Mapper of the Month: Pieter Vander Vennet

- escada

Translation by escada

This time we have a young, new mapper from Belgium. Hopefully this article remembers you about your early days or shows you that an enthusiast new mapper can do a lot of good work. His enthusiasm also shows in the length of the interview, he was unstoppable once he started.

Please introduce yourself

So my name is Pieter. I am now graduated as computer scientist at the university of Ghent. I studied in the small and in the meantime abolished study “Mathematics and Computer Science”. In other words, I come from a large pool of nerds, most of them loving open source such as Linux, FireFox.

I am also an engaged voluteer in other fields, mainly related to nature.

When and how did you learn about OpenStreetMap?

I learned about OpenStreetMap from one of my fellow students. He told me somewhere in 2011 or 2012 about OsmAnd en how he used it to navigate. The idea of an “Wikipedia for maps” appealed to me. However, the main reason to use it was more practical: you do not need an internet connection during your trip. Furthermore, the privacy aspect is an additional bonus.

Even in that period, the navigation was quite good, although the interface was lacking a bit. Now I know that this because of the work of some hard workers that already map for many years. They are responsible for drawing the complete road network, including all small alleys and bicycle paths. So I would like to thank zors1843, joost, escada, Midgard, Polyglot, Jakka, JBelien, L’imaginaire, lodde, mjans, skyman81, Roman Guy and all those other mappers that I do not know yet or forgot. (Escada: please note that there a lot of real pioneers missing from this list, but it is not always easy to find out who added the ways)

Do you use OpenStreetMap yourself?

Yes, I have been using OsmAnd for many years now, mainly to find my way around while I cycle. I have also encouraged all my family members to use OsmAnd (read: I all have them OsmAnd+ as a present - my phone credit is never fully used anyhow). They travel on a regular basis, and now they are happy to have an offline map of their destination ready on their phone. And the tools are ready for serious use: OsmAnd is relatively easy to use and the map is almost complete.

What was the first thing that you mapped

OsmAnd is like a Swiss knife: you can do everything with it. It can also show ski slopes. And that is what I map first. During a vacation in Austria I noticed that the ski slopes where not mapped well, so I added most of them. I was also a nice excuse to go off those slopes again.

This was in February 2016. After that I did not map for a long time, until recently. After my graduation, I got more spare time and this turned out to be a nice hobby.

How do you map?


Since September I am active again - very active even. It started when I had to visit a certain agency, which had moved apparently. Their new location was in a new building, which was not mapped yet. This meant that OsmAnd could not help me to locate the agency…

Thus I decided to add it myself. When I did that I noticed that there were no buildings mapped at all in that neighborhood. I started drawing them using GRB-maps in the iD-editor. In hindsight, not the most useful work (with the upcoming import, or at least with help of JOSM plugins to facilitate the work).

In the meantime there was a meetup in Bruges, with some “famous” Belgian community members. Those few hours made a tremendous difference to me.

A few week later I received a question from a volunteer of the Cyclist union (Fietsersbond) to have a look at the road surfaces in Bruges. He had seen a presentation on OpenStreetMap for the Fietsersbond given by Escada. He still did not know how he could use OpenStreetMap, he felt that it can be useful for his group. Even if it was only to map all cycleways. He did not realise that they are mapped already.

He was wondering whether he could obtain information about the widths of the cyclepaths. Of course this can be done, but only when someone has inserted that data into the database. This information is important for them to find out which cycleways fulfil the conditions demanded by the guidebook. This book has a number of guidelines on the width of the cyclepath, as well on the comfort offered by the surface and the distance with busy and high speed roads.

Since then, I always leave the house with two tape measures to measure the width of the cycletracks.

Furthermore he was interested in which roads are asphalted and which have cobble stones (sett), so he could prove that asphalted cycleways are used more often by cyclist, because of the higher comfort. That data was still missing. This was a trigger for me to start using StreetComplete, to add the surface to the streets that I pass by. Soon, I started making detours to map the missing surfaces of nearby roads. And in the meantime, I make dedicated survey trips. From 100% armchar mapper to 100% survey-based mapped (aka Craftmapper). There have been days that I jumped on my bicycle a couple of times to get data. I even took my father with me to study the cycletracks on the A11 and my mother takes me along lesser known paths to see whether they are mapped. This lead to the mapping of a nice little path!

My main goal at this moment is the surface and width of the cycletracks, but of course I also map other objects. Outside the town, I love to add rivers, ditches and weirs. That gives a lot of beautiful detail to the map. I also add and correct parks and playgrounds.

Inside the town, I consistently map the surveillance cameras. I like to know whether I get filmed and by who. My current count (November 2017) is more than 170 in the centre of Bruges. That is almost a quarter of the cameras that are mapped in Belgium. I am rather proud of this achievement.

