Mapper of the Month: Volker Schmidt (Europe)

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Volker at Petrified Forest National Park AZ 2016 Volker at Petrified Forest National Park AZ 2016

Who are you ?

I am rather old: born in 1944 in the heart of (Western) Europe, halfway between Strasbourg and Luxembourg, in Germany at 2km from the French border. Let me put it this way: I am a European citizen with, by accident, a German passport. I live, for the second time in my life, in Padova, in northern Italy, about 35km west of Venice. Before retiring I worked, mostly, for the nuclear fusion research programme of the EU as an engineer and manager for large experiment control and data acquisition systems, with a two-year intermezzo in the search for gravitational waves at Caltech in California. My hobbies? My hobbies have changed over time. I had several hiking periods, a pottery period, and now am nearly fully occupied by two interconnected hobbies: (1) slow-cycling (as opposed to racing) from going for a stroll (on the bicycle) for lunch to cycle travel for days or weeks and (2) OSM with an eye on cycling. My nickname? I got that many years back when I started my first job after University in (then West-)Berlin in 1974. I had to invent a user name for our local computer system and constructed “vosch” from the first letters of my name and family name. We were five in the team and all Asterix and Obelix fans. So I added the “-ix”.

When and how did you discover OpenStreetMap ?

As an end user on the bicycle in June 2010. I had taken on the task to plan the detailed route of a 1900km bicycle tour Padova - Paris - London for a group of 30 along a route where I had never been, to leave on August 1st 2010. Shortly before, I had bought an etrex HCx outdoors navigation device and got angry when Garmin tried to sell me something like 5 maps for the six-country route I had in mind. I reacted with googling for “free maps Garmin”. This way I discovered for Garmin devices. It worked. Then I taught myself (with the help of many google searches) what I needed to know about route planning sites, and constructed the 1900km GPX track with two different, now defunct, web routing sites and consulting intensively Google Maps, ViaMichelin and Google Satellite images in addition to the then still limited OpenStreetMap. It worked out, we all got safely to London. Then I decided on the last day in London to travel across the city to ride my bike across Tower Bridge using real-time navigation (and not a precompiled GPX track) in the city traffic and in the evening. It worked. After OSM had helped me greatly with that tour, I thought it would be only fair paying back my debt for the free maps by contributing to OSM. I started out with Potlatch, because it seemed easy, but moved to JOSM pretty soon, after I had damaged some route relations.

Paris 2010

What do you map ? Is there any difference with your early days ?

I started by mapping cycling-related features and have kept doing so ever since. Cycling-related means inserting and improving/correcting tagging of features that are relevant for planning cycle rides. I try to insert those pieces of information into the database that will help routers find good cycling routes. That starts off with cycleways obviously, but includes also all way properties that might help a bicycle routing algorithm find routes that I would like to ride on. Over time my understanding of what should be mapped, evolved and, hopefully, improved.

How do you map ?

Given my interest in bicycle tour planning, I do both survey-based mapping and armchair mapping. The armchair mapping is often the result of route planning, in the sense that when I encounter unclear features on the map (say, the router refuses to go along a piece of the the intended route which looks nice on the satellite photos, and it turns out that the map is missing a foot bridge). Or I am trying to find a bicycle-able route and realise that the map is missing minor roads that would allow me to shorten my journey or make it safer or nicer than the main roads. Then I do the systematic mapping: when I ride my bike in new places I try always to produce good GPX traces (initially with an etrex HCx, and more recently with etrex 20/30). Up to 2014 I tried to shoot individual photos together with POI coordinates of key locations of my rides, since 2014 I take Mapillary photos instead. I also try to insert cycling related POIs, like bike shops, food and accommodation. Also to make it easier to highlight geometry discrepancies between map and reality, I routinely compare in JOSM the trace produced (with OSM) at the computer for the ride, with the GPX track that I recorded during the ride. This visual comparison quickly highlights sloppy-geometry mapping (or GPS malfunctioning).

Which tools do you use ?

For the tour planning I use web sites with OSM maps. On the road I always use a traditional GPS device (Garmin etrex) to follow the previously constructed tracks. I use OSM-based maps on the navigation device (Velomap, Openfietsmap light). So far I have not used OSM apps on my smartphone, mainly because it is routinely used to take Mapillary images. My mapping is done with JOSM on a laptop Windows 10 computer with a second monitor. My JOSM runs with few plug-ins, of which the most important one is the Mapillary plugin.
I do not make routine use of QA web sites, except for the Relation Analyzer and Overpass Turbo for purpose-tailored queries, mostly using the Wizard. i

How do you conduct your surveys ?

