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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3 thoughts on “Rome for Rome. Rome for OpenStreetMap.”

  1. Makes me want to return soon! I thought I’d mention a couple of other things mappers should take note of when in Rome:

    * The Severan Marble Plan, a huge map of Rome at the scale of 1:240, inscribed AD 203-211. About 10% survives, which has been digitially reconstituted by a team from Stanford. I don’t think any is on public view.

    * The 1:250 scale model of Rome by Italo Gismondi, on public view at the Museum of Roman Civilization

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