Mapper of the month: Kevin Kenny (USA)

- escada


Who are you ?

Hi, I”m Kevin Kenny, OSM user ‘ke9tv’.

I’m a computer engineer by trade, living and working in Niskayuna, New York, USA, https://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/175479, west of the state capital of Albany. My OSM user ID is an Amateur Radio call sign, which is something that I often use as a user name because it’s generally unique. I’m not terribly active on radio any more, although I keep my license up. My most time-consuming hobbies are music, open-source software development, and hiking. It’s the last that drew me back into OpenStreetMap, since some of my favourite places have atrocious maps. (Surprisingly, New York State has some remote, and hence badly mapped, wilderness.)

When and how did you discover OpenStreetMap ?

I’m on the core team for the Tcl programming language (https://tcl-lang.org/). Back in 2000, some users started tossing around the idea of producing a standard library for displaying geodata in Tcl, and various users hacked up proofs of concept. By 2004 there was a viewer that could interact with tiled maps, first from Yahoo Maps and later from OSM. I looked at OSM at the time, and shrugged, since my part of the world was a huge blank area. I had no idea how or where to start, nor did I have at the time any sense that the project was viable! (This was before the TIGER import at least laid down a sort of framework.) I came back to OSM in 2012 at the suggestion of a colleague, and began by mapping the walking and mountain bike paths in a local nature preserve. I’ve stuck with it ever since; it’s grown amazingly since I first looked at it.

What do you map ?

My chief interest is in mapping outdoor recreation - hiking trails, and the facilities associated with them. This has grown also to importing the boundaries of parks and preserves that offer public access, and to attempting to make my personal map rendering a useful trail map. Branching out from here, I’ve also taken an interest in some other areas, such as route relations, that are essential to a good rendering. (I also map anything and everything in the immediate area of my home - I want the map to look as if a mapper lives here!)

The biggest single change since I started is that I’ve become a lot less timid about editing. When I first got going, I saw tons of undocumented tags that I didn’t understand, and left a good many obviously incorrect objects in place for fear of breaking something. Now I understand how much of that stuff is simply rubbish left over from old imports, I’m a lot more confident in cleaning it out. (TIGER in my part of the country is downright hallucinatory in places!)

How do you map ? Do you make surveys ? Are you an armchair mapper ?

Which tools do you use (GPS, Apps, Editors, QA-websites) ?

All of my mapping is armchair mapping in a sense, since I don’t simply push in unedited GPS data! For trails, and for the area around home, I map afoot, always. I use a commercial app (BackCountry Navigator) on a smartphone for data collection. When I’m doing wilderness mapping, I also bring along a 15000-mAh ruggedized battery pack that’s the approximate form factor of a brick, and can get in about six days of mapping without needing to get to town to recharge. I edit almost exclusively in JOSM, with an extensive set of plugins, and most of the data integrity checks turned on (including some of the excessively chatty ones.) I also have conducted a few imports.

How do you conduct your surveys ? (in case you do them of course)

I find data entry on a smartphone to be really awkward, so I typically simply leave the phone running, recording tracks, and enter POI’s simply as points on the phone with very few comments. I keep field notes the old-fashioned way, with notebook and pencil! Once in a while, I’ll have a feature that I want to map that’s not accessible, so I may also do old-school sight intersection - sight the object from multiple GPS-labeled points using a military style compass, and record bearings, and then triangulate on a map when I get home. I also try to compare and correct anything I survey with what I can see on “leaves off” aerials). I like to gather redundant GPS tracks, but some places are hard enough to reach that it simply isn’t an option, and I make do with what I have.

Where do you map ?

I map only my region. For local street mapping, it’s really just my town. For outdoor facilities, I’ve done a few state-wide imports of data, and some field surveys as far away as neighbouring states.

What with my interest in hiking, some of my field mapping takes place in challenging environments. If some features are mapped sketchily, that’s likely the reason. In any case, it’s better to have the trail mapped with a somewhat sketchy alignment and perhaps a few amenities missing than not to have it there at all. “The perfect is the enemy of the good”.

What is your biggest achievement as mapper ?

I think I’d list two. One is the repeat of the import of the “Lands and Campgrounds” shapefile from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The original import had become rather out of date owing to some substantial new land acquisitions, and the state’s GIS system had greatly improved. This left me with a tricky conflation job, since most facilities were already present in OSM, but with inaccurate geometry and often broken topology (e.g., multipolygons that did not close) as well.

