There seems to be a new initiative initiated by members of the board of the OpenStreetMap Foundation to develop more elaborate strategic planning for the organization. This so far has not been widely communicated in public but it also is not explicitly developed behind the scenes, meaning that you can get some insights into what is happening by observing public communication. That is in particular the public board meetings, the minutes of both the public and the non-public meetings and the changes on the public OSMF wiki. Based on the lack of public discussion (not only on this but also on previous subjects of deliberation in the OSMF) not a lot of people in the OSM community seem to be following these but i like to emphasize that what i am discussing here is based on public information available to all interested OSM community members.
Specifically, the documents on the new initiative on strategic planning can be found here:
Much of the text seems to be the work of Allan Mustard. I see this in a positive way as being developed by someone with a non-technical background, but also in a critical way as coming from someone very firmly rooted in US culture and cultural values. Also, Allan is deriving much of his experience from a career in the US federal government, which is one of the largest strictly hierarchical organizations on the planet (not the largest though – that is almost certainly the Communist Party of China). This shapes not only his analytic view but in particular also what kind of solutions and approaches to solving problems he considers.
In particular remarkable is the first of the listed documents, which starts with the most critical analysis of OSMF procedures and actions i have seen from within the OSMF for a very long time. It is not directly criticizing the OSMF but is phrased like what happens if you neglect to…. It is clear though that this characterizes the current state of the OSMF.
Based on my own observations i would say this is a pretty accurate analysis how the adoption of a centralized, hierarchical work culture in the OSMF without stringent strategic planning and management has led to a highly problematic muddling-through. This is unnecessarily combined with a disparaging remark about tiny family owned firms. That is probably how you could classify the vast majority of companies in the wider economic OSM ecosystem, many of which are a massive source of volunteer contributions in the OSM community in some form, which makes this, when coming from the OSMF, kind of a biting the hand that feeds you statement. And in my experience it is not much based in reality, many of the family owned businesses i know have a much more solid strategic planning of their business than larger corporations – which might produce some colorful glossy paper plans for their investors, which, however, are often not worth the paper they are printed on. Muddling-through is something i see much more frequently in large corporations and institutions than in small businesses. But that might be a bit of a US-Europe business culture difference. Or it might be simply that i know too few badly managed family businesses (which evidently exist). I am getting side tracked here though, back on topic.
The spot-on analysis of the current issues with the OSMF muddling-through is a good starting point and could then have led to a discussion of the two main options to address that problem:
- Changing the work culture of the OSMF to be less centralized and hierarchical, introducing a clear subsidiarity principle, becoming more open towards the very different work culture of the OSM community, all the things i have been suggesting for years.
- Moving to a full adoption of central hierarchical management ideas.
Both are, in principle, valid approaches to the problem. And i don’t want to say that choosing the first is the only defensible decision. What in my opinion makes the first one so much more viable and less risky is the nature of OpenStreetMap as a highly non-hierarchical openly cooperative and do-ocratic project. Choosing the second approach means rejecting the core elements of cooperation within OpenStreetMap as the basis of cooperation in the OSMF. And that in itself creates substantial problems.
One likely effect of moving full hierarchical management would in particular be the continued and accelerated replacement of hobbyist volunteers in the OSMF with borrowed labor from corporate/institutional stakeholders. Hobbyist volunteers tend to have very little inclination in volunteering their time for work under a hierarchical management, especially if that management is in pursuit of economic goals.
I want to in particular point out that because OpenStreetMap as a whole is so deeply non-hierarchical, we have quite a lot of projects in the OSM-Community that have, over the years, collected valuable experience with what works and what does not in non-hierarchical human cooperation at scale. So the OSMF would be in an excellent position and would have good access to competent advice in that regard. Of course there are also plenty of examples outside of OpenStreetMap for less centralized approaches to human cooperation. Even in the military domain – most strategies on Guerrilla warfare focus on avoiding centralized hierarchies and build on small, fully autonomous units.
