Thursday 19 September 2013

Mapping Kiosks : an exploration of some tagging issues

Kiosk on Patmos,
source Wikimedia Commons
I've just returned from lands of the kiosk (Estonia and Latvia). Outside many tram and bus-stops are nice kiosks selling — through a hatch — newspapers, magazines, soft drinks, sweets, cigarettes etc. This type of retail outlet is pretty common throughout Europe: I used to buy my copy of L'Équipe from this one near Les Halles, and remember getting my first (if somewhat belated) news of the 1987 stock-market crash at one outside the Titania Hotel in Athens. Of course back then I never thought I would want a good supply of photos of such things, but I have found one taken in Caceres, Spain when I was surveying for OSM. I've scattered other images of different kinds of kiosks from various CC-BY sources throughout the rest of this post.

Typical newsagent kiosk, selling papers, magazines, periodicals, soft drinks etc.
Plaza de San Juan, Caceres, Extremadura, Spain.
Source: the author, CC-BY-SA

Given the widespread familiarity of these in Europe, and the equally widespread use of the term kiosk to describe them (in Switzerland, the ones run by Valora are just branded K Kiosk), it was perhaps inevitable that these have been tagged shop=kiosk. Given the sheer profusion of them in Tallinn and Riga it is no surprise to find 35,000+ mapped across the world on OSM.

However there is a problem. "Kiosk" is most commonly used in English to refer not to the category of goods sold in the shop, but to the kind of retail outlet. So a kiosk can generally be recognised as a place where goods (or services) are sold through a hatch, or over a counter; and where there is no entrance for customers. We talk about ticket kiosks, information kiosks, boat-hire kiosks, etc. Frequently fast food is sold from kiosks. Other common usages are for shoe-repair, and key-cutting. The little retail units in the middle of the wide aisles of shopping centres (malls) are also called kiosks, at least in the trade (sometimes also 'pop-ups', I'm told). So far I have found these selling: mobile phones, sunglasses, ice cream, nail grooming, back-massage, jewellery, sweets, and so on.

I've raised this before on OSM Help, but visiting the Baltic States meant that I had an extra incentive to notice retail outlets conforming to the more general notion of kiosk. This turned out to be quite easy. There is a well-known place to buy flowers on the edge of the Old City of Tallinn, . It turns out that this is a long row of florists kiosks. (There are one or two other types of businesses as well: an exchange bureau and a tobacconist).

Row of florist kiosks in Tallinn

Similarly, there are plenty of places where the shop=kiosk is not in a kiosk but is a regular shop with a door, customer-accessible shelves allowing browsing of products, and a counter well inside the shop. The ones I encountered were mainly in bus stations, notably those in Tartu and Tallinn, but they are also to be found in the cities themselves, for instance this one (mapped as shop=convenience, but much closer in product range to a newsagent/kiosk) on the edge of the remarkable Art Nouveau quarter of Riga.

Apart from just wishing to map kiosk-type outlets as part of achieving comprehensive coverage of retail outlets, the issues raised by the current tagging are widespread and generic. The rest of this post is concerned with some of these. Unfortunately I don't have any good answers as to how to deal with these problems, but by backtracking from the specific to the general want to start a discussion which is not laden with the oddly emotive discourse that characterises tag-specific discussions.

So in no particular order here are the things which struck me in considering the issues raised by the shop=kiosk tag.

Synonymy of Kiosk and Newsagent

Using the chance to check a range of kiosks in both Latvia and Estonia confirmed what I had always suspected that the shop=kiosk tag is synonymous with shop=newsagent. Newsagent is the standard way of describing shops which sell the same range of goods, indeed, they are known in retail and marketing parlance as CTNs (Confectioner, Tobacco, News). It's noticeable that we have many fewer in Britain now. Most local newsagents have become general convenience stores, to the extent that it is quite surprising to find a typical newsagent outside of city centres and transport hubs.

