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Mapping: Why are the Germans so damn good at it?

27.08.2008 | Jochen Topf

OpenStreetMap was founded in the UK four years ago, and when the idea caught on in Germany, the UK was already well ahead. But today, Germany is ahead of the UK on many counts. Both the absolute amount of data collected and the percentage of existing roads covered put Germany first in its league. Of the roughly 6.000 users who contribute to OSM every month, 3.000 do so in Germany. What is it with these people?

In this article we’ll try to shed some light on why OSM seems to hit it with the Germans.

Headstart and Population

The UK definitely had a headstart in the OSM project, but already early on there were some contributors from other places. Scandinavia and Germany had some of the first contributors. Imi, the original author of JOSM, is from Germany. Only about two years into the project serious mapping started, among other places, in Karlsruhe and Munich.

Over 80 million people live in Germany, 230 to each square kilometer. Many more people to share the workload than, say, in Sweden. But still not as densly populated as the UK (246 people/square km). So that alone can’t explain it.

The mailing lists are also an indicator of early uptake. The German and French mailing lists were the first non-English mailing lists, both set up in August 2006. The “talk-de” mailing list has the highest volume of all OSM mailing lists. Although most people in Germany understand English (another reason for easy uptake of new ideas from abroad), the easy access to information in your own language and access to a community that speaks your language helps a lot.

Existing communities

Germany is said to be the nation of the “Verein” (association, or club). Germany has more than half a million of these registered associations, and of course that’s only the tip of the iceberg, an indicator that Germans really seem to like working for a cause, together. Looking at who is active in OSM in Germany, one finds that it is often existing communities that made OSM their own – a group of Geocachers in one city, the local cycle association chapter in another, and, quite regularly, established Linux user groups. These groups gave the OSM “virus” a way to transfer from one enthusiastic person to the next before OSM was the subject of broader public interest. Some of these groups also have their own conferences, web sites or membership magazines, where the word was spread.

Today there are 14 local OSM groups, and most of them meet monthly. This gives newcomers a chance to get questions answered. Several more are in the process of beeing formed.

And, although not organized formally as any kind of group, there is a large percentage of the (mostly male) population that buys every new gadget and likes to tinker with it. It helps that Germany is a fairly rich country, where people can afford to buy a GPS unit, not because they need it, but because it is cool. Still not enough reason though, there are plenty other countries where people have time and money to spare.

An Open Source friendly country

Open Source (and Open Data) is not an alien concept in Germany; many people understand what this is about, and Open Source software is used openly even at the government level. Many international Open Source projects have a high proportion of contribution from Germany (think KDE), and the German Wikipedia community is the second largest worldwide. So the idea of OSM certainly falls on fertile ground. Even regional and local authorities possessing map data or aerial imagery are now opening up to OpenStreetMap, either allowing the project to import data or to use their imagery for tracing. OSM members have been invited for talks with regional mapping agencies in several cases.

After 15 years of Free Software, Open Source, Wikipedia, and Creative Commons, many people in Germany have grasped the concept. When they hear about OpenStreetMap, they don’t ask: “Why do I need that, we have Google Maps?”, but many immediately see the merits of a project like this.

A nation of engineers

Many people in Germany approach OSM with perfectionism. They want to do it right, they want to do it completely. Not content with mapping an area just in passing, they will return to fix it. Nowhere else will you find people who actually think about cycling in the *middle* of the road to get the centreline right, or demand a full catalogue of tags so they can tag “everything” in one pass. People are already tagging park benches and are discussing how to tag different speed limits for different types of vehicles.

Serious fun

It seems that many German mappers also take their “calling” quite seriously. They have a sense of ownership, they watch what is happening in “their” area, and they cry havoc if some newcomer makes changes that are deemed detrimental. Mapping parties are ok, but only if they achieve something. Having a beer together is acceptable only if you’re done with the work – “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen” (work first, be merry later) goes the German saying. This seriousness sometimes goes against the rather dilettante OSM spirit but it is well possible that it is just this friction that makes things interesting.

