On Saturday the 23rd of March, I made the cross-country trip to the beautiful coastal town of Dunbar to take part in the first OpenStreetMap Scotland mapping party of 2013. I was invited to make the trip by Tim Foster, regular OpenStreetMap contributor and fellow member of the emerging Stalled Spaces project with Bruce Newlands at Maklab.
As I have previously discussed, mapping parties are a method that the Stalled Spaces project might explore as tool to collect data and foster a community of interested individuals. I was keen to get to grips with what was actually involved in the activity and was lucky enough that one was scheduled so soon after the initial Stalled Spaces meeting. With my researcher hat on, I braved the late-winter cold snap we’ve been under to determine what the Maklab project might take from mapping parties, as well as their wider implications for peer-produced and open source projects like those I am researching for my MPhil.
Meeting at Dunbar’s new Bleachingfield Community Centre at 10am, the day began with introductions and a setting out of a rough itinerary of activities from senior OpenStreetMaps contributor, Bob Kerr. I had a small amount of knowledge of how OpenStreetMaps was edited and maintained, as well as some of the advantages and challenges that the system has compared to traditional commercial mapping organisations. I had taken a look at the already fairly highly detailed OSM map of Dunbar in advance. However, it was enlightening to hear Bob explain the aims of the day, as well as give some well-informed background to those in the room who had little previous experience of OpenStreetMaps. One particularly illuminating description was of the Mapcake that had been established in advance of the day. This tool allows the map to be partitioned so that contributors can select an area they wish to work on. These segments are colour coded to show their relative state of advancement. A number of people had spent several days before the mapping party, updating the map from aerial and satellite photography, so that there was a sufficient base of data from which to build the day’s activities around.
Next, Tim gave those who were interested an introduction to Potlatch, the browser-based system that OpenStreetMaps uses to edit the map data. As someone who had very little experience with the system before, it was a fascinating insight into a software that seems highly intuitive and user-friendly. One aspect of OpenStreetMaps success seems to be how well it engages those who are not from highly technical backgrounds, allowing practically anyone with an internet connection to add their contribution. While the depth and complexity of the map seems nearly infinite, there exists an ability for more casual users to drop-in and add positive and consistent contributions (minimising, and even negating, what Brooks would describe as the “ramp up time” associated with new contributors becoming involved with a technical production, where the effort to train new members out-weighs the gains they eventually bring to the project, a part of the phenomena dubbed Brooks’s Law¹).
While that introduction was taking place, a few of the more seasoned mappers divided up the map and set out with GPS devices, cameras and good old-fashioned pen and paper, to gather data on areas of the town. A number of the group had come with bikes, eager to detail the local cycle network and woodlands. I can imagine that there is a strong connection of motivations for those attending mapping parties; the desire to improve the map and equally the desire to experience a physical environment from a new or unusual perspective.
While the gang of intrepid cyclists braved the blustery conditions, Tim took the remaining newbies for a walk around the community centre. As it turned out, one of the areas on the map that was in need of updating was the building we were based in for the day. As a great deal of the mapping is reliant on tracing publicly available aerial photography, it is unsurprising that relatively new developments are often missed until they can be verified by actually exploring the land itself. Without any more detailed reference data to draw from, we took our phones and GPS devices outside and walked around the building so that we could use these traces to update the map. By the time we were finished and had delved into Potlatch, it was time for lunch at Dunbar’s excellent community owned bakery.
After reconvening to establish next steps, more of the group headed out to explore and map. Bob asked if I would be able to help him scout out some of the southern extent of the town where there is a great deal of new housing development which is still under construction. One of the ways in which the OSM map’s relative development is measured against traditional maps like the Ordnance Survery, is by the relative ‘completeness‘ of the names of streets. A register of the number and position of street names listed on OpenStreetMaps is measured against one that is released by Ordnance Survey. At the time of writing, the OpenStreetMap data was 95.29% ‘complete’ (a wittier blogger would probably be able to throw in a joke about Jorge Luis Borges around here…).
Bob and I jumped into his car, with a video camera to record our commentary on the places we passed and drove a fairly comprehensive loop around the town, focusing on under mapped areas. After around an hour, which included a stop at a golf club in search of a course map and a spot of very near off-roading through the very newest ‘streets’ in Dunbar, we returned and Bob sat down to review the recording and update the map.
Thinking of what I could specifically bring to the proceedings from my own background in architectural design, I had a small experiment with ripping data from the OSM map and running it through SketchUp. While my results were fairly rudimentary, Tim and I discussed the possibilities for exporting data from OSM for use in 3D modelling (both digital and physical). This is something that is central to the Maklab Stalled Spaces project. The ability for data to be quickly taken from OSM to fabrication technology seems an exciting new avenue that this project could push. There are a few systems already in use that simply output OSM data as quickly rendered 3D maps (including OSM-3D) which pulls tag data from OpenStreetMap to generate the shapes of buildings. A significant challenge for these maps is the inclusion of topographical information that adds elevation data. There exists no highly-detailed, public domain source for elevation data that can be globally used. While it is possible for such information to be added to the map, due to this lack of widespread source data, it is not a significant feature of OpenStreetMaps. Instead, a number of projects (OSM-3D included) have made us of data released by NASA, taken during their Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. While this is an incredible, almost sci-fi source for public domain data, unfortunately, this data does have significant limitations in its accuracy at the scale of urban settlements, a scale that would be required for the sort of model making we are interested in. It is certainly an interesting start, and there is a debate to be had about how necessary such information is at all for the Maklab project.
