The Book of OpenStreetMap Kickstarter


I’ve launched a kickstarter for The Book of OSM. From the kickstarter:

I’ve been noodling a long time about how to structure and write a book about OSM. I never wanted to write a book about how to use the project, there are many now available of those in any case. I’m more interested in the stories and the people. How the project got going, the twists and turns, the ‘ah-ha’ moments and so on.

The blocker for me was figuring out how to give a voice to the community. I may have started the project but without thousands of other people it wouldn’t be where it is today. A friend showed me a book of interviews with designers and that solved the problem. So to give that voice, why not interview a number of key people?

What will be in the book

The book will be split roughly as 25% history (which may be in interview form) and 75% interviews with key people through the projects history, with those numbers subject to some change.

  • Your name, as a type of producer (see rewards)
  • The story of the project, from the early days to today
  • Discussion of why some technical decisions were made (usually for a non-technical reason)
  • What things that worked, what things that didn’t
  • Interviews with 15-25 key project members, including a favorite map for each of them and where possible, a picture of them

What won’t be in the book

Anything that will easily obsolete or get out of date won’t be in the book. That means:

  • How to map things and use the software today
  • How to use the website today
  • Deep technical, licensing or tagging discussions (as much fun as those things are)

Sadly it also isn’t physically possible to list every single project contributor.

What might be in the book

A number of companies have been involved in OSM over the years, and their contributions have been both interesting and extremely interesting. I need feedback to figure out how to tell those stories in an unbiased and open way, which just might not be possible.

Zero to One

It’s not the zippiest of titles but Zero to One, the Peter Thiel & Blake Masters duet about how to build the future is a short, fun and incisive read.

Perhaps Quantum Leap would have been better descriptively. Masters was a student at somewhere or other (Stanford at a guess) when Thiel gave an excellent sounding set of lectures on basically how he sees the world. You can read them over here. From the notes came a book.

Frankly you should read the notes. They’re more blunt, free and gives you a feel of being there. If you need it toned down and some sort of narrative structure to hold on to then get the book. Example. In the notes Thiel references the theory that eating carbohydrates is somehow healthy for you as just made up and let us say, influenced, by Kellogg’s marketing department – this isn’t to be found in the book. At least, as far as I could find.

What’s the central idea? It’s that it’s hard to make things the first time. Really hard. But it’s also really profitable. Alternatively it’s easier to take something that exists and iterate on it a little. Or to take something and divide it up.

Building OpenStreetMap was hard. Iterating it and copying it was easy. Comparatively if not in the absolute.

It looks like it was hard to build the United Kingdom but it’s pretty easy to try to divide it up. It’s the mentality that we’ve reached a plateau, things won’t get better and we need to divide up what’s left. Perhaps some sort of socialist paradise will save us – the ultimate division of wealth.

Thiel makes the argument repeatedly that the path to real wealth is to create new things (which as we noted, is hard).

It’s interesting to note little anger in the book or his comments. The outrage in San Francisco over prices of housing are a simple example. Thiel makes the entirely logical and evidence-based argument that house prices are high because it’s illegal to build houses and there’s therefore a shortage. Thomas Sowell does exactly the same thing in more detail in Basic Economics but with a strong hint of frustration and anger.

Should you read this book? If you want to build the future then yes you should, but that’s a demonstrably tiny number of the ~7 billion people on the planet and you’ve probably got it on your list already. If you want to understand how people who build things think then it’s useful too. Sadly the targeted audience and the inspiration it seeks to engender is outside the scope of this or any other book like it save maybe Atlas Shrugged.

And there lies the key question, how to get large groups of people building again instead of dividing and iterating?

Self-driving cars

I suspect that in a while we’ll just call self-driving cars by their name today; cars.

There’s an idea out there that The American Family will buy a self-driving car to replace their old boring human-driven car. I don’t think it will happen that way.

