Mapper of the Month: Joost Schouppe (Belgium)

- Pierre Parmentier

His homepage and his contribution page.

Hello Joost! Eight years ago, your interview appeared in our Mapper of the Month column. But perhaps it is necessary for you to introduce yourself once again to our new readers.
Hi Pierre, thanks for having me again :)
I’m a mapper and community organizer. I helped start the Belgian chapter and community. I’ve been on the Board of OpenStreetMap Belgium from the start. I’m still a little involved in the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF)and I was on the OSMF Board for two years.
Are you still active in sociology, your basic training?
Somewhat. I work with data that generally relates to people and how they live. My background helps to let that data speak in a meaningful way.
Can you explain how you became more and more involved in OpenStreetMap over the years?
I think I started contributing as soon as I started using the data. I found it all a very fascinating playground. Then I met Jorieke and Ben and they got me to help organize bar meetings, later the State of the Map in Brussels. We also talked a lot about the “politics” of OpenStreetMap. One day someone asked if I was willing to run for board. While I hadn’t considered it before, it seems like a fun challenge. I was on the board for two years. After that I scaled down a little, and since then I’ve been mostly just helping keep OpenStreetMap Belgium running.
For the general public, OpenStreetMap is not always known. What should we do to make OpenStreetMap more popular with this audience?
We should always keep looking for people who just enjoy mapping for the sake of it, maybe create opportunities for them to discover that they do. But it would help if OpenStreetMap was used more by the general public. Websites like RouteYou or Komoot are a huge help for that. In the navigation sphere, it’s hard to compete with Waze and Google Maps. For now, we have to make best use of niche apps to retain the momentum and keep improving the data. Then one day it will make sense to build a Google Maps quality interface around it, which if done properly will help keep OpenStreetMap up to date.
How can we make OpenStreetMap indispensable?
It already is, in so many ways!
The amount of data in OpenStreetMap is constantly increasing. How do you understand the maintenance of all this information?
We’re mature enough to start noticing how super detailed mapping can start crumbling if it’s done by just one person. Think of bus lines, micromapping sidewalks or adding all the shop details. As mappers, I think we should make sure that our work helps the next generation of mappers. It is more important to train two new building importers, than to import yet another village. And it’s more important to get full address coverage in a wider region, than to keep adding finer and finer detail closer to home.
As we mature, we retain a small number of crazy power mappers that can do miracles for general data quality. That work can be complimented by corporate mappers. But for the finer details, we need apps for less technical people, we need apps that put the data to use and make it inviting to report and fix issues. We need millions of data users, and turn them into thousands of helping hands, and maybe retain a few dozen power mappers.
A lot of OpenStreetMap data has a relatively short lifespan or is very specific. Shouldn’t contributors focus on the essentials first? How do we reconcile these two aspects and what should they be?
As a mapper, I usually prefer breadth over depth. Projects that we started, like Road Completion, are often about that. What sense does it make to have super detailed road info in one place, when in the other you have actually missing new streets. You need to be able to guarantee a certain base level of quality to be usable. While I like mappers to think about this kind of thing, contributors are volunteers, and they should always focus on what they enjoy first and foremost. Some of that work won’t be immediately useful, but it helps build the datamodel that in the future will see wide use. It helps make the case for niche use, which can then encourage more mapping of that subject — and brings OpenStreetMap to people who are passionate about that niche.
You have been involved in the OpenStreetMap Foundation. What did you bring to the Foundation?
While I was a little burned out at the end of my run, in retrospect I feel like I was part of a timeframe that saw a nice shift in the direction of OSMF. The Board had been paralyzed by the rift between corporate and craft mapping politics. That made the OSMF fundamentally boring to people not interested in that rift, but rather wanting to get on with the actual mapping project. I worked on Microgrants, the queue of Local Chapter applications and fee waivers and then Active Contributor Membership. All of that helped show OSMF as an organization that does things for others, and a place where you can get work done. I was just a small part of the wider changes at the time of course. But I like to think I was part of creating the working atmosphere that helped OSMF turn into an organization that can and did make the bold choices needed to keep the engines running.
And what did the Foundation bring to you during your time with it?
It was certainly a learning opportunity to work with the absolute geniuses that are at the core of OpenStreetMap. Like others, I’m sure, I suffered a bit of Imposter Syndrome because of that. I think what I learned most, was about how to get things done in really complicated environments. For myself, I learned — well — I first realized I need to learn to focus on doing a few things right, rather than trying and failing to do all the things I think are important. And of course, being on the Board meant becoming close with a lot of awesome people.
Many people are thinking about the future of OpenStreetMap. Do you think that OpenStreetMap can continue to function on the current model?