Press coverage and advertising

In 2008, the project has had a lot of exposure in the press. It seems that OSM pushes many buttons with journalists in Germany. First of all, you have “local people” doing something – Germany has no giant mapping agency like the UK has, and geodata is often sold to foreign companies by local and regional governments, where it is processed and then re-imported.

OSM also has a certain “David vs Goliath” appeal, and many OSMers are slightly eccentric which makes for interesting portraits (“Crazy guys with GPSes”).

An OSM school project was very popular with the press. The angle of normal students doing a project like this obviously appealed to the journalists.

It was this one school project and, at the same time, an article in the SPIEGEL, one of the largest mainstream weekly magazines, which together seem to have kicked off an avalanche of media interest.

Spreading the word

In February, the German-language book on OSM was published, and has sold about 600 copies since. A small folded flyer was printed, and roughly 15.000 copies have been distributed in a scheme where every community member can order any quantity for free. All that contributes to the project being viewed as an earnest endeavour by the general public. OpenStreetMap is also taking part in most major OpenSource and/or GIS conferences and has reached a degree of popularity where project members are actually invited to panel discussions.

Take-up by the GIS industry

The fact that there was no free (or even affordable) street-level data set before has found OSM an ally in the GIS industry. For many smaller GIS consultants or integrators, dropping the license fees means that they get access to a customer segment that was simply unable to afford anything map-based. The GIS community, so far mostly focused on Software and Services, is enthusiastic about OSM, because it is the missing piece of the puzzle. Since only few companies in the sector are actually data providers, OpenStreetMap is viewed by many not as a competitor, but as a catalyst. Germany has always had a strong Open Source GIS scene, with products like the UMN Map Server, GRASS, or MapBender widely used.

So where does that leave us?

None of these factors alone is the secret of Germany’s success in participating in OpenStreetMap, but all of them together seem to make a difference. (Or maybe it’s all just random?)

We hope that this analysis may perhaps give OSMers elsewhere an idea or two, point out something they could try to make OSM even more successful in their country. Here are some ideas:

Localized information

Flyers, wiki pages, and a local web site should all be available in your local language. Even though many people in your country might understand English, its still easier to read stuff and talk in your native tongue. Especially when complicated technical things are involved.


One thing to work on is the media coverage. If you can get the mainstream media interested, be it by chance or by lots of work, you can start an avalanche. Every journalist reads other newspapers and watches other channels. If they see an interesting story, it will be picked up. Start locally by finding local newspapers or TV stations and invite them to mapping events. Don’t just tell them about OSM, find an occasion, like a mapping party, a school or community project or the announcement of a finished work somewhere. Media likes to be the first or only one to report something, so invent something at least slightly new and give it to them. Regional and national media will follow sooner or later. Also think about all the specialized magazines. A technical article for tech magazines, a “how to use OSM maps” article for a cycling magazine, or a web mapping article for a “Web 2.0″ magazine can spread the word to those communities.


Identify communities that might be interested in OpenStreetMap (this could be, as mentioned: cyclists, GIS people, geocachers, Open Source enthusiasts, …) and talk to them. Give presentations at their conferences. Give interviews on podcasts, introductions on how to use a GPS, etc. Think about what this community might want out of OSM. Produce flyers, posters, T-Shirts, etc. For somebody not deeply involved in OSM, the availability of a PDF that they can print out and distribute at their next cycling event or a poster to hang up at the next GIS group meeting, might be enough to get them to actually spread the word. If they had to do the poster themselves, they might not bother.


There are many ways to get a community together. Regular local meetings are important. Mapping parties. Mailing lists, web forums. Often you might be able to piggyback onto existing venues: A new subgroup in a cyclist web forum, an OSM workshop at a conference, a booth at your town anniversary celebration.