Economic direction and business model
When i look at the writings regarding the strategic planning the most striking overall observation probably is the absence of anything of substance in terms of the basis of the strategic plan – values and mission. There is this fairly elaborate tree structure of ideas and tasks to pursue but nothing of a foundation below that motivates why these things are significant and not others. I see two main reasons for that:
The first is that this is the really hard part. As i have pointed out in the past, the OSMF has over many years substantially neglected and undervalued intellectual work relative to technical work and this is the kind of thing where this becomes a serious problem. Past attempts of the OSMF at drafting and adopting value statements have also not had very positive results.
The second reason – i think the OSMF board at the moment tries to preserve a strategic ambiguity regarding the core conflict of the organization. The previous strategic plan outline (which the OSMF board had adopted as official policy) positioned itself fairly clearly at aiming to move OpenStreetMap from being primarily a social project of cross cultural cooperation towards the goal of collecting useful geodata (in particular demonstrated by putting individual local knowledge contributors on the same level as corporate providers of satellite imagery and AI mapping tools). This idea still shines through in this year’s texts – but it is more moderated now, preserving at least formally the possibility to move in either direction in terms of goals.
The main reason for that is probably the Overture initiative.
To explain that i will need to provide a bit of context. Right now, the OSMF needs cash inflow of about half a million per year to be able to pay its current expenses (mostly personell) and it is made clear in the text that the authors think this needs to grow significantly and permanently in the future (the arguments for that necessity are a bit sketchy – but i will not go into details on that here).
Before Overture, the OSMF had at least in principle the perspective to secure this kind of money (and possibly significantly more) by presenting themselves as provider of useful geodata to OSM data users and as an insurance that this data continues to be produced and maintained. I discussed this perspective already in previous posts. This, however, seems to be exactly the market segment the Overture consortium is targeting with its initiative now.
An obvious reaction to that would be for the OSMF to reposition itself as what it has aimed to be for many years, the guarantor behind OpenStreetMap as primarily a social project of cross cultural cooperation in collecting local knowledge. Based on the confidence that the way OpenStreetMap collects local knowledge through egalitarian cooperation of individual local mappers world wide will continue to be an essential component for many applications in need of geodata, important enough to ensure financing the OSMF, this would be the natural and logical reaction in my opinion (and this is what i hinted at with my hypothetical OSMF statement regarding Overture).
I have a bit of the impression that the problem here is that many in the OSMF these days do not have the confidence that what OSM is traditionally based on, grassroots mapping by people with local knowledge, is going to continue to be economically important enough in the future for the OSMFs financial needs including the need to grow as perceived by them. And as a result they try to secure a piece of the cake Overture is eyeballing while trying to avoid alienating the global mapper community. I probably don’t need to mention that this is a fairly risky endeavor. In German we have a term for that: Der Versuch, auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig zu tanzen – the attempt to dance at two weddings simultaneously.
Of course the other route is not without risks either, especially since it touches the market segment HOT is currently occupying – in particular since HOT is increasingly trying to present itself as supporter of local mapping communities in developing countries. So the OSMF economically would be kind of perilously wedged between two much larger players (HOT and the Overture Consortium). Being extremely passive in clarifying the relationship with either (with HOT in particular w.r.t. trademarks, with the Overture partners w.r.t. ODbL compliance) is not of benefit there of course.
What is missing
As so often with plans and documents like this it is in particular interesting to look at what is missing and not just at what is there. Of course these are drafts and meant to be extended. Even at the early draft stage you can, however, already see priorities.
One amazing thing in light of how much in detail the need for strategic planning as an instrument of hierarchical management is explained and motivated is the complete absence of any thoughts on the need for oversight. Since the motivation and justification of the whole thing is based on a traditional western management perspective, which itself (as explicitly mentioned!) has its origins in military command structures, i could also put it in military terms: There is no disciplinary framework.
