Steve Coast to GeoHipster: “You try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that”

 

Steve Coast
Steve Coast

Steve Coast is the founder of Open Street Map and Head of OSM at Telenav.

Steve was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev, incorporating question suggestions from Renee Sieber and Christina Boggs.

Q: Last week was the 10th anniversary of Open Street Map, which you founded. Congratulations! OSM and you personally got a lot of press, all of it good. Will that further the cause or OSM?

A: It’s a key part of the PR effort. At least it used to be. I’m not sure it has the same importance today, because there are so many people doing the same thing, but it’s part of that.

Q: My wife is my one-person focus group who has been remarkably accurate on most things Internet. She doesn’t use OSM. How will you convince her to start using it?

A: Open Street Map itself is not particularly designed to be used as a consumer product. It’s other people that make stuff on top of Open Street Map that package it in such a way that it’s usable by anybody. An example in the United States and now in the rest of the world would be Scout — a navigation client that Telenav makes. So we take Open Street Map and we spend a lot of time making it usable, so consumers can use it for turn-by-turn navigation. But today the focus of Open Street Map itself is about getting people to contribute data, not necessarily to use it. So it’s perfectly fine if your wife or anyone else wants to use another product, that makes a lot of sense.

Q: You currently work for Telenav, whose mission is to make people’s lives less stressful. Does your job make your life less stressful? What do you do for Telenav?

A: Historically I have been working on making sure that Scout works for consumers. Making sure the navigation information is there, making sure the addressing works, making sure the consumer experience is great behind Open Street Map. So I work with a team of a large number of people, 120 now we are up to, to make it all work. My official title is Head of OSM.

Q: In your most recent video you talk about why “Open Street Map is going to win”. What do you mean “to win”? Win what?

A: I mean having the best map in the world. Not necessarily the best consumer experience but the best map data. It’s already the best display map, right? So the next question is can it also be the best addressable map and the best navigable map. Those are the next two things to go after.

Q: What is the future of OSM? Gamification? Monetization?

A: Lots of people have monetized Open Street Map, including Telenav. The gamification, personally I love that, but OSM today is a lot of communities and lots of people, and you have to make a case for those people that it should be gamified. And in fact people do make apps on the side to try and gamify things like the collection of data on mobile devices, but getting changes and integration into the main site is hard because it affects a lot of people. But that doesn’t stop you from making your own app on the side to do these things.

Q: Is there a future in which the majority of contributions to OSM will be from passive sensing of location?

A: Again, with Telenav we’ve purchased a lot of GPS traces to get the navigable information into the map itself. So people already do that. OSM itself started with GPS traces, before we had aerial imagery. So I guess you can say we started with passive stuff and we just got better at it over time.

Q: What do you think of CC BY-SA?

A: I think Creative Commons is great. It’s fantastic. It works very well for creative works like books and photos. Unfortunately it didn’t work super well for data, like we have in OSM. Which is why we spent a lot of time on the Open Database License. Which is designed to be actually very similar to Creative Commons, just different enough that it covers the data use cases.

Q: Some have asked “Why not just release the data in the public domain?”, but isn’t the issue that in some countries in Europe (not in the US), you just can’t release your work into the public domain? You must release it under some kind of license?

A: That exists. In some countries it’s called the moral right. You can’t give up the copyright in the same way you can’t sell yourself into slavery. Do I particularly care? No, as long as I don’t live in one of those countries, and you can always sign a waiver that effectively does the same thing.

Q: Does OSM have a moral imperative? Is OSM out there to do good? Should the GUI be developed to maximize the diversity of participants? Enhance democracy? Is there such goal?

A: I think that it’s good that there are people involved in the project that do want to do that, and they are interested in OSM from a different perspective. That enhances what we get done, because of the diversity of opinion. Me personally, I was just out to create a map. Those other things are good things, it just wasn’t my focus, but it’s good that there are people on OSM who are focused on that.

Q: Little is known about Steve Coast, the person. Tell us more about yourself — any hipstery hobbies? I hope you ride a unicycle or grow your own hops. Do you?

A: I go hang gliding. I am completing my private pilot’s license. I ride bicycles. I think that’s it.

Q: What is going on with Map Club?

A: I shut it down. Everyone in OSM is a volunteer, and the question was could we create some sort of membership organization that could be self-supporting and go do things. Whether those things are building tools, or collecting more data. We have two choices: either everyone’s a volunteer or everyone works for a company. The companies tend to have overlapping interests with OSM but they are not the same interests. We can work together, and it can be beneficial, but it’s not like you have directly identical goals. So the question is could you do something in-between? A membership organization came to be the one way to go. Unfortunately wasn’t convincing enough so it didn’t work out. But it was worth a try.

Q: What is the takeaway from this experience? What’s the lesson learned? That people don’t want to pay for mapping?

A: I don’t think it is that people don’t want to pay. It’s two things. One: The amount of money required was a bit more than I’d hoped. You could pick $100/year but then you’d need a lot of people, but if it could be $50/month — which is what people are paying for their cell phone — then you can get a lot more done. The actual model could work if it was slightly different. I was undercharging. Second: What is the value that you are offering. And there wasn’t a clear value proposition. It was an experiment. What can we achieve? And it was difficult to find out what we could go do because we didn’t have any money. It was very chicken-and-egg.

Q: This from a GeoHipster contributor: You are so playful and fun… After being in the industry so long, how do you keep a smile?

A: Ha ha ha. That’s a really good question… I just don’t take this stuff seriously I guess. On one level I take it very seriously because obviously finishing the project and getting the data out there is important, but on another level, I think, the simple answer is being very aware that you’re going to die one day. So it’s hard to get upset and angry about stuff when you realize that. It’s more important to go build things and show people and just be happy that 90% of the stuff that you’re gonna do is going to fail, like Map Club, for example. Most people never try to do anything at all. So you try stuff and 90% of it’s gonna fail, and you should be happy with that.