Mostly I do mapping whilst travelling, mostly on bicycle, but also by car. I started out by recording GPX tracks and taking photographs at points, which I considered of relevance for mapping. When I came across Mapillary in 2014, I switched immediately to Mapillary, initially using an old GoPro, but soon using smartphones. In addition I produce GPX tracks with the small Garmin device.The theory is that when I am back home I transfer all information gathered in the field (GPX tracks, Mapillary photo contents) into OSM, combining that with information gathered from satellite photos. But often I do not have the time to do that, and I leave it for later or someone else to use. A clear disadvantage of Mapillary is that you catch many more potential features for OSM than a normal human being will ever be able to insert in the map. The longest trip I have “mapillarized” so far is the Bicycle Route 66 in the US from Chicago to Santa Monica (in 2016). I encountered so many (mostly tiger-import-related) problems that this is still a big construction site in OSM. In addition I map systematically locally, with accent on bicycle infrastructure and road features relevant to cyclists.

London 2010

What is your biggest achievement as mapper ?

As all my mapping efforts are open-ended, in the end I can never call anything an achievement. I keep doing my best updating and completing the Map. I am glad to see the Map in many places, but at the same time I am aware of its shortcomings and feel a bit guilty of not being able to make it perfect. It’s a moving target.

Why do yo map ? What motivates you ?

I like maps and I use them. Maybe its genetic. I remember, at school, when I was 8 or 10 years old, the teacher asked us to copy (local) maps by hand, and I “invented” a clever way of copying them, using semi-transparent paper (the type of paper we used to wrap the school sandwich - in German it’s called “Butterbrotpapier”) and received good marks for my near-perfect maps. Later on, during my late high-school and early university years I worked as a seasonal worker in the State Cartographic Office where I learned (by observing) at the practical level all steps of map-making, from triangulation to actual (hand-)printing topographic maps (I had to insert and precision-align the paper in the press once for every colour to print). And as long as my memory goes back i have always been the guy with the map whom the others asked: “where are we? you have the map!” .

What is the most difficult part of mapping ?

I remember the steep learning curve of JOSM as a problem. I was fortunate that I found very early in my mapping career a willing and competent tutor among the local mappers (thanks, Tizianos!) so that I could overcome that gradient with relative ease. I am a heavy user of mailing lists, which I found mostly useful, if you do not let yourself drag into one of the opinion wars, that sometimes take place there. What I find annoying is the persistence of systematic map problems, at least in my area: some mass imports of bad data (unchecked, old data, misaligned), which the importers do neither correct nor delete; a few users who draw only approximate geometries for roads, even though precise satellite photos are available; misaligned satellite photos and satellite photos with complex parallax errors (Bing).

What are your mapping plans for the near future ?

I am realistic. I would be happy if I ever managed to get all cycleways in my home town on the map. And then I would like to produce a useful local cycling map out of this data.

Do you have contact with other mappers ?

Yes, but not many local mappers. As my mapping is all over the place many of my frequent contacts are with mappers whom I only know by username via the mailing lists.

Do you use OpenStreetMap yourself ?

Routinely for off-line, and, occasionally, on-line navigation by car and bicycle, sometimes on foot. I regularly lead groups of local cyclists on day trips, which are all designed at the computer using OSM data via route design sites, mostly for cyclists. Even though I am not born here, I often receive compliments by residents born and grown-up here for the nice little byways I am proposing. But that is not because I am particularly familiar with the territory, but because I use the Map even for small local trips, and some of the routers are really good at finding minor roads. I also plan, and sometimes execute, longer bicycle tours using routing web sites at the planning stages.

To some extent yes. I have taught various courses on things roughly described by “GPX, OSM, and Mapillary for cyclists”. I have just started to participate in a new collaboration between the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) and OSM Italy that aims at inserting all signed alpine hiking paths in Italy into OSM. And I am hoping to get something similar under way for the tourist cycle routes in Italy with the Italian cycling association FIAB. And I am a heavy Mapillary contributor and user. I hope soon to start taking Mapillary photos with a 360° camera.

London 2010 - Tower Bridge by night

To conclude, is there anything else you want to mention ?

Yes, there is: I am missing any good instructions to write or modify wiki pages. It’s amazing that no one has produced an easier way to write wiki pages. And one last , but serious concern: some, maybe too many people insert too much detailed data into a single database, without any regard to how these data can be maintained over time. The biggest issue for me are mass imports of data that is maintained and updated outside OSM, a violation of the most basic requirement for good data management, i.e. do not maintain the same data in several places, because that does require regular re-import of the externally updated data. You could put it this way: mappers (mainly importers) put much more data into OSM than we have manpower available to maintain it (aggravated by the problem that no-one likes to maintain data, it is much more fun to insert new stuff) These problems are widely ignored by most mappers and may kill OSM sooner than we think. Sorry to close on a negative note, but I consider this an important warning.