I asked Sterling to participate in this interview because of his work in OpenStreetMap. Before his doctoral research, he worked at ESRI where he focused mostly on web mapping technologies. He first became acquainted with OSM by way of personal interest. His dissertation centered on OpenStreetMap (OSM) and he has written several publications directly or indirectly relating to it.
One aspect of Sterling’s OSM research I found interesting was the disparity in coverage areas and typologies of contributors. In the course of working with OSM, one problem he observed was the variation of coverage levels where, for instance, smaller cities and towns had less cartographic data and fewer contributors than those maps covering large, cosmopolitan areas. In order to better understand the nature of contributions made to smaller towns and cities, he investigated OSM coverage across various mid-sized cities in North and South America and developed a typology of roles such as Casual Mapper, Systematic Mapper, Casual Fixer, etc. As someone who is new to OSM, what I find particularly valuable in this is how it provides a framework for defining the community of contributors.
We also talked about the disparity in the categories or types of mapping content. More specifically, proprietary map products (e.g., Google Maps) generally limit their coverage information about businesses and similar sorts of entities, whereas, OSM aims to include a wider range of categories: non-profit organizations, bicycle trails, hiking paths, etc. One way that Sterling’s work has contributed to this mapping need was his involvement with organizing a map-a-thon that identified community gardens in Philadelphia. This was designed to help respond to the broader concern of food deserts.
Another part of our conversation related to the methods or mechanisms that OSM uses to promote quality and accuracy of data. Sterling pointed out that this is an ongoing concern and challenge. Two different ways that he described this is currently addressed is through software tools and professional mappers who are compensated for their time in assisting with quality assurance efforts. This latter method has parallels to Open Source Software where some of the participation comes from professional developers who do it as part of their job.
We concluded our conversation by talking about his perspective on how he sees the future of OSM. His take is generally an optimistic one as he sees an increasing number of government agencies and companies, e.g., Mapbox, using OSM.