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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What exactly is the problem?

There are really two problems here. First there are lots multipolygon relations tagged old style with the tags on the outer ways. And then there is the problem of broken data leading to invalid geometries, polygons with self-intersections for instance.

Read the background documentation for all the details.

But why is this a problem?

(Multi)polygons are one of the fundamental geometric objects and they are used to describe everything from small playgrounds to the area of entire countries. Getting a polygon wrong can have consequences, the most obvious one is the visual impact on the map. Sometimes this is just a small parking lot missing entirely, but it could be much larger. Because of some inner/outer mixup in the tagging of a lake, a whole town could suddenly appear submerged, for instance. Especially when we think about country borders appearing in the wrong places, this could lead to problems.

Bad multipolygons can also impact the geocoder. Address search has to known in which country or city a street is. Bad polygons might not be easily visible on the map, but addresses could be found in a neighboring county or not at all.

Then there is the problem bad data has on lots of geographic algorithms. Simply calculating, say, the forested area of a country can go badly wrong when multipolygons are mapped in the wrong way, even if they appear fine on the map. This can also affect simplification or generalization algorithms. Because many algorithms depends on the formally correct modelling of the data as valid multipolygons, data might need to be corrected before use, which can be quite expensive. Osm2pgsql for instance checks all multipolygons for validity and calls Buffer(0) if they are not valid. Both operations are really expensive compared to just assembling the multipolygons.

There is also the cognitive burden on the mapper who is working on the OSM data in an editor. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand, they have to figure out why a polygon does or doesn't work, or where in the multiple possible places (relation or member ways) they have to change some tags to get the desired effects. This can get hugely complicated when many (nested) (multi)polygons are involved.

The worst offenders are the old style multipolygons where tags are on the outer way(s). The whole approach to assembling multipolygons is greatly affected here. Instead of taking each OSM way on its own and either render it or not depending on its tags, we always have to check all multipolygon relations first, to check that the way is in none of them. Only then can we render the way. This has a huge impact on the scalability of OSM data processing. All of this is made worse, because we also want to process updates in a timely manner. But even a tiny change, a node moving, or a tag on a way changing, can impact huge multipolygons in multiple ways.

Are we talking about polygons here or multipolygons

We are always talking about both. A polygon is just a special form of a multipolygon with just one outer ring.

Read the background documentation for all the details.

Are we talking about areas created from closed ways, too, or just multipolygon relations?

Both. Only multipolygon relations have the problem with the old style tagging, but the problems with invalid geometries also affect closed ways.

What are old style multipolygon relations?

Multipolygon relations can be tagged in two ways. The preferred and most common way is to put the tags for the (multi)polygon on the relation. The old style puts tags on the outer way(s) instead.

What about boundary relations?

Relations tagged type=boundary typically used for administrative boundaries behave in many aspects like multipolygon relations. (Because, after all, they define the area of a city or country or so, which is a (multi)polygon.) So we need to have a look at these, too.

What are we doing about it?

This is a large effort and the contributions of many people are neede to do all this. Here are some things we are doing or planing to do:

  • Write documentation that explain how to best tag (multi)polygons.
  • Write new tools and enhance existing tools to detect problematic (multi)polygons and bring this information to the mapper.
  • Create statistics to track progress.
  • Actually fix the (multi)polygons manually.
  • Maybe write software to fix (some of) the polygons automatically.

Who is doing all this?

You are. Well, we hope you will be helping. This is a larger effort that needs everybodys help. We need mappers to actually fix the data. But before they can do that, we need to create new tools or extend existing ones that help find the problematic cases and help fixing them. We can also use support from editor developers. If you think this is a worthwile project, get involved.

Can't we fix things in post-processing?

Closing rings automatically is hard

OSM data has always problems and many data users have done more or less complex processing of the OSM data before using the data. This includes fixing (multi)polygons. But this is (computationally) expensive to do, not always easy and sometimes ambiguous. As in the image above, for instance, it might not be clear how to close the open rings of a (multi)polygon (A). Is (B) the right choice or (C)? Or do we decide on (D), create an intersection and make the problem worse?

Can we fix the OSM data automatically?

There might be some cases which can be fixed automatically if the cases are simple and the fix obvious. It might be possible to fix some cases that are from imports. But it is really difficult to write a program that does this properly and we have to take the automated edits guidelines into account. We have to explore this further and will maybe start discussions around fixing some particular cases automatically.

But the majority of cases will have to be fixed manually after a mapper looked a each case and determines the best course of action.

How long is this all going to take?

We don't know that yet. Currently we are at the beginning of this effort and there is a lot to do. We are certainly talking about months here.

Will we ever finish this effort?

Of course there will never be a time, when OSM data including all polygons is perfect. Our goal is to get rid of the old style tagging completely and reduce the number of geometrically invalid (multi)polygons so far, that the map will look okay, even if geometrically invalid (multi)polygons are ignored. This goal is, of course, somewhat imprecise. Over the course of the effort we'll probably get to a better understanding of the details here.

I have some software that handles multipolygons. What do I have to do?

The short answer is: nothing. If your software works today, it will continue to work.

The slightly longer answer is: You can check your software and see whether it can be simplified. Chances are that you can make your software simpler and faster. Of course you might want to wait a bit, until more (multi)polygons are fixed.

I have some questions, where can I go?

See the Contact section in the README.