What's in a name?

rweait's picture

unclear sign over a dental office

A question came up on one of the OSM mailing lists1 about what to use as the name of a business. The name of a business is one of the key items that distinguishes that business from their competitors, along with location. Both of these things are important to mappers. We like to get location correct; that's kind of the point of OpenStreetMap. And once we have the location of an object, we generally want to name it.

So why are some businesses so hard to name? And what is a mapper to do about it? Let's have a look.

As a general rule, let the company tell you what they want to be called, as seen in their sign.


Franchise businesses give us our first problem. A Burger Barn franchise may be surrounded by signs saying Burger Barn, have menus branded as Burger Barn and the tables and chairs are all embossed with the Burger Barn logo, but the building is leased, and the employees hired and paid by Local Numbered Company 1234. The franchisee might have three stores, and to the franchisee the name of each business is the address. To the franchisor the business is either store #15 or Local Numbered Company 1234. But all of these are the wrong name from the perspective of a potential customer. They are just looking for Burger Barn.

In this case we let the sign guide us. We call Burger Barn, Burger Barn, and PetroCan PetroCan, and Baskin-Robbins Baskin-Robbins even if they are officially, Local Numbered Company 1234, Hydrocarbon Vendor 99 and Ice Cream Systems of Canada. And we do this because their clients will be looking for the name of the franchise, because the businesses want to be addressed by their franchise names, and because the franchise name is the name on the huge sign out front.

The easy ones

The easy ones seem to just put themselves into the database for you. Thank you, Dr. Mehan, we appreciate you making it easier on us to get you into OpenStreetMap without hassle.

clearer sign over dental office

Perhaps Mehan is an anagram of the practicing partners initials or a fabricated brand name rather than the name of the proprietor. The large clear sign reading Mehan Dental makes it just about trivial for us to decide to tag this place as,

k: amenity v: dentist
k: name v: Mehan Dental

Piece of cake. Next.

Descriptive vs. Distinctive

sign at optometrist office

This sign features a prominent but descriptive Optometrists followed by a smaller distinctive business name. Here we choose to go with distinctiveness.

k: amenity v: optometrist
k: name v: Dr. Beth Lennox & Associates

Business Name vs. List of Tenants

how many names is too many names?

The same Optometrist has another sign on their door listing the doctors in the practice. This is analogous to the letterhead at a law firm listing the practicing partners. It's informative, but the name is distinct and usually at the top of the letterhead. We can leave the name as suggested by the overhead sign.

Inconsistent signs

Inconsistent signage is a challenge

How frustrating. Even legible, thematic signs can be inconsistent. In this case two businesses are adjacent and using similar signs. In the first sign the top line is a generic description of what they do, Family Doctors, while the second line is the business name, Canamera Family Health Network. So we tag it as,

k: amenity v: doctor
k: name v: Canamera Family Health Network

The adjacent business reverses their use of the sign. The top line, Dr. D> Fitzpatrick & Associates appears to be the name of the business, while the second line, in smaller font appears to be their tag line, Counseling, Learning Assessments, Stress Management. This suggests tagging of,

k: amenity v: counselling
k: name v: Dr. D. Fitzpatrick & Associates

Descriptive vs. List of Tenants

descriptive signs vs lists of tenants

What is the name supposed to be for this dentist office? The largest name on the sign is Dental Office which would seem to be more of a description than a name, but the remaining information, the names of two dentists, don't take the form of a company name. One could imagine a second Dental Office across the street. It might be tempting to create a name like Chow / Ferrari Dental Clinic but that's not what the business calls itself.

k: amenity v: dentist
k: name v: Dental Office

Seems to be the best we can do.


Most businesses will try to tell us what name they would prefer to have by their choice of sign. Some businesses will be better at telling us that than others.

What are some of your favourite exceptions to the guidelines above? Should there be additional examples or considerations?

[1] http://lists.openstreetmap.org/pipermail/talk/2010-September/053948.html


This article from the archives was originally published on Wed, 09/29/2010 - 03:19.