Imagine, if you will, a small town with a surprisingly active pottery club. Every week they gather in the local arts centre, and spend long evenings making pottery together. They take lumps of clay and sculpt them into vases, mugs, bowls, teapots and all kinds of things. They share tips and tricks, and help each other out – some people just do their own thing, but there’s a real sense of community. It’s not surprising to find them taking a break together in the local pub, where they spend a lot of time talking about their hobby. The pottery they produce is really high-quality stuff too – a labour purely of love and fascination, not driven by cost/benefit ratios, deadlines or schedules.
Now these people are so interested in their pottery hobby that they happily make far more of it than they need, and so they give away much of the end results – after all, it’s a hobby and they have already got all the teapots they need (and maybe they have a bottomless pit of clay nearby or something that makes this analogy more plausible). And other people appreciate all the free pottery, and wonder what they can do to help. These outsiders come with fairly pure intent – they want everyone in the whole world to benefit from these high quality teapots and vases.
And so the outsiders think about how they can improve this pottery club. They come up with the idea of helping by shipping in partly-made vases and teapots, and letting the club just “finish them off”. After all, it’ll save time and be easier for everyone involved, and gets everyone towards having those next 10,000 vases that much quicker than just waiting for the club to do so in their own time and expand at their own rate. So truckloads of distorted, broken, low-quality, half-finished wet pottery starts arriving at the back door to the club. Some people start taking this pottery and trying to fix it, and a few people in the club think that it’s a great idea. But a lot of people start getting disillusioned. They realise that fixing other people’s mess just isn’t as fun as starting from scratch and making a proper job of it themselves. The banter in the club stops, and it turns into a factory line – no sooner are they finished fixing up one batch of bodged-up pottery than another arrives. More outsiders are scouting around for sources of low quality pottery – after all, if you give it to this Club then they will fix it. But the output quality starts falling as “good enough” pottery is given away, where before they would have bandied together to keep their high standards. People start enjoying the whole thing less, they start drifting away, and the club slowly falls apart. Takings also fall at the pub.
Enough of the story telling. This article is in the “OpenStreetMap” category because I want people to think of this parable when they are considering bulk imports. The strength of OSM is the community. The creation of this dedicated community is a high-quality map. There are ways to help the community, and there is usefulness in using other data sources to assist. But if we continue down the path of treating the community as a mechanism to “fix-up” broken or low-quality data imports, whether that be TIGER, GNIS, NaPTAN or any of the others, then we’ll ruin ourselves in doing so.