In corporate management the primary disciplinary mechanism through which people further up in the hierarchy are able to tell people further down in the hierarchy what to do is money. And since the strategic plan of the OSMF explicitly states that its focus is on volunteer work, this omission is particularly striking. If that is not addressed this will most likely lead to continued muddling-through based on the currently dominant people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm – meaning the primary instrument of exercising power in the management hierarchy would be shared personal interests and personal inter-dependencies between the management and the workforce. And since that is not very reliable as a mechanism of control, this could also lead to a further shift from volunteer work to paid work, simply because the latter is so much easier to handle in a management hierarchy.
Looking at the details of the plan with the clusters we can see that the focus is – as kind of expected – on technical work and management. The whole domain of intellectual work is not covered. I will leave out some of the more concrete fields where i do work in the OSM context – map design and tagging documentation – because you could well argue that this is outside the scope of the OSMF. Though understanding the semantics of the data the OSMF evidently sees as one of its most important assets seems like one of the things to invest some resources in. And in light of how much resources the OSMF is investing in map rendering the complete absence of map design in the strategic plan is in a way remarkable as well. But more important: What do you think about an organization that aims to support OpenStreetMap, a project that without doubt is highly unique and unusual in its social interactions, and the aim to gain some better understanding how these social interactions work is nowhere to be found in the strategic plan?
In corporate terminology: The cluster Strategic Research is notably absent.
But to be very clear: Just formally adding something like that will not have any benefit. You need some expertise in the field to actually make a meaningful plan, even if the main goal of the plan is to produce that competency. This is a hen-and-egg problem.
This kind of closes the circle to my starting remarks. It is good to see an initiative in the OSMF that is based, as far as i can see for the first time since many years, on an critical look at the OSMF with at least a bit of an outside perspective. But that initiative is only going to yield substantial positive results if the OSMF can actually convince people knowledgeable in a broad range of fields from outside the OSMF and from outside the people whose work we know and enjoy of the OSMF to contribute their expertise. And that will either cost substantial money or will require the OSMF to provide an environment knowledgeable and experienced people find attractive to contribute even without economic incentives. This rules out a management hierarchy or the system we have all too frequently seen in the past years where decisions are made as a negotiation of interests rather than a battle of arguments.
Risks of the approach
And this gets me to what i see as the main concrete operational risks of pursuing the sketched procedure to develop a strategic plan. Because of the established work culture in the OSMF and because there is decidedly not a solid foundation in terms of values, mission and core goals that motivates the tasks planned, there is a strong possibility that this will not become a well structured plan of how to accomplish the goals of the organization but a collection of projects that are in the interest of those who have been most influential in developing the plan.
Another problem – and this possibility is already hinted at in the text – is, that this will not be a plan pursued as a whole in the belief that diligently pursuing all of these tasks will be the key to successfully fulfilling the mission of the OSMF, but that it will become a catalogue of things the OSMF offers as services to its financiers that they cherry pick from what they consider to be suitable for serving their goals.
But i want to make clear that none of my critical comments here are a reason to abandon the idea to develop a strategic plan and instead continue with the muddling-through. Even with all the risks and deficits described, developing and publishing such planning would be a substantial improvement from the status quo. It would of course be good if there was a serious discussion of the alternative of de-centralizing much of the work of the OSMF as sketched in the beginning. But i realize that this is not very realistic as an initiative from within the OSMF at the moment. It would also be great if there was broader independent expertise involved in developing this kind of plan from ground up with the broad range of competencies needed and without interests dominating over expertise and arguments. But i realize it is difficult without a substantial budget to recruit qualified people for that who are not primarily in pursuit of their own economic interests and who are willing to work within a hierarchical management framework. And even if nothing like that happens it would still have the advantage to make explicit the things the OSMF is pursuing instead of the current muddling-through with no clear strategy visible from the outside but extensive pursuit of special interests behind the scenes.