First, we already have self-driving cars available to most people. They’re called taxis. Government restrictions aside, a taxi costs roughly what a self-driving car does. You need to buy an old Crown Victoria and pay someone $50k a year. Let’s say you buy one every three years, that’s $160k ($10k for the old cop car). That’s roughly what a self-driving car will cost soon and it too will last about three years.

We’re not all excited about running out and buying Crown Vics. Instead we rent them for short periods. And the rent is going to come down one or two orders of magnitude with car sharing services and their new ride-along sharing services.

Second there’s a nice reduction argument for how many self-driving cars there will be. Since everyone will have one, I won’t need one. If I want to visit my friend then they can just send their self-driving car to pick me up. Maybe I buy beers along the way as a thank-you. Therefore you won’t need one either, and neither will most people. The number of cars will drop off a cliff.

You’re not going to buy a self-driving car.

Instead every service that you use will offer them. Want to go to Pizza Hut? They’ll send a pizza car to pick you up, so long as you buy a couple of all-you-can-eat tickets. Want to go drink at Hooters? The free car will pick you up and take you home. Need some groceries? Safeway will have a car at your door in 10 minutes.

If the number of cars on the road drops off a cliff then the utilization has to rise. And that’s a good thing. Your car today spends 90% of its life doing nothing sitting in a garage or rusting in the rain. Self-driving cars will be the other way around and spend most of their time being used. And that means it’s ok if they’re dramatically more expensive. Like, $200,000 or $2M a pop.

When you push the sunk cost in to that range then suddenly electric cars with huge batteries are not an issue. And that’s useful since electric cars have fewer moving parts to break down, and all the pollution happens far away instead of being emitted by the vehicle.

The conundrum is the commute. The daily mass migration from home to office. Or rather it’s the inverse. It’s the down time in between commutes. Today we just park our cars for that down time but it would be nice if we didn’t commute, staggered the commute across the day or some other nice solution. Trains are horrifically inefficient, especially when the government runs them. But perhaps privatized trains with last-mile self-driving car solutions would work out.

Auth0 and the new pay to play

I’m pleased to announce I’m on the advisory board of Auth0, a company making authentication trivial. I’m going to get to Auth0 specifically in a minute but let’s talk about how companies place bets.

VC firms, book publishers and movie studios all do approximately the same thing but with different media in different cities. VCs try to find tech companies, publishers find books and movie studios try to find blockbuster movies. Silicon Valley, New York and LA. The problem is, we don’t yet know how to predict the future. Therefore they try to come up with nice stories about how something will succeed or fail and put money in to the things that they think will succeed. Of course, they’re largely wrong on those bets.

Luckily the rewards for being right are disproportionate. Because of the long tail distribution, being right will make you very right, and rich. That win will pay for all the failures. In fact it’s an interesting exercise to think that maybe the long tail distribution of returns is the only way it could work and maybe it’s a long tail precisely because it has to be.

In any case, these firms place a number of bets. Let’s say they invest in ten companies, book authors or movies at $10MM each. Then we hope one of them becomes a billion dollar exit (Google, Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). That will pay for the other 7 that blow up and the 2 that do ok. Things blow up all the time, like Solyndra or Waterworld.

In this model the firms have to raise the capital to make these bets, either from past lottery winnings or from investors. But when you think about todays service businesses the model is very much inverted.

Instead of you paying to place the bets, the customer is paying you. You have a large number of companies paying you $5/month for some minimal service level and then some of them will randomly take off and start paying you $1,000/month or whatever it happens to be. Thus by providing a very visible self-service model you can expose yourself to some large upside almost automatically. This optionality is interesting; in that your customers are paying you to take the option.

Of course, they can always jump off your service too. But if you’re doing your job they won’t do that; you just have to create different incentives and value models as you go up the stack. You need more features as the price increases, better customer service and so on.

Compare and contrast this to you having to pay to take the bet. Under that model you have to go find the customers where here they find you. You have to build narratives about why they will succeed instead of them doing so. All in all, it’s a lot nicer when they come to you.