As the day wrapped up and a few Edinburgh and Glasgow mappers boarded a train back west, It was interesting to chat to a few now fellow OpenStreetMap contributors. It seems, at least from this one encounter with the OSM community, that there exists a strong relationship between members personal interests and their professional lives. A large proportion of the group had jobs that were in the fields of GIS and mapping generally. Some were regular map contributors and attendees of meet-ups and mapping parties. Others, particularly those from Dunbar and surrounding areas had associations to local community groups, such as Sustaining Dunbar, the group who had brought the OpenStreetMap mapping party to the town for the day. I’m interested in exploring further the identities of those who contribute to OpenStreetMap, their backgrounds, their relationships to the spaces and places they map, and the community they form. Hopefully I’ll return to this subject in a later blog post.
I will definitely write further on the mapping party. I have at least two follow-up posts planned that explore some of the issues I picked up on while taking part, and the implications that I believe they might have for the Maklab project, as well as the development of open-source/peer-production within the field architecture. One of these will focus on the novel techniques that OSM uses for coordinating labour and resources in the development of the map, both at the mapping party and more generally through the online editing platform. Another will explore the mapping party as a novel form of community engagement tool for architects and other fields involved in the development of the urban realm. There was a genuine excitement that could be felt in the room during the mapping party, and there seems much promise in exploring how mapping and other hands-on activities can engage locals in the planning and development of urban areas.
For now, my thanks to Tim for the invite, Bob for a true taste of hands-on mapping, and all those others I met on the day. Morag Haddow of Sustaining Dunbar has set up a Facebook group to keep those interested in contact, and there is now an OpenStreetMap wiki page for Dunbar that includes details of a proposed future mapping party on Sunday the 16th of June. Hopefully, by that stage, the Maklab project will be bearing some fruit and perhaps Dunbar represents a test-bed for some exciting ideas. Certainly, it already has the map to make a great start!
¹ It should be noted that I’m not suggesting that Brooks’s Law is applicable to the development of OpenStreetMaps, as the project is neither software development (which typically involves the management of more complicated data) or one that could be described as ‘late’ a stipulation of Brooks’s Law. Rather, I was impressed by the ease of getting to grips with Potlatch, which seemed simple enough for almost anyone to teach themselves to use. Specifically, the activities of the mapping party (where time was limited) did not seem to be greatly inhibited by new users draining time from more experienced members.
In understanding how a project like the one I posted about previously might unfold, it is important to look around to other projects for inspiration. While I believe that what Bruce Newlands proposes represents a significant step in establishing open source ideas within the context of architectural practice, there exist a number of projects that have already demonstrated similar application in a number of interesting ways.
As I mentioned previously, there is a cohesive strategy to Bruce’s vision that runs from project outset (community gathering, data collection) through to final outputs (open mapping knowledge, architectural responses), that all draw from an open source ethos. It is this strong interconnection between project inputs and outputs that is perhaps the most unique contribution that this project makes to a so-called open source architectural practice (or at least my own imagining of such a practice). A number of recent architectural projects have used crowd-sourcing techniques in the gathering of data and as a form of community engagement. Equally, a number of architects have offered their designs through innovative copyright licenses (Creative Commons), derived from the licenses that software developers created to ensure the free distribution of their own open source creations.
The Stalled Spaces project would revolve around a community that would apply open source methods and ideas to all stages of its unfolding. The gathering and use of open source data would feed into the generation of creative proposals, and these proposals in turn would be shared in as open and accessible a manner as possible. At each step of the process, there is a focus on how sharing ideas and data might provide new opportunities to local communities and those further afield.
Below are a number of projects that have informed my own research, and that I believe are key precedent for this ongoing project. They are grouped by whether open source/crowd sourcing methods have been used in either the ‘input’ or ‘output’ stages of their development.
1. Inputs (Crowd Sourcing and Community Engagement)
Neighborland is one of a number of web-based ‘open urbanism’ platforms. These websites act as social networks where users can post about problems they have encountered in their local area, or places that they think can be improved through a specific intervention. This can be anything from improving on poorly marked cycle paths through to the establishment of local markets to the opening up of previously closed public data to new uses. For the most part, these networks act much like traditional pressure groups; giving political agency to disenfranchised or dissatisfied citizens. However, the ease with which individuals can engage with the process, through online websites and social networking, helps lower the barriers to entry, and individuals with shared concerns who may have had no means to coordinate are more easily connected.
A catalogue of issues is created, and those that prove most popular amongst users may then be taken further, through either more traditional political channels, or approached from a more guerilla strategy; users of the platform seeking to remedy problems or create new opportunities while bypassing local authorities entirely.