There is no real problem with having synonymy of tags in OSM, despite frequent arguments that consistency is important, the added cost of adding shop in ('kiosk','newsagent') instead of shop='kiosk' in post-processing is very small. Given that newsagent is used about ten times less frequently, it might be argued that we should replace all shop=newsagent with shop=kiosk. In general mass replacement of tags is nearly always a bad idea (see below, semantic degradation), and in this case is certainly likely to result in substantial confusion for those mappers who are not familiar with the European usage of kiosk. (A further complication is that mass replacement of tags has inevitably become associated with individuals doing such edits without asking anyone else, and certainly not achieving consensus).

Semantic Degradation

The worst thing that could happen is to degrade the meaning of shop=kiosk.

At present it has a precise readily understood meaning for most areas where it has been used by mappers (and even an elegant icon on MapsWithMe). If we were to use shop=kiosk for other types of retailers operating from kiosks we inevitably render both terms largely meaningless, particularly as shop=kiosk has been applied to newsagents operating from regular shops.

Lottery Kiosk,St. Helier, Jersey
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I often notice that people advocating changing tags on the wiki seem to be oblivious to the inevitable risk of reducing the meaning of the tag. Most of the seriously egregious examples I can think of come from imports in the USA: place=hamlet for inner-city industrial districts, landuse=forest for places operated or administered by the Forest Service  — I hope for consistency's sake they also mapped the HQ in Washington DC in the same way  —  and a number of others. Of course when done in an import it is worse because it can even distort worldwide statistics on tag usage (as displayed on taginfo).

Not Mapping  (or not Tagging)

Sometimes the alternative seems to be not to map the object because no tag fits, or to map it, but avoid detailed tagging (e.g., as a generic building, perhaps with a name).

A typology of tagging issues

An inevitable reaction by mappers is to take tag keys and values too literally. Often a key=value combination was chosen to map a specific limited class of objects, a good example is highway=milepost. In Britain, the States, and in the Roman Empire there are or were mileposts. In most of the rest of the world (and on British Motorways) distances are marked in kilometres. A more general  name for the value such as distance_marker would have avoided some of the oddities surrounding use of this tag.

Boats for hire - West Bay - - 1456310
Boat Hire kiosk
Source: Sarah Smith on Geograph via Wikimedia Commons
A slightly more pernicious affect is for things not to be tagged because the actual semantics associated with the tag are at odds with the normal meaning of the words for the mapper (see this help topic as an example). There are many such examples, for instance, landuse=agriculture would have been less confusing than landuse=farm; and the, now notorious, problems associated with amenity=kindergarten and childcare.

The other type of problem which ideally we would avoid are potential 'false-friends', 'faux amis' etc. An excellent example here is the simple word alley, which at one stage was confused with Allee (an avenue) for tagging trees, and even usage in English varies from place to place (for instance, I think of alleys as very narrow roads or paths (see Twitchell), whereas in many places these are roads which provide service access to the rear of properties).

ONCE Lottery kiosk, Caceres, Spain
Ideally, of course, these factors will all be considered before starting to tag. The reality is otherwise.

Here are some of the reasons that I've come across which explain tags might not be as useful as they could be (or 'borked' according to IRC users):
  • Firstly people often assume their tagging use-case is very distinctive, without realising there are likely to be similar cases elsewhere in the world. They then fail to consider the general implications.

    (I learnt this lesson many years ago when trying to analyse information needs for hospital managers across the EU. The UK hospital where I started data collection was in the East End of London and had problems with translators for the high proportion of Bengali speakers amongst their patients. I cited this as an example of a very specific problem to a Dutch colleague, only to learn that similar problems existed in hospitals in Amsterdam. 20 years later this is a common issue for healthcare across Europe.)