Also notice that we’re smoothing the price function. Instead of not funding your movie or funding it as a binary, $0 or $10MM bet, you pay whatever you want. Maybe it’s $5/month, maybe it’s $100/month but we’re still exposed to the upside while covering costs for the low end of the market instead of just turning those options away.

The other thing that’s evolved is the sales process. Instead of me having my bizdev guy talk to your bizdev guy to get business, your developer just happens upon my service and starts playing with it. Instead of exchanging press releases, our developers talk about how awesome everything is. It’s much more efficient that way, especially when getting started. You don’t have to pay for your developer to talk to their PM to talk to their bizdev guy to talk to my bizdev guy to talk to our sales rep. Your developer just talks to my developer. That’s cheaper and quicker for you and for me. We’re reversing the causality here too; my bizdev guy doesn’t contact 100 companies to find 10 that might use the service. The 100 companies just find me instead.

Back to Auth0. I like Auth0 for a number of reasons:

  • Making Enterprise Easy. You might not be aware, but everyone uses ActiveDirectory or AD. It’s great for a number of things like making Office and Lync and various DRM things all work together when you’re a real company. But it sucks if you want to expose your users externally. For example you want your employees to be able to use their username and password (credentials) to log in to your healthcare provider. Auth0 makes that magically (and securely!) work.
  • Making Hacking Easy. Doing away with the “user” table. I see the primary advantage of Ruby on Rails as doing away with having to learn SQL. Thus I now “only” need to know HTML, JS and ruby. Parenthetically, you see things like meteor making this an even shorter list of just HTML and JS. What Auth0 does for me as a developer is remove all the user pain. I don’t need to start building my app with an email authentication loop, an email server and SQL table or whatever, now instead I just insert a couple of lines of JS and let Auth0 handle that. Gradually we are chipping away at all the things you need to do to get a web app up and working.
  • Auth0 hides complexity. It’s a real pain to go set up authentication with the 1,001 providers like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and so on. What Auth0 does is magically hide all that pain via their very cute dashboard.
  • Openness. Auth0 is all over github.
  • New things. Auth0 just shipped a wordpress plugin to let you login to your wordpress instance using, basically, anything you can think of. This is great; no more authentication loops dropping users at the first hurdle!
  • People. It’s easy to turn money in to smart people working for you. But it’s really hard to get the quality, depth and breadth Auth0 has without doing something truly meaningful. Auth0 is great people doing great things.

And of course, Auth0 is exposed to the kind of optionality I described above as many others are too. So, if you have any interesting authentication go play with Auth0.

Cardboard economics


Google shipped an interesting product and pretty website for cardboard. Basically a cheap way to turn your cheap cellphone in to a AR display unit a-la Oculus Rift. Only very crappy with low resolution and high latency; good enough to prototype & play with which is great. You put a phone in it and it pretends to be a VR display.

Someone on Hacker News posited that “Somebody should do a Kickstarter to make and ship copies of this kit for $5 or $10.” So I dug in to it a little. Here’s what my rough bill of materials looks like:

  • cardboard 1.59
  • lenses 9.00
  • ring magnet 3.98
  • disk magnet 1.98
  • velcro 2.98
  • rubber band 0.01
  • nfc tag 1.50
  • postage 5.00
  • sub total 26.04
  • labor 5
  • margin 5
  • unit cost 36.04

So let’s call it $35. This is roughly half the cost of a Dive unit. And the dive unit actually ships, is made out of plastic and you don’t have to think about building it.

A laser cutter big enough to cut the cardboard is about $11k and at $5 margin per unit you’re looking at needing to ship $80k of these cardboard units to recoup the cost, which I’m assuming would be a reasonable goal. I don’t think anyone will raise $80k of cardboard kits but as ever I could be wrong.

dodocase are flying a kite to sell a unit for $20 which is clearly too cheap without massive volume, unless you can somehow turn it in to a loss leader for something else.