I believe we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s a slow and fragile process. I think we should plan for a future where we have several employees who work on a more inclusive, better marketed and more used OpenStreetMap. The core is still too weak, so I think the first step now would be to hire an Executive Director, who can help the Board members to focus on setting the direction, instead of having to do the actual work themselves. The biggest risk for the OSMF would be a return to a fractured Board, where differences in politics prevent real progress. What has always worried me with OpenStreetMap is that we might run out of steam one day. We need more and more data users to get us the mappers to keep more and more data up to date. I think there’s still a lot we could do from a stronger OSMF that can encourage that virtuous cycle. And I think not doing those things could mean a slow erosion of the project.
What is the ultimate ambition of OpenStreetMap? Does the Foundation have the means to achieve these ambitions?
My ambition for OpenStreetMap has always been for it to be the map, not just a map. I think long term survival requires becoming the main provider of geodata for most consumer oriented maps. I totally get that we’re more in niche uses now, and that’s a good way to keep building. Getting to that place is not something the OSMF could dream of doing alone. This is the job of all the mappers, all the niche app builders and all the corporations using and extending OpenStreetMap. A stronger OSMF could do more to work on our brand though.
OpenStreetMap has become a partner of many institutions. How is this managed in practice?
It seems this still depends very much on people. We need people who understand corporations to talk to them. Mikel Maron’s recent efforts to get more life in the Advisory Board is a nice example of trying to turn those personal contacts into something more structural. At a small scale, we try to do the same in Belgium. Institutions need a face to the organization. Providing easy to use contact points that interface with the project is very important for that. Actively reaching out is also important, especially when it comes to helping institutions to be responsible data users and contributors.
Big players in digital mapping are using OpenStreetMap data. Should we remain a simple supplier or should we join forces?
I often say: if you dance with the devil, the devil changes you — but we are the devil. I think engaging with the big players can force them to work in the benefit of everyone. We have a smart and loud community to keep us in check if we would slip towards thinking too much like corporations. Our steadfastness means that corporations have to adapt as well. I think when things like Overture happen, we have to be very careful — but we also have to see the opportunities for us in that.
If OpenStreetMap becomes a commercial player, isn’t there a risk that contributors will turn away and stop contributing?
It is impossible for OpenStreetMap to become truly commercial because of its license, which is kind of impossible to change. OpenStreetMap has always been a project that wants to see its data used — you don’t get to pick who uses your data or not. Except when they break the rules of course.
Would you like to tell us more about the Overture Maps Foundation?
The thread about that on the community forum is required reading: I share a lot of the concerns raised, but I still see this as potentially beneficial to the project — if we keep open lines of communication and make sure red lines are respected. This could increase the user base of OpenStreetMap in a very significant way.
What are the big changes you have seen in Belgium in the last few years?
In the map: when I first started using OpenStreetMap, I could not hike in a forest without needing to add or remap most of the paths. Now, almost everywhere you go, it is mostly details that are missing. The level of detail of basically everything has risen so much. Still a huge amount of work left, especially when it comes to points of interest — POI — and buildings and addresses. In data users: you don’t need to explain what OpenStreetMap is anymore. Now, you can go straight into the nuances of how exactly it works. Data owners used to think it was just this weird thing, then that it might be a decent enough basemap, then that it would be best that their data lives in OpenStreetMap. Well, some are still one or two steps behind [smile]. In the community: it’s a little bigger, probably. We’re better organized, for sure. We still have a long ways to go, especially when it comes to onboarding new people in general, and from a more diverse background especially.
Things are progressing in Belgium. But this progress seems unevenly distributed. What are the weak points where mappers should focus their efforts?
It is becoming easier and easier for a new mapper to help turn OpenStreetMap from decent into awesome, using tools like StreetComplete or MapComplete. But that requires that the map is already decent. The road network should be clean and up to date, and we need all the buildings. All of them! The import effort seems to be accelerating somewhat, but at the current rate we will still need a few more years to get full coverage. The sooner that happens, the more we empower new mappers to excel. Our general strategy of talking to niche users is also really working. Work by people like s8evq and yourself to engage people at the Grands Randonnees organizations are awesome! A power mapper that can help two more mappers get involved will get a lot more done than a power mapper that just maps.
Would you like to say a few words to the contributors from all countries?
Don’t stop being awesome [smile]. Don’t let anyone tell you what to map, especially not me. Keep the joy of mapping for the sake of mapping. But try and help out projects that bring data to the users, and get those users on board.

Thank you, Joost, for this interview.