The switches of neon-lights are also among my favorite mapping subjects and are among the first objects that I started to map. The reason is that I am personnally interested in them. Did you ever hear about “Clan du Neon”? That is a group of people that want to take action against light polution by turning of the neon-light advertisements with those switches. They leave a friendly note behind with the question to turn off unnecessarily light sources. If the merchant wants to turn on the light again, that is no problem. Since the lightswitches are hard to find in Bruges, the action is not really a success. It is on that perfect point to map: enough items to map, but not so many that the task becomes daunting. In some towns, more than half of the shops have such light advertisements with switch. In Bruges we have a lot less neon-lights, due the strict policy for the protection of historial facades.

I also like that combination for another reason: how cyberpunk can one get by mapping the neon-lights together with the surveillance cameras, while I listen to some fat cyberpunt-tune through my reprogrammed smartphone…

Which tools to you use ?

When I go out, I have one essential device: my smartphone with OsmAnd and StreetComplete. I use StreetComplete for the road surfaces and the other quests. I slightly adopted StreetComplete, so I can map the type of sett. With the OsmAnd-development plugin, I make notes on the map or immediately add POIs. I constantly use the “QuickAction” for this purpose. It regularly happens that I upload 50 (or even 150) notes per day. During the evening, I resolve them one by one from my computer.

On the computer I use both iD, and for the more complex work: JOSM. Why iD? Mainly because it is such a user-friendly tool. For QA, I use a couple of Overpass-queries that I run and inspect on Overpass Turbo. This allows me to plan surveys in areas that do not have surface or width information on cyclepaths.

Other devices and add-ons that go with me on every survey: a 2 tape measures, a powerbank and a wireless headphone to listen to music. Why 2 tape measures? I have one that goes to 3 meters, and rolls up quickly, the other ones for wider paths.

I sometimes print out maps before making a survey, but only to know the information that is not rendered by OsmAnd by default. Recently, I wanted to try out the famous Field Papers for a trip along the cyclepaths on the A11 with my father. He claimed that no GPS system had those paths yet. Of course they were al mapped. We still went to measure the widths and note down the surfaces. Unfortunately my father wanted to visit a part that I did not print out, so I could not feel the Field Paper magic of rescanning yet. But it shows how well the crowed-sourced concept of map making works.

(Note: The A11 is a new motorway near Bruges/Zeebrugge which opened early September 2017. One could visit the motorway by bike before it officially opened. This event was visited by several people from the community to properly map the road).

Where do you map?

Only in and around Bruges. I will try to be disciplined enough not to map elsewhere, otherwise I might spend way to much time on OpenStreetMap. The only exceptions will be POIs that I really need, such as the missing bluebikepoint near the (trainstation) Brussels Centraal.

I mapped once for HOT, on the evening of November 28, for a porject of Docters without Borders. It was a fun activity and even more fun to meet the other community members and chat with them. My mother also had a great time, and she will be going next time as well!

What is your biggest achievement as mapper?

surveillance cameras in Bruges

The map of the road surfaces in Bruges is well worth viewing! And it is nice to discover that OsmAnd will send you over asphalted roads more easily. But of course the map of the surveillance cameras is nice to see. Note to self: I should start looking for a real job.

Why do you map? What motivates you?

First of all it is just amazing and addictive to do. But it is also very useful. When I now map a new small path or a road surface, I have that data within an hour on my smartphone, thanks to OsmAnd Live. Which means that after an hour the navigation will use that new data.

It is also a good excuse to go outside to discover all those small alleys, or to make a detour through a neighborhood you have not visited before.

What is the biggest advantage of OpenStreetMap?

The greatest strength of OSM is that everyone helps each other. I map road surfaces in Bruges and wrote some custom navigation to allow me to avoid cobblestones. When I visit Leuven or Brussels, I notice that someone else already partially mapped that information there and that my custom navigation works there as well. In the mean time this information can also be used by local governments to improve the road network. Or a lobby group such as the Fietsersbond can use the data to demand better bicycle infrastructure. Or a rollerskater can avoid those nasty cobblestones.

Not only that, I also continue to build on the work of others: the road network already existed; OsmAnd exists for quite some time now; StreetComplete, which makes everything much easier, is developed by yet another person. If I map to create a map of ski slopes I can use existing tools or maps. And if all else fails, there is still Overpass Turbo.

Another example is the map of surveillance cameras. That already existed on a world-wide scale. It saved a lots and lots of time, as it is time consuming to set this up yourself from scratch.

There are several propriety websites that offer specific information such as or cycle route maps or ski slope maps. That is stupid, because the information gets lost when they go out of business. This is not the case with OpenStreetMap, where the data can be used by anyone, using the same open source tools and data formats.

That is really the differentiator: one central and open place where all information is gathered and where everyone helps each other building up on the work of others.

