OpenStreetMap as Global Infrastructure

Shortly after the SotM US Conference in New York last year I was at a café discussing the future of OpenStreetMap. I was trying to describe my thoughts on how OSM could be perceived in a few years time and coined the phrase “Global Infrastructure” to label my thoughts.

So what do I mean by Global Infrastructure? I was thinking that over the next 5-10 years (bearing in mind OSM is already over 10 years old) that it would no longer be thought of as an interesting open source or open data “project”. It would no longer be something cool or unusual that you find out about, it’ll just be something that exists, that permeates the world and that people and organisations all over the globe will be using and depending on OpenStreetMap without much further thought. Like the PSTN – the global system of telephone networks that means you can call anyone else on the planet – OSM will become Global Infrastructure that powers millions of maps.

We’re already at the stage where OSM is a routine and necessary part of the world. There are hundreds of non-tech organisations using OpenStreetMap every day, from the World Bank to local advocacy groups. I could try to make a list but I’d be here all day and I’d miss hundreds that I don’t even know about. It’s been at least five years since the various interesting uses and users of OpenStreetMap become much bigger than my own knowledge horizon! And this list of users will continue to grow and grow until the absence of OpenStreetMap will become inconceivable.

So beyond a catchy label, what does the concept of Global Infrastructure mean in practice? Well, if nothing else, I use it to guide my thoughts for the OSMF Operations Working Group. We’re being depended on, and no longer by a few thousand hobbyists who can tolerate some rough edges here and there. We’re going to have to keep building and scaling the core OSM services, and yet at the same time fade into the background. In a couple of years, if not already, most people in the OpenStreetMap community won’t even consider how it all works.

There’s a never-ending series of technical challenges that the Operations team faces, some of which I can’t help with directly. So instead I’m keeping my focus on scaling our team’s activities, whether that’s automating our server information pages, systemising our capacity planning, publicising our activities or lowering the barriers to getting more people involved in the work that we do.

2016 will also see us working on new approaches to running our infrastructure. Perhaps not many visible changes, but improved systems for internal event log management and adapting various services to use scalable object storage are two projects that are high on my list – as are the perennial tasks around scaling and ensuring availability of the core database.

The challenge of moving OpenStreetMap beyond being “just a project” and into “Global Infrastructure” goes much wider than the work of the OWG. It will affect every part of the project, from our documentation to our communications to how we self-organise tens of thousands of new contributors. I hope we can set aside anything that we no longer need, keep up our momentum,  and seize the opportunities to build on what we have already achieved.

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