pulled up Rome in OSM at the start of the workshop, expecting to see very little, and we were all surprised to see FAO Headquarters! Edoardo had primed our party by tracing over the Yahoo Imagery, it’s high detail over Rome.

FAO OpenStreetMap Workshop in Rome

My goal with these sort of OSM workshops is simply introduction. And convincing the participants that we’re not crazy! So I went through a couple existing presentations, discussed and answered questions, and sent folks out into the Roman sunshine with GPS units. Later we went through some editing. I think the day was convincing that OSM is viable, increasingly visible among UN agencies, and an option to explore when they support future activities in the field.


On Thursday a series of presentations delved into applications. The INTERSOS WebGIS was built to monitor refugees returning to West Darfur, using all open source geo software. Good project. Lots of data collected in partnership with agencies active on the ground. Numerous good ideas and lessons here. Their tech requirements boiled down to familiar themes (paraphrasing) — easy, cheap, offline access w/ automated sync’ing, and external/internal data sharing. Very usable, lots of functionality. Particularly the analysis tools, employed for tasks like identifying populations vulnerable to short water supplies. Working on using GeoRSS to distribute updates to the field. The one criticism I voiced was that this application, tailored for the specific situation in Darfur, wasn’t itself redistributable and open source. For sure, every situation is unique but I believe there’s enough commonalities to be found and good partners, like Sahana.

Next, Nicolas Chavent from the UN Joint Logistics Centre talked about the UN Spatial Data Infrastructure for Transport — an infrastructure and policy regime for sharing transport data. Particularly the ontology they’ve been working on to harmonize the innumerable schema in use around the world. Very interestingly, they described it as similar to Map Features in OpenStreetMap, even though we approached the problem from very different directions; the UNJLC from a top down, rigorous sifting, and OSM from a messy bottom up key/value open system. I think there’s lots of potential for cross-pollination of UNSDI-T and OpenStreetMap — in schemas (their ontology contains concepts like “obstacles” not yet developed in OSM) and in approach (sharing can happen effectively when based on principles and not technologically forced) and even perhaps in data sharing (I’ll trade you Brighton for Sudan?). Paul Currion has also written about their work.

Last was a presentation on GAUL, an FAO initiative to collect and distribute global administrative boundaries. And they have collected a great data set. But the dismay is that this data is not publicly distributed. When pressed (and I do tend to get worked up about these things) their reason for not distributing data was disputed regions.

Borders are disputed all over the world. Notably places like the Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, but even in the middle of Europe, where generally they agree to disagree and there’s really no practical problem. So the reasoning for GAUL is that the UN releasing conflicted data sets would cause political upset .. yet they use the data internally, and even produce raster products from this data set. My contention is that if this data set is good enough for the UN, then it should be good enough for the public. If there’s disputes, then include a disclaimer. UN Cartographic maps all include the disclaimer The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.

On the OpenStreetMap mailing list this week, there was a report of the first edit war over politically disputed areas. Place names in Cyprus, now under Turkish control, were being edited to their former Greek names. Both Greek and Turkish names are in the database (name:tr and name:el) but only one is used for rendering. The poster was soliciting advice on how to handle this, and what should the rule be? Seems sensible that whatever names help people to navigate on the ground should be used primarily — and if the street signs are in Turkish that’s a point of truth.

Really, the best thing to try here is actually talking to the other poster. The map has become a means of dialogue. I am not so idealistic (but almost) to think the OpenStreetMap can solve political disputes. But as an open system, with just enough technology to contain the discussion, I think there’s great opportunity to at least expose the nature of the situation and foster some understanding. UN take note? Definitely talk to your OSM neighbor!


Rome is wonderful. Walking each morning past Roman monuments to the FAO. In the evenings stumbling through ancient streets with Schuyler, after the tourists have dispersed, discussing mapping and history and life. Rome would be such an amazing place to map with dedication .. layered and textured, they’ve been building on their own history for millennia. Rome for Romans. It’s not a place you can get to grips with quickly, a place that needs dreaming about.


I was particularly taken with columns that had lost their burden. Their purpose is ramsacked and crumbled, these columns are only holding up an imagination and the sky. It’s futile, but no one would think of pushing them over.


Time navigation, Roman style. What could Stamen do with human history?

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