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In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on

– Jackson Browne

OSM Logo Except in my case it wasn’t ‘69, I was 16, and I’ve never stopped calling the road my own.

See, when I was in High School, I read Kerouac and Kesey, I read about Woody Guthrie and really listened to his music, and I – along with a bunch of my friends – succumbed to the siren song calling us to stand on the highway with our thumbs out.  A month later I returned dirtier, stronger and better than I had ever been.  I came away from the experience with a better understanding of the road, of the United States of America and – most important – a real understanding of freedom.  Travelling just for it’s own sake (and in a fashion that leaves you at the mercy of fate) – with no money, no real destination and no discrete itinerary – entails a level of freedom that the average person doesn’t really understand.  Reading Kerouac and listening to Woody can net you a glimpse, but you’ll never know the reality of it until you experience it firsthand.

A large part of that freedom is ownership.  When you develop such an intimate relationship with the road, you begin to understand the communal – no, universal – aspect of the road.  The road that – in effect – belongs to everyone.  The road that actually deserves capital letters and will hereafter be given them.  The Road that exists outside of boundaries and municipal spheres of influence (even while passing through them).

This is The Road that OpenStreetMap is about.  The Road that belongs to each and every one of us.  This is why Woody Guthrie would love OSM (although I’m pretty sure Kesey wouldn’t understand it and Kerouac wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about it).  Because a central aspect of OSM is about returning ownership of The Road to us, the people.  You know – the Great Unwashed.

And it is ours, you know.  And not just because we paid for it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ownership and how we (the collective, all-inclusive ‘we’) fit into it.  And how ownership differs from possession.  This train of thought started with this discussionThis post added fuel to the flames.  Now we’re down to the stew my brain has made of it.  You might want to look away.

So the question that bubbles to the surface of my brain stew is:  Do lines in the sand (i.e., political boundaries and/or parcel data) have a place in OSM?

My immediate reaction is to say “no”.  For technical and philosophical reasons.  On a technical level, these are not the sort of data that the average person on the ground is able to provide.  I can easily take my GPS out into the world and accurately record streets, buildings, rivers, railways, bus-stops, parks, bathrooms, pubs, and trees.  These are all concrete physical features that any one of us can locate on the surface of the Earth and record.  More importantly, they’re features that anyone else can check.  Or double-check.  And this – in case you haven’t noticed – is the strength of OSM.  It’s self-correcting.

But we can’t do this with the lines in the sand.  Where – exactly – is the border of your town?  Can you stand on it and take a waypoint?  Sometimes you can.  Most roads have convenient signs telling you when you’re leaving one political sphere of influence and entering into another.  Here in New England, there are often monuments of one sort or another at pertinent locations to mark the dividing line betwixt one town and another.  And these are certainly locations that can be marked – as points.  If you’re not willing to walk the entire border, however, you shouldn’t draw the line in the sand.  Sometimes you can’t just connect the dots.  Actually, most of the time you can’t.

Of course, we often have the option of downloading border data from various (presumably authoritative) governmental sources.  But then we run into the question of whether we have the right to upload that data to OSM.  Personally, I don’t think the payoff is worth the expenditure of neurons necessary to figure it out.  Especially because the ‘authorities’ don’t always agree:

A quick comparison of the counties of western Massachusetts.  The green background with black outlines was provided by the USGS.  The semi-transparent grey foreground with white outlines was provided by MassGIS.  Note the differences.  For the record, the data provided by MassGIS is vastly superior to that provided by the USGS.  Trust me.

Parcel data is even worse.  Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to include parcel data on any map, but then I’ve had a lot of experience with it and therefore I am cognizant of its uselessness.  Parcel maps are more for bean counting than anything else.  Their primary purpose is to delineate taxation and therefore they tend to conform to a “close is good” standard.  They don’t need to be accurate – tax collectors are quite happy to round up.  Take it from a guy who has had occasion to check a large number of parcel maps against the truth on the ground – they are grossly inaccurate (in these parts, it used to be thought that the ground trumped the map and/or the deed.  I’ve seen many maps that have ‘corrected’ acreages on them.  These days, though, the thinking tends in the other direction.  After all – what you paid for is what the paper says you paid for).

On a purely philosophical level, I feel as though lines in the sand have no place in OSM.  Lines in the sand are all about possession.  They are someone’s way of saying “This land is my land.  It’s not your land”.  In my far from humble opinion, this is pretty much the polar opposite of what OSM is about.  OSM is about taking ownership back from the line-drawers and the so-called authorities.  It’s a declaration that the map belongs to us – all of us – and we’d kind of like it to be an accurate map.  If it’s all the same to you.

But then, Kate had an excellent point (she does that, and is almost never annoying about it):  people tend to want to know where they are.  While I agree that this is, indeed, the case, I don’t think borders need to be a part of the picture.  When people go from Town A to Town B, they like to know where they are when they are actually inside the town proper.  But I question whether the average person cares when they cross over the border between Town A and Town B (except, of course, for the 3-year-old in my back seat who always wants to know.  Lucky for him, the driver’s seat is occupied by a daddy with a very accurate personal GPS in his head).  And while I think there is a place in the world for some borders (as I said before, we need some way to determine who’s responsible for plowing the roads and collecting the garbage), I doubt whether that place is on a ‘People’s Map’ like OSM.

Is there a solution?  I think so, and I think Andy hit upon it pretty soundly in the post linked to above:  labels.  With absolutely no lines whatsoever, people have no difficulty identifying points and areas if a map is sprinkled with labels of judicious size and font.  If you doubt me on this one, just look at this map:

If a couple Hobbits can find their way from the Brandywine river to the bowels of Mount Doom without borders, I think maybe OSM can do without them, as well.


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