So, in sum, cardboard VR headset cases are kind of irrelevant. The cost isn’t the cardboard vs. plastic housing material: It looks like it’s everything else like the lens units, the postage, the risk, the labor and so on. The PR value is of course very high. There’s clearly tens/hundreds of millions of dollars of PR value out of cardboard for roughly half that in fully loaded headcount and other costs – it all depends how you account for it. The narrative that “Google did something cool” (e.g. cardboard) out of the I/O event is worth a significant sum of money and they deserve all the credit for executing on that.

OSM PLUS: Two weeks to go!


Get your ticket
OSM PLUS is in two weeks at the Marriott Union Square in San Francisco. You can get your tickets here and if you use the discount code OSMPLUS25 you’ll get 25% off!

Provisional program

The provisional program is now live here. Similar to last year, OSM PLUS is an exciting mix of talks and panels from a variety of businesses using OSM every day.

Why people like you are attending

Come and hear from FactualMapZenESRICartoDB and many more on the shared opportunities and challenges of using OSM data in the real world: Data quality, community engagement and how open licensing works.

Questions? Comments?

Please do reach out.

Why OpenStreetMap is now navigation-ready for people like you

OpenStreetMap vs. Google Maps

OpenStreetMap vs. Google Maps


If I’m right, today will be marked as a turning point for the mapping industry. Something huge has happened: We broke the sound barrier. Telenav’s consumer facing navigation app Scout is shipping with OSM data!

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is nearly ten years old and until now has been a great display map. Looking at it, it looks great! You can put pins on top of it. You can print it out. It even looks better than most maps, due to the insane detail the community put in to it every day. People have founded companies to monetize OSM based on a great looking, open and free map of the world.

OSM is made by people like you. We use our phones, GPS devices and laptops to add streets, footpaths, parks and anything else you can imagine in to the map. It’s been wonderful to watch it grow.

But adding turn restrictions and every stop sign in a city is not as fun. In fact, it’s kind of boring compared to the other things. Getting every address in Kansas and putting them in OSM isn’t exactly a bowl of cherries either.

This is why up until today there hasn’t been a great navigation experience using OSM. The data wasn’t there. To make a great route from A to B you need to know where B is and all the navigation details in between, and OSM just doesn’t have that data.

To make sure you arrive on time, your routing software has to know about all the one-way streets, the turn restrictions, the speed limits and much more about all the roads between you and your destination. OSM doesn’t have any of this today.

Enter Telenav, where I work. We’ve spent approximately a zillion man-years to fix these issues and today we’re announcing navigation using OSM within Scout, our consumer navigation app. We’re starting in the US and on iOS with the rest to follow.

Scout has a lot of users and so we need to make sure the quality bar is very high. If we shipped OSM as-is in it, we would quickly have not as many users.

We’ve built that quality by first analyzing GPS data. We take anonymous traces of where people drive and looked for patterns. If everyone drives one way down a street, maybe it’s a one-way street. If they all drive at 35mph on average, maybe it’s a 35mph road and so on. We license address data and point of interest info to find your destinations.

We’ve spent time automatically and manually correcting things in OSM to bring it up to what a consumer would expect to see.

And of course, we’re giving all that we can back. Via our own editing, maproulette and competitions we’re pumping all the good stuff that we can back in to OSM. This takes time due to OSMs consensus on not importing the masses of fixes we generate.

We’ve spent time drive testing. We’ve sent real people out across the United States with Scout using OSM to find out how it works. We’re very happy with the results.

Will it be perfect? If only! No, no map is perfect. The world is changing all the time and you can invest billions of dollars and still have map issues. But whenever anyone finds an issue, they can fix it. That’s the difference. We have feedback mechanisms built right in to Scout and we’ll take care of issues our customers report too.

I’m sure we’ll find issues in the map. We want to! That’s the whole point! Every issue we find and fix is making the map better for everyone. Since it’s open and free, every fix means it’s fixed forever, out there being loved instead of stuck in a dead dataset.