The other is completing, in the field, the track of the 220-km Northville-Placid Trail. This trail traverses spectacularly wild country in the Adirondack Mountains,

[IMAGE: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ke9tv/15353613519 Own work. CC-BY-SA]

It is, in a couple of spots, more than 25 km from the nearest road that a car can drive on. I gathered the GPS data while hiking the length of it, solo, which was quite an adventure! (I’ve seen one of my OSM correspondents refer to it as ‘extreme mapping.’) The trail center line and points of interest in OSM eventually became the source of the “official” distance table for the club that maintains the trail. (http://www.nptrail.org/trip-planning/section-descriptions-and-mileages/)

Why do you map ? What motivates you ?

I want to have good maps of the areas I visit. I can remember a time when my government produced fantastic large-scale maps, but those days are gone in our era of austerity. (The USGS ceased production of its topographic series in the 1990’s, and its ‘USA Topo’ series now cannot hold a candle to the original.) It falls on citizen-mappers now to map the world, just as it always has in places that never had the same sort of government support. I find that OSM does a lot of what I need, and I feel a responsibility to give back.

What is the most difficult part of mapping ?

The biggest single obstacle is finding time among all my other interests and responsibilities! Beyond that, I’d say that the biggest challenge is building consensus in the community over what is and is not appropriate to map, how to tag it, and how to resolve conflicts. I seem to spend quite a bit of time trying to find points of agreement in among the cacophony in our various fora. (It’s the sort of thing that will happen whenever there is a set of volunteers with different interests who are passionate about the success of a project, but it is surely time-consuming!)

What are your mapping plans for the near future ?

Among the things on my list: one more round of the New York State imports (it’s been almost a year since I last updated them). More attacks on the “TIGER desert” that surrounds me. More street-level mapping of my own town.

When the weather improves in spring (I’m writing this in a storm in the harsh upstate New York winter), there are gaps in the track of the Long Path https://www.openstreetmap.org/relation/919642 in Schoharie County that I’d like to get out and close. It would be nice having the whole thing mapped end-to-end!

In retirement, which can’t be more than a few years away, I want to get literal “boots on the ground” data for the entire route, and study (and map where appropriate) the original planned route all the way into the Adirondack High Peaks. (Hiking from New York City to the heart of the Adirondack wilderness - and writing and mapping about it

Do you have contact with other mappers ?

I exchange emails regularly with a few mappers that I’ve met on line, and a couple of my colleagues at work have at least contributed to the map. While there are a few of active mappers in my community, none of us has ever quite managed to make the stars align for a get-together, so right now I’m tied to the map mostly electronically.

Do you use OpenStreetMap yourself ?

I routinely use OSMAnd for car navigation because on my trips I’m often out of cellular coverage. On all my hikes, I use OSM-derived maps on my smartphone.

I’m a programmer, so I’ve done some tool development. This has chiefly related to processing my repeat imports. I have scripts that extract features from shapefiles, identify possible candidates for conflation in OSM, and load up the map of the area, the old feature, and the new feature to be conflated in JOSM so that I have a ready starting point for edits. (In at least one case, rather than using shapefiles, I resort to PDF-scraping to get boundaries!)

I also develop my own Mapnik-based rendering, from OSM and other sources, to use at https://kbk.is-a-geek.net/catskills/test4.html. (This is the tiled map that goes on my smartphone, too.) There’s a fair amount of programming involved in integrating the various external data sources.

In the course of doing that rendering, I’ve found that pictorial highway markers are useful. Highways in the US consist of multiple overlaid networks, with frequent route concurrences, so the default OSM rendering is less readable, at least to me. I’ve done some work toward resurrecting the project that Phil! Gold started to do this, and put a proof of concept on Github https://github.com/kennykb/osm-shields. Alas, there are some fairly severe technical obstacles to overcome in making it play well with the rest of the rendering toolchain, and so I’ve put on hold for the moment the project of making the system scale to the whole planet from the area that it currently covers. I do promise to get back to it at some point!

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

Be gentle with one another! Everyone on the project is, as I observed, passionate for its success. It’s natural to have strong beliefs - and tempting to express those strong beliefs in strong words. Try to remember that some of our wisest heads may belong to people who are not comfortable with a rough-and-tumble style of discussion.

And now, let’s get out and map!