Vienna: State of the Map EU

So – I was at the State of the Map EU (SotM) conference in Vienna last weekend – a European-focused conference on the OpenStreetMap project. I travelled with my colleague Steven Gray and presented some screenshots from the GEMMA project I am currently working on at UCL CASA – more about that in a later post. The two of us, and London OpenStreetMappers Shaun and Tom, stayed at the shiny new Wombat Nachtmarkt hostel which was convieneintly a few minutes walk from the venue at Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien). I was impressed that, on walking onto the university campus, my phone connected seamlessly to the Eduroam wireless network, based on my UCL credentials – a feat that was not managed in recent trips to more local academic campuses in Manchester and Imperial.

I was impressed with the number of people at the conference – over 200, which was larger than the global SotM conference I was at in Amsterdam two years ago. According to the stats, 2/3rds of people there were from the German-speaking diaspora (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) which demonstrated the clear demand for a SotM conference based here.

I mainly followed the “Tech” track at the conference. I was particularly interested to know about Mapnik Metawriters, which I’m looking to incorporate into some forthcoming Mapnik-based work. You know when you click on Google Map POI icons (not pins) and you get a tooltip with the name of what you’ve clicked on? It’s similar to that. Another highlight included Andy Allan with a tour of custom cartography of OpenStreetMap data. Andy’s cartographic-focused talks are always a visual feast. Unfortunately my own talk clashed, but I managed to make a quick exit after mine and caught the last bit of his.

Another interesting talk was ESRI’s launch of version 2 of their OpenStreetMap editor for ArcGIS – OSMEditor. Of course, you still have to have a copy of ArcGIS in order to be able to use a plugin – so the non-academic, non-commercial audience is unlikely to be using it. I was slightly surprised the presenter didn’t mention the $100 non-commercial licence that is now available for ArcGIS. The $0 price-point for Quantum GIS (which also has an OSM editor plugin) is still going to be unbeatable, but ESRI is certainly going in the right direction. Their engagement with OSM is not something I would have suspected a couple of years ago, it’s great to see them sponsoring and presenting at a conference like this. Of course, having the OSM layer a click away in ArcGIS as a background layer is a good win for them too. And they even let us call them “esri” these days! :-)

Muki Haklay gave an overview of his team’s completeness analysis for the UK OSM dataset over the years. We used to say we “are good enough”. Now we can say that, subject to qualifications, we are “as good as” some traditional datasets. There was also some similar research presented by Heidelberg University, which used hexagonal cartograms, which was an interesting change from grid squares. I should also mention Steve Coast’s keynote, which was a frank statement of the current state of play of the project – good in many places, but problems with the Australian community feeling disengaged and looking to split from the project were clearly top of his mind.

It was great to meet face-to-face with some major figures in the community – notably Frederick Ramm of GeoFabrik. I managed to sit beside him for half an hour at the conference dinner without twigging who he was. Frederick is one of the authors of the OpenStreetMap book that I reviewed – one of my comments was used as a quotation in the book’s advertising at the conference!

Henk Hoff from the OpenStreetMap Foundation was in fine form, with one of his “poster auctions” at the end of the conference. He also announced the winner of the free trip to the “father” SotM conference in Denver in September being Gregory Marler. Gregory won with his Rebecca Black-esque recording “Fly me to SotM” (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that!)

The social side of the conference was excellent. Plenty of breaks for networking, and a conference dinner on the Friday night. This involved everyone getting a couple of specially hired 1920s wooden trams (or “Bims” after the sound their bells make) to a suburb of Vienna – via the grand ring-road, past the various palaces and other grand buildings – whereupon we took over most of a restaurant for an Austrian feast of Wiener schnitzel, meat loaf, sauerkraut, picked cucumber, and a dessert of apple strudel. A few resturant-brewery combinations were also visited during the trip – along with some most refreshing lagers, served in proper glasses with handles that make a lovely “clonk”. Vienna was very warm indeed, with a thunderstorm on the first night. It was also eerily quiet – the city is quite grand and spaced out, plus maybe many of the locals were on holiday to the mountains. Certainly the people we met were friendly. I should mention specially the conference organisers, which were flawless and ensured everyone was in the right place at the right time! The organisation of the conference and social events appear to go off without a hitch.

It was a great trip to see what’s going on with the OpenStreetMap development community, present some of our own work at CASA, and explore Vienna.