Feel sorry for how proprietary maps are currently built. When there’s a new road built, they all have to scramble to add it. Repeating each others work, trying to own everything and not sharing their corrections. It’s hardly efficient. Then it takes months and years to ship corrections compared to OSM where these things are instantly available.

What does all this mean?

It means OSM is ready for prime time!

Navigation is the very peak of Mount Map. By leveraging a decade of OSM and sprinkling on top some expertise and GPS data we’ve surmounted all the major issues in making open mapping available to all.

We’ll look back and wonder why we ever used closed maps.

OSM will roll out to iOS Scout users over the coming days. Watch for the OpenStreetMap attribution in the lower-right of the map.

OSM Attribution

OSM Attribution in Scout

A decade, you say?

It’s hard to believe but yes. I started OSM, designed the API, wrote all the early code, did hundreds of speaking events and a bunch of other things… but a lot of that was a while ago now. We need to thank a lot of people who were key along the way or have quietly toiled to make the project work. So in no particular order and surely, inevitably, missing people:

OSM wouldn’t be here without thanks to Matt “genius” Amos, Tom Carden (no home page without Tom), Ben Gimpert (with Tom, one of only 4 people at the first anniversary event), Alexandra Lotinga, Andy Robinson, Andy “the biker” Allen, Tom Hughes (for keeping five 9s uptime for 6 years or so), Richard “boatman” Fairhurst (first (and maybe last) decent web editor), Mike Collinson, Ian Brown, Mikel “the beard” Maron, Artem Pavlenko (the first colour maps), Henk Hoff, Tim Bruce, Jon Crowcroft, Nick Black, Imi (JOSM!), Etienne, Simon Poole, Frederick “serious” Ramm, Jochen “linuxhotel” Topf, MapMyShaun McDonald, Harry Wood, Gur Kimchi (MSFT aerial imagery), everyone at AND, Richard Weait, Grant Slater, Russ Nelson, Migurski & Rodenbeck (and all at Stamen), flickr/brickhouse, Jay Bregman (eCourier – first GPS traces), everyone at MapBox, Rich Gibson, Schuyler Erle, Jo Walsh, Randy Meech, Philipp Kandal & Oliver Kuhn & all at Skobbler, Serge for being Serge, Ed Freyfogle, Kate Chapman, everyone at the first mapping party on the Isle of Wight, anyone who dared enter legal-talk, Petter Reinholdtsen, Nick Hill (first servers), Joerg Ostertag (GpsDrive started it all), Nick Whitelegg, Dan Karran, Jon Burgess, Dermot McNally, Hiroshi Miura, Simone Cortesi, Dave Stubbs, Brett Henderson for osmosis, Paul Norman for being an important steward of the database, Kai Kruger for invaluable work on the OSM tool chain, Robert Barr, Andrew Turner, Iván Sánchez Ortega, Ant Pegg,Ed Parsons (and all the motivation from OS), Tristram Cary, whoever invented the Garmin Gecko, the Jeremey Bentham pub, UCL for all the bandwidth and electricity, Alasdair Turner (RIP), Mike Batty, Alan Penn, everyone I offended, everyone I missed, Hurricane and then Matt Amos again because awesome.

Wow, someone should write a book about all that history.

Another set of folks need thanking from Telenav to make Scout with OSM happen. It would only be complete by listing hundreds of employees so again forgive my brevity:

Loren Hillberg, Ryan Peterson, Martijn Van Exel, John Novak, Guoyuan Xiao, Eric Godwin, Robert Stack, Vlad Lemberg, Kristen Kam, Chris Zontine, Jon Locke, Tony Ma, Song Gao, Matthieu Nahoum, Huiheng Kuang, Chris Yu, Ben Luo, Rob Daniels, Dariusz Paczuski, Xiaotao Liu, Jonathan Zhao, Yong Yang, Ran Lei and everyone I missed.

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