These platforms are rarely focussed on the specifics of how to solve urban problems. Instead, their positives lie in providing a straightforward and intuitive way for individuals to voice their concerns, as well as their aspirations for their local neighbourhoods. Local governments and other organisations are able to gain access to up-to-the-minute opinions and ideas, the ‘crowd’ helping to shape and intervene in local development.
The cooperative urbanism project, undertaken by artist collective Partizaning, in Moscow in 2012 is representative of a more hands-on and playful form of citizen engagement in the mapping of local issues. Through a series of workshops and events involving the Partizaning group, the Strelka Institute (a Moscow postgraduate institute devoted to exploring new perspectives to tackling problems within Russia) and local people, an ethnographic map of problems and possible interventions was developed. Amongst the projects undertaken was mapping with the use of images taken from flying kites, the pinpointing of local food outlets, and creating ideas for new games that took advantage of local surrounding.
While many of these projects are more ephemeral and high-spirited than those developed on platforms like Neighborland, the excitement of this project is drawn from its deep, ethnographic engagement with local people, gathered together physically in one-off events. While digital tools are employed, and a thorough record is produced for future use, this project, and others of its ilk, are centred around the fostering of a community of those who want to take part in the generation of their local place.
2. Outputs (Creative Commons and the Sharing of Architectural Design)
Yasutaka Yashimura’s 2010 project, the Creative Commons House was an early experiment by an architect in taking advantage of the Creative Commons licensing system. These licences are derived from those created by open source software developers, who sought a method of copyright protection that encouraged sharing and re-use by others, while ensuring that commercial organisations could not brazenly take advantage of their work. As Yashimura himself acknowledges, copyright in the field of architectural design is a relatively grey area. The application of the Creative Commons licence in this instance seems more an attempt to highlight the architect’s desire for others to use his work and redevelop the project’s basic parameters to their own ends. The design itself is a relatively unremarkable, if rather elegant, modular frame housing system that can be configured in a number of ways.
There is little evidence that I can find online that this aspiration has been seized upon by others, but it remains a laudable ambition in a field where, far too often, relentless and often needless innovation is prioritised at the expense of basic-principles.
Worldchanging (formerly the Open Architecture Network)
The Worldchanging platform is the coordinating hub of the charity Architecture for Humanity. The platform is design both as a social network where many of the activities of architectural practice can take place (storage of drawing files, calendars, discussion boards etc.) as well as a repository of numerous creative projects that are all shared using a number of Creative Commons licenses. The charity’s aim with the development of this platform was to allow architects to upload their own solutions to humanitarian design problems, and the use of the Creative Commons licensing is in line with the wish for those on the ground in areas affected by these stations, to be able to access all necessary data in order to adapt and construct them to their own needs. Open and freely accessible ideas and data is central to an organisation keen to provide practical assistance to those in areas devastated by natural and man-made disasters.
The platform itself could in theory be used to host any number of projects for any purpose, it is only the direction of the charity itself that focuses much of the activity towards a humanitarian end. The concept of application of open source ideas within the field of architecture as being towards ends with a perceived ‘public good‘ seems intuitively to be a likely focus of future development, an idea that I am focussing some of my research on.
If the Creative Commons House project is an embryonic and prototypical experiment in sharing architectural design as open source software is shared, and the Worldchanging platform an admirable extension of the idea with a humanitarian agenda, then Wikihouse is an impressive attempt to expand the idea towards the practical realisation of physical architectural form. Just as with the Worldchanging platform, the Wikihouse website exists as a catalogue of projects, each of which can be accessed, adapted, and used by anyone. However, the focus for the Wikihouse team and contributors to the site is the creation of projects that are highly detailed, to the point that someone can quite simply download them, run the files through a digital fabrication tool, and voilà, you have a usable structure. To date, most of these projects have been designed to be fabricated from plywood using a CNC-router, but as advances in digital fabrication technology advances, there seems little limit to where such a repository of designs may go.
Alongside a number of fleshed-out structures that can be downloaded from the site, there are architectural details such as joints which can be adapted for use in other projects. The fact that the Stalled Spaces project is based in and around Maklab means that there is significant possibilities for taking advantage of this technology, as well as developing new ideas to contribute to the Wikihouse website.
The above only represents a small sample of projects that can be described as exploring ideas and concepts derived from open source software development, particularly crowd sourcing and novel copyright forms. They are however, presented as a cross section of some of the key ways that I believe the Stalled Space project might unfold.
Bruce’s idea of this as a projects very much rooted in a local context, and engaging local people in their built environment, perhaps means that the project may share more in common with the ethnographic methods of the Partizaning project than the large-scale coordination of platforms like Neighborland. At the same time, the desire to seek physically realisable ideas, tied to the incredible fabrication resources of Maklab, suggests that Wikihouse represents a possible ‘plugin’ technology in the output stage of the project, just as Open Street Maps provides a ‘plugin’ in the data-collecting input stage. All these projects however, are predecessors in some respect to the vision of Bruce’s idea.
There are a few other projects that I will cover in more detail in future posts that represent precedent to more specific aspects of the projects process, such as the use of ‘mapping parties’ and collaborative design and construction. Keep tuned!