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Adding political regions

Last Updated: 14th Apr 2019

By Jolyon Ralph's locality database has been built over many years using locality names from a huge number of different sources with very little consistency of how things were named. Some localities are referenced based on their political regions, some based on the nearest town or village, some simply based as a sublocality of some geographic or geological feature such as a mountain range or a mineral deposit area.

This leads to confusion as some localities may be physically next door to each other (or even the same locality with a different name) but with very different locality name hierarchies.

In order to fix this we need to have a standard hierarchy that we can relate localities to, and the best way to do this is with political regions - these are usually well defined, have boundaries that do not overlap and usually without gaps, and also allow us to link our data to other databases that follow the same boundaries.

Political boundaries are a human construct and do not necessarily follow natural boundaries or regions that we would possibly prefer to group things together in a mineralogical context. Many of our most famous mineral zones and areas spread across different political boundaries, in some cases across different countries. This is why we developed the non-hierarchical locality to cover these - an area that defines a region on a map but it separate from our standard political hierarchy.

Today I want to talk about our standard hierarchy, the rules we have been using to assign places, and how you can help to improve it for your area.

Let's take an example country - Poland.

Before I took on the task of re-organizing this I looked at what we had already done. Nineteen years of data entry with little thought about the structure had left things in a mess. There were some problems such as:

Different political regions were mixed at different levels and sometimes a name such as "Lublin" would be used without it being clear what area it was referring to. We had "Lublin District" entered, for example, but District isn't a formal term in use in Poland.

What are the right terms to use? There are various sources about what terms to use for different regions, and different countries will have different rules, but in general I have found the best way to ensure compatibility with other data sources (see below) is to use the same political hierarchy and nomenclature that Wikipedia uses.

Let's look at the Wikipedia page for Poland.

On most country and region pages on Wikipedia you'll find a section named Administrative divisions. Click on it.


Note that the top level regions are called "Voivodeship" (not Volvo dealership!) which roughly translates as province. Now, we have to decide how to refer to the entries in this level on For example, there is a top level region "Lower Silesian Voivodeship"

Do we call this:

Lower Silesian Voivodeship
Lower Silesian Province
Lower Silesian
Lower Silesia

All of these are correct, but we have to choose the one that makes it easiest for us to work with the data from Wikipedia and other sources. If we click on the link to the page for this voivodeship, we see that the page title is Lower Silesian Voivodeship, but the article refers mostly to Lower Silesia. However, we also see that Lower Silesia is the name of a historical region.

Let me reiterate, there is no one absolute correct answer for this, but in the case of Poland I decided to use the full name with the word 'Voivodeship' in the title for the localities.

For example:

Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland

We do the same to look at the sub-divisions, and we find that Poland is built on Voivodeships which are sub-divided into Counties and the occasional county-level City. Counties are subdivided into Gminas (similar to a municipality) which can be rural or urban.

If we look at the example of Lubin County on Wikipedia we see that it is divided into four Gminas called:

Gmina Lubin
Gmina Ścinawa
Gmina Rudna

What's the difference between the first two? The first is the town (or urban gmina) of Lubin. The second is the rural area around, but not including, the town. To avoid confusion within mindat (and believe me, this was a huge mess until now), it's best in this case that we mirror these names exactly, and have 'Lubin' for the town and 'Gmina Lubin' for the rural gmina around it.

So, now how to enter the pages?

First, you need to check if a region already exists under a different name. Here you'll often see some of the mess that exists which will need to be cleaned up.

Take a look to see if it already has a polygon boundary assigned. If it does, do the sub-localities (the red mindat icons) appear fully within it or are they also spread outside? If they're spread outside there's a good indication the boundary is not the right one for the level (often boundaries were added based on the name without necessarily checking to see if they referred to the right level. As we saw with Lubin the same name can refer to many different regions.

Some older boundaries that were added are very poor quality. Look at this image and you'll see the boundary in yellow to the left is a very poor fit with the boundary at the lower middle which is more accurate. The boundary in yellow needs to be replaced.


Adding boundaries is an essential part of making our regions work correctly. It allows us to ensure that localities have been entered in the right places, if we have a locality simply listed with accurate latitude and longitude we can easily and accurately map it to the correct place in our hierarchy simply by copying the region from the box labelled Verify region/coordinates: Coordinates can be automatically mapped to this region on the locality edit form and putting it in the right place on the locality name at the top.

Since the previous version of this article a very powerful new system has been added to manage both boundaries and foreign-language names for localities with two simple forms. This replaces all the complex procedures previously documented here.

There are still many countries where OpenStreetMap doesn't yet have regions to all of the levels we would like. In these cases we're usually better off building the hierarchy the same way using Wikipedia as a reference.

Why Wikipedia and not some other site such as the countries themselves or the UN? - because countries tend to push their preferred names rather than names that are more generally used in the west, for example, Kazakhstan would prefer you to use the name 'Qaraghandy Region' rather than 'Karaganda Region', but a quick search will show you that 'Karaganda Region' is still the most popular way to describe this region in the west. Wikipedia is used daily by millions of people and mistakes in region names tend to get picked up quickly, and there are long debates about the right and wrong way to describe things.

In general sticking to Wikipedia's naming will cause the least issues moving forward. There may be some times we want to do things differently, but that has to be the exception rather than the rule.

I hope this article helps you to better understand how to manage the regions on, and if you have any questions or suggestions please either comment here or, for a more rapid response, on the messageboard!

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