Another strength is that everyone can map their interests. When I want to map neon lights, I can do that, no one will be bothered by it. Same for surfaces, heritage buildings, multi-storey parking buildings for the die-hard car lover, and the nature reserves. All living happily next to one another, as long as you map existing features. This also means that OpenStreetMap starts to break through in areas that were not imaginable 10 years ago: e.g. indoor mapping

And finally, I see the neutrality of the map as a big advantage. On a commercial map I always wonder why some shop are shown sooner than others. Or why is that particular brewery shown before the railway station? Did the map maker get paid to do this? Is this advertising? The opposite could also happen. Some company can remove the data of a competitor. Or it can be influenced by politics. I believe this will not happen soon in an open environment such as OpenStreetMap. But perhaps I am looking to much dystopian cyberpunkt movies.

Do you do anything besides mapping?

road surfaces

A little bit. I try to actively campaign for OpenStreetMap, mainly via promotion of OsmAnd. Furthermore I am going to make a few articles for e.g. the local division of the Fietsersbond. Occasionally I help out with the translation of StreetComplete and the OsmAnd documentation. I hope to do that kind of things more, but mainly to be able to customize things more to my needs.

I hope that one day I can spend more time on the routing engine. I would like to improve the routing for cyclists, and have that accepted by the developers. Another idea is to improve the routing for skiers. But I really need to find the time to do all that.

What are the biggest challenges for OpenStreetMap?

Familiarity with the name. No-one knows OpenStreetMap nor its filosphy, due the overwhelming presence of Google Maps. This is a problem, even in the alternative scene. Although those people are more sensitive for openness, privacy, off-line usage, etc.

A lot can be explain via the economic model of OpenStreetMap. Of course, an individual gains a lot from OpenStreetMap: I now have very accurrate maps, which I can adapt myself. We all gain a bit, but there is no company behind it to do the advertising on the OpenStreetMap brand.

We could also try to set up more collaborations. I see this happening in Ghent. I also think about Trage Wegen, there are contributors from Oostrozebeke and Fietsersbond Halle (the latter was probably made after Escada’s talk). The new traffic flow in Ghent could have been a bigger opportunity, we collaborated together, but we missed some advertising possibilities to use OsmAnd to navigate around in Ghent. Perhaps we can contact local NGO’s, scouts, etc. to map themselves?

And lastly, most of the OSM-BE community seems to come from the IT-world. That makes sense, after all OpenStreetMap has a lot of technical aspects. I cannot deny that I am attracted by that, a large group with the same interest: focus on a complete map. But on the other side, we might miss a ideas and problems that we are not aware off (indoor mapping of an hospital, rivers in mountains for kayaks)

Sometime the non-commercial aspect can be a drawback as well. Google Maps shows a lot more stores than OpenStreetMap, people are more motivated to get their shop on the map, because of the amount of visitors. The effect of networking. We should be able to counter that. We were lucky that Wikipedia came first, so no company could claim encyclopedia. OpenStreetMap does not have that luck, but the effect of networking seems smaller than setting up such a network. We can convert one person at the time, we do not have to convert the whole group at once.

Do you have ideas to improve OpenStreetMap?

It would be great to have off line navigation for public transport, with the time tables. It seems technically impossible, but it would be fantastice (After writing this, I met Ben and learned more about the topic)

Do you have ideas to attract new mappers?

We can invite new mappers on the chatchannel and to meetups. The meetup I visited was the start of everything. Just to hear about all the possibilities is really motivating. It also help to learn about all the technological aspects. Which tools do I use? How do I map something? It also shows how the community works: without fixed rules and a lot of freedom.

I believe it is important that all mappers find their way to the chatchannel, so they know there is a place where they can ask anything, in their own language. Or just to tell about strange encounters during a survey.

A lot of documentation can be found on the wiki or via the help website, but it is very helpfull when someone guides you through this massive amount of information, or that points you to tools such as Overpass, hdyc, etc. This is were the community really shines.

We should set up something to contact new people with links to chat & meetup agenda. This should allow us to “bind” more mappers. In the worst case, they just continue, but hopefully they get more enthusiast. (note: there is such a tool, we only need people to use it).

Only via the Belgian chat channel and mailing list. It remains a small world, so when you are interested in open data, IT, etc., you find another anyway.

Do you have contact with other mappers?

Again, via the Riot-channel. I also try to participate in meetups, but only if they are not on the other side of the country. And by writing this interview, I went through the contributor list in my area and send out a few messages.

Did OpenStreetMap change the way you look at the world?

Certainly. Through mapping, I am more aware of my environment. Suddenly, you get to know your town much better and you start noticing details such as road surfaces, surveillance cameras and infrastructure. By surveying each street systematically, you discover not only new, beautiful places but also the ugly spots. You realize that there are more smelly parkings than you ever imagined, several alleys with dirt, and shabby houses behind walls. That was confronting at times.

On the other hand, OsmAnd’s routing guided me already over several new, beter roads.