Overpass API User's Manual

Downstream Tools
Spatial Data Selection
Find Objects
Counting Objects
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The Data Model of OpenStreetMap

To understand how Overpass API works the data model of OpenStreetMap is introduced here ahead of everything else.

In this section we introduce the basic data structures of OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap foremost contains three kinds of data:

All selection criteria of the query language deal with properties of these data structures.

In addition, multiple data formats can represent the data. These data formats are presented in the section Data Formats.

Handling the different object type so that it results in manageable geometry deserves a tutorial. This tutorial is the section Geometries.


The semantical data of OpenStreetMap are encoded in short bits of text, called tags. Tags always consist of a key and a value. Each object can have for each key at most one value. Beside a length restriction to 255 characters for each key and value no further constraints apply.

The data model does not distinguish any particular tag or key. Tags can be chosen at any time and for any reason; this policy is highly likely to have promoted the success of OpenStreetMap.

Tags contain Latin lowercase letters and, rarely, the special characters : and _. The tags fall into the two informal categories:

Classifying tags have one of a few keys, and for each key only a few values exist. Deviating values are perceived as errors. For example, the public road grid for motorized vehicles is identified by the key highway and one of fewer than 20 customary values.

In such tags, a value occasionally accommodates multiple customary values concatenated by semicolon. This is a generally at least tolerated practice to set multiple values for a single key on the same object.

Describing tags have only fixed keys while anything is accepted in the value including lowercase and uppercase letters as well as numbers, special characters, and punctuation marks. Names are the most prominent use case. But descriptions, identifiers, or even sizes as well are commonplace.

The most generally acclaimed sources for key's and value's semantics are:

The complete chapter Find Objects is devoted to search of objects by tags.

Nodes, Ways, Relations

OpenStreetMap has three types of objects. Every object can carry an arbitrary number of tags. Also, every object has an id. The combination of type and id is unique, but the id alone is not.

Nodes are defined as a coordinate in addition to the id and tags. A node can represent a point of interest, or an object of minuscule extent. Because nodes are the only type of object that has a coordinate, most of the nodes serve only as a coordinate for an intermediate point within a way and carry no tags.

Ways consist of a sequence of references to nodes in addition to the id and tags. In this manner ways get a geometry by using the coordinates of the referenced nodes. But they also have a topology: two ways are connected if both point at a position to the same node.

Ways can refer to the same node multiple times. The common case for this is a closed way where the first and last entry point to the same node. All other cases are syntactically correct but semantically deprecated.

Relations have a sequence of members in addition to the id and tags. Each member is a pair of a reference to a node, a way or a relation and a so-called role. The role is a text string. Relations were invented to represent turn restrictions and these have few required members. They now also serve as boundaries of countries, counties, multipolygons, and routes. Therefore, their formal structure varies wildly, and, for example, boundary and route relations can extend over hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

Relations only have geometries if a data user interprets them to have geometries. A relation is not required to represent a geometry. Multipolygons as a type of relations are now understood almost everywhere: For example, if the ways in a relation form closed rings, such relations are understood as an area. Interpretations start at the question whether the presence of the tag area=yes is required for this. Other relations, such as routes or turn restrictions, obtain their geometry as the sum of the geometries of their members of type node and way.

Relations on top of relations are technically possible, but have little practical relevance. Relations on relations also create a risk that if the members of the members are also resolved until the ultimately referenced nodes, then one gets insane amounts of data. For that reason there are so many different approaches depending on context to resolve references of relations partially that a whole section is dedicated to that.


Areas do not have an explicit data structure in OpenStreetMap. They are instead modeled by closed ways or relations. Tags do matter to distinguish areas from ways closed for other reasons, in the simplest case by the tag area=yes.

Closed ways are used if the area is contiguous and does not have holes. A way is closed if its first and last reference point to the same node.

Relations are used if a way does no longer suffice for the area. Beside holes and disjoint parts this also happens when the boundary of the area is supposed to be assembled of multiple ways. This is applicable virtually only to boundaries of large areas (cities, counties, countries).

As with ways, an area is defined by its boundary. The ways of the relation referenced must therefore fit and sum up to closed rings. More information on the conventions.

Meta Data

OpenStreetMap is a full-fledged version control system. Old versions are retained as well as all the data necessary to assign changes to users.

There is always, per object and state, a version number and timestamp. Old states with old version numbers are retained. Therefore the Overpass API allows access, via special methods, to old states. But by default, unless a special request is made, it always operates on current data.

In addition, changed are grouped to changesets. These are associated to the uploading mapper. The grouping is done automatically by the editing software and in general one changeset per upload event is created.

Changesets again carry tags and it is possible to discuss changesets with multiple mappers. These texts are not processed by the Overpass API.

In this manner each object as a whole is at any moment assigned to a single mapper. That mapper is always the mapper who has uploaded the most recent version. Objects with higher version number than 1 therefore usually keep properties from earlier versions, although those properties are not attributable to the current mapper.

Layers, Categories, Identities

By contrast, thematic layers do not exist in OpenStreetMap, and they are absent for a reason. For some people, supermarkets are classed together with post offices, banks and ATMs as locations where one can obtain cash. For other mappers, supermarkets constitute a group with bakeries and butchers because one can buy food there.

Therefore, classification plays only a marginal role in OpenStreetMap. It is rather preferable to record objective properties. Many disputes have been thus prevented and most mappers can record their point of view without substantial distortions.

Another often expected structures are categories, no matter whether very general like all branches of a fast food chain or all post boxes in Scotland. OpenStreetMap is a spatial database, thus lists of all objects with a special property in a limited area can be computed. Overpass API is one of the tools intended to deliver that, and the chapter Find Objects explains how to do that.

Lists of all objects in the world with a property have at best a weak spatial relevance. Although each branch of e.g. a fast food chain has a location, the only spatial information of the fast food chain as a whole are these locations, thus it does not add anything spatial on top of the branches.

Finally, the concept of identity has less importance than spatial manifestations. As with thematic layers, different mappers have different ideas of what belongs to a thing as complex as a large railway station. Only tracks and platforms? The reception building as well? Only if it caters to passengers needs or only if the railway company owns the building? A place in front ot the station? The bus stop that is named after the railway station? The points that by railway operating rules are associated with the station even if substantially far away?

If one needs an anchor to point at a certain object on the ground, then it is best to use a coordinate. Stationary objects do not move by their very definition and the positional accuracy in OpenStreetMap is good enough such that a coordinate is the best anchor for linking.

next: Glossary