  • Tårnkiosk 1
    Kiosks can have architectural merit as buildings in their own right.
    Newspaper kiosk, Christiania 1897, designed by architect Jørgen Haslef Berner.
    Now at the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo
    Source: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Secondly, often a mapper will want to capture enough detail while the survey was fresh. They might not find tags which are already in use, and create new ones, sometimes merely as place-holders, with a view to updating to something more widely used later. After a while these 'of-the-minute' tags take a life of their own. One I use is shop=money for the widespread pay-day loan outlets: it's convenient, and memorable, but I've never checked the wiki or taginfo to see if anyone else uses it.
  • Kiosk In Linn Botanic Gardens, Cove - - 760989
    Typical ticket and literature kiosk,
    Linn Botanic Gardens, Cove, Argyll and Bute

  • Thirdly, the existing tag might have a perfectly sensible value, but the value is not as accessible compared with obvious synonyms. A couple of examples where alternatives might be quicker and more immediately accessible for non-English speakers: shop=cake, shop=pastry and shop=sweet do similar jobs to shop=confectionery; a shop repairing shoes could be shop=cobbler or shop=shoe_repair; and shop=betting is more obvious than shop=bookmaker.

  • Fourthly, tags can be loaded with cultural assumptions. amenity=churchyard, obviously doesn't work for the precinct of a mosque or a Hindu temple, or a synagogue, and isn't particularly appropriate for the surroundings of a Quaker Meeting House. In this case it's not obvious whether we have a viable more general alternative, or even that such an alternative is desirable as it would require tagging with religion=* and possibly denomination=*.

Other kinds of small retail outlets

Kiosks are just one kind of the set of smaller retail outlets. If we aspire to be able to capture the retail activity of a city (which I certainly do) we need to be able to map these and a few other non-shop outlets:

'Kiosk' in a Shopping Centre
Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Stalls, typically on a market, but also common in tourist areas selling crafts. Stalls may be occupied every day, as at Cambridge Market, or only occupied at certain times of the week, such as the market on Helvetiaplatz in Zurich. The basic difference between a kiosk and a stall is that goods cannot be left overnight on a stall. Moveable huts, such as those often used at Christmas Markets represent a kind of half-way house. The stall holders at the Helvetiaplatz market are sufficiently regular as to be listed on a website. (Market Stalls in permanent covered markets are often smalls shops or meet the broader kiosk concept).

  • Mobile street vendor (ice cream & soft drinks) at a pitch.
    Central Park, New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
  • Pitches. Street-traders are not so common in Western Europe these days, but are plentiful elsewhere in the world. In Nottingham there used to be a lady who sold fruit from next to a taxi rank: I've never felt her goods were terribly appealing as she was always dripping cigarette ash over them. These locations are usually regulated and licensed in Europe, and even when such regulation does not exist traders will maintain traditional locations. Most of these in Europe probably sell fast food and are already covered by use of the amenity=fast_food, such as this Roast Chestnut seller at the Stauffacher tram stop in Zurich.


OpenStreetMap is remarkably good at step-wise refinement of most of the things it deals with: areal extent of coverage, depth of coverage, detail of coverage, accuracy of coverage,and (even) documentation. Tagging is the one area where we have never developed widespread, sensible and commonly used methods to improve on what we started with. Often when a "2.0" tagging scheme is proposed it does things in a very different way from the original scheme, and often that way is much more complicated (see Public Transport schema, and Healthcare 2.0 on the wiki). This is not iterative refinement as I would understand it:

As I stated at the outset, I have no solutions to this problem, but the more I look at it, the more I think that it is significant. The real problem is that we potentially have the tools but what we lack is any mechanism within the total OSM community (i.e., any one who maps and tool providers) to agree that a) a tag is 'borked' (example from last night on IRC barrier=entrance, or even barrier generally); and b) agree what it's replacement should be. On the other hand this seems much less complex than the ODbL process, so I think we'll find a  way eventually.

In the meantime, I'm going to assiduously collect examples of kiosks selling all kinds of stuff, and play around with tagging these until I find something which seems to work well.


  1. Very interesting article! Being able to use 'kiosk' as a key in OSM appeals to me as a possible solution. This would certainly differentiate kiosks from the larger more normal type of shop. Values such as 'fruit' 'flowers' 'newspapers' etc could then indicate what the kiosk sells. NZGraham

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