Tag Archives: open government geodata

Government institutions and OpenStreetMap in practice


This is a guest post by Andrzej Zaborowski and was posted before on blog.openstreetmap.pl in Polish. It provides an overview of the existing approaches to sharing resources between OSM and government institutions.

At this time the whole topic of cooperation between governments and OpenStreetMap, can at most belong in the future considerations category in the OSM community in Poland. Partly this is a result of the shape of the local geodesy law that forbids distribution (as well as collection) of geographic information forming part of the cartographic & geodesic resource outside of some very strict procedures, and partly because the local OSM community is still so small. It seems, however, that this sort of cooperation has full support, here as well as in the world-wide OSM community. Obviously we’re mainly talking about government institutions that have something in common with the project, like, making maps. When two groups work for a similar goal, why not co-work. In fact why not do something once instead of duplicating efforts. But how, in practice, can this cooperation work is really an open question. Both bodies will usually have their existing datasets and joining two geographic datasets is no easy task (the existence of OSM in Poland parallelly with a very similar, older project called UMP has also spurred thoughts on this) — a subtask of it will be determining the more precise source of the two for every area, and this in turn is best done using a third, reference dataset. Later how do you deal with the edits done in live datasets, how do you synchronise. How do you estimate the accuracy of an edit, to know if it fits the quality requirements of a particular database.

This is why cooperation is often understood unidirectionally: just like recently in the UK, Australia or NZ, and since ever in the US, governments publish their data (through sites like data.gov, data.gov.uk or geodata.gov.gr) and then OSM contributors use it where they see fit. In the UK additionally the OSM Foundation was one of the bodies consulted when drafting the ways of sharing the government data — this was already an element of a different type of cooperation. Similarly the city of Paris council announced that it would publish data under the new ODbL license that was created (at least partially) with OSM in mind.

In Germany a number of government websites started using interactive OSM slippymaps, because even if the administration has access to much more accurate data, OpenStreetMap comes with easy tools and web technologies ready to use. Official data is in the first place created for tasks like city planning, determining land value and taxes etc., and any web use is completely secondary. This is similar to how the US website change.gov once used an OSM map widget.

From some discussions on the OSM communication channels this year it seemed that the US Geological Survey (USGS) went a further in these considerations and had been ready to accept improvements to map data directly from OpenStreetMap contributors had they made them available under a suitable license. This license requirement came only from the US law regulations on government-created data. But, since OSM has its terms of use pretty well established for the last couple of years, the whole topic of USGS cooperation seems to have gotten stuck and the agency has even made comments about starting a similar community project using OpenStreetMap’s software stack, with the difference of the data licensing. At this point we would be back to the government sharing its data and OSM using it if needed, but it would be possible to cooperate on the software development maybe.

What lead me to make these comparisons though, is a relation from the meeting two weeks ago held between three institutions in Spain, which you could later read on the mailing list of the OpenStreetMap Foundation chapter there. The project was represented by the local chapter president Iván Sánchez, with three representatives of National Geographic Institute (IGN — an organ of one of the ministries in Spain) and two people from an independent body tasked with the distribution of IGN’s publications (CNIG — National Centre for Geographic Information). The meeting was, understandably, described as very successful, here’s a summary of what had been concluded:

  • The terms of use for OpenStreetMap and IGN data are essentially similar, but not 100% compatible. For clarity it is desired that IGN issues an appropriate declaration mentioning OSM explicitly and concerning in the first place the aerial imagery for the entire country. It was suggested that the declaration takes the stance that OpenStreetMap data based on the imagery is an independent work — this is often discussed in the project.
  • CNIG expects that data created in OSM with those imagery layers be tagged with the date of acquisition of the imagery (something that is almost always done today).
  • The CNIG would like to obtain an additional license, compatible with that which is mandated by Spanish law for government institutions, for data collected during Mapping Parties (literally) organised by the OSM Spain chapter. This would concern the GPS traces collected and the participants’ notes. CNIG would also like the local chapter to consider Mapping Party locations suggestions made by CNIG for a given year.
  • CNIG wants to encourage distribution of OSM maps through traditional GIS protocols (WMS, WMS-C, WMTS).
  • Some data may be made available by IGN / CNIG under a stricter license terms than those required by OSM, but lose enough that the data may be used for verification and other tasks.
  • CNIG wants to try to adapt the Walking Papers service, made primarily for OSM contributors use, to its internal needs and data models.

I must say some of the points made surprised me, but at the same time are a very interesting way to see how cooperation between the project and organisations can look practically. Fortunately the demands made of OSM are all real and satisfiable (mostly already satisfied today). And it seems that both sides have clearly stated requirements and expectations, which is difficult to find elsewhere: for instance there are various companies that made vague statements that the ongoing OpenStreetMap license change process may help them better use or cooperate with the project, but nothing concrete has been publicly confirmed or committed to.

Makes me wonder what this process should be like in an “ideal world” because it’s still not clear, let alone what it could look like locally. (Hopefully the currently-consulted and long overdue Polish implementation of the information re-use European directive is going to change something in that area, so we can even talk about it in the local context).

How do OpenStreetMap and open government geodata fit together?

In a recent post, I was examining whether OpenStreetMap is a suitable place for open governmental geodata by cross-checking if the OpenStreetMap is compliant with the ten principles for open data. Out of the ten principles, nine can be considered compliant and one non-compliant. Meanwhile, I have discussed this topic with a wide range of people and read many articles.  However, I have not yet found any place that would be perfect for open governmental geodata, not with ESRI or elsewhere.

In addition to the ten principles, another requirement emerged that was almost always stated by the authorities that look for publishing data: The data should not only be available for download in a machine-readable format, but a user should also be able to visualise the data.
Finally, I came up with a solution that fulfills all of the requirements: publishing the geodata through the OpenStreetMap tool chain under a public domain licence. This would not only fulfill all of the requirements, but also offer some additional advantages.

What would this look like?

The OpenStreetMap tool chain is the underlying software that is used to store, edit and display the OpenStreetMap data – independent from the data licence. The default tool chain is open-source software that is free of charge and has been thoroughly tested by the more than 300.000 registered users.

The tool chain can be established with a blank database that serves as a target for the authority’s dataset, which is intended to be opened. It can be run by any hosting provider. When the tool chain is set up, the authority can import its data into the empty database and then release it under a data licence of its choice.

The infrastructure enables a machine-readable download of the data, displaying the data on the Web or accessing it through the API of the tool chain.


* refers to the ten principles for open data

What are the additional advantages?

The authority can publish the dataset by making use of the OpenStreetMap infrastructure without being bound to the OpenStreetMap licence. As the tool chain is free of charge, costs apply only for establishing and running the infrastructure.

In addition, a dataset that is published through the OpenStreetMap tool chain can be easily imported into the OpenStreetMap data so that the OpenStreetMap community can benefit from the data.

The authority also has the option to make their data available in a read-only or editable form. In the case of the latter, everyone who can edit the OpenStreetMap data is also able to edit the authority’s data, as editors such as JOSM or Potlatch would be fully functional on the authority’s dataset.

Who can help?

In principle, everyone who is involved with OpenStreetMap can assist. A handful of companies exist that are in position to establish such an infrastructure, provide guidance and import the dataset into a “blank OpenStreetMap database”. The selection process for the right integration partner could be performed by a tender process. However, the company that is probably most suitable is Geofabrik in Karlsruhe, Germany. The company has several years of experience with the tool chain and it knows how to convert and import datasets of any format.