A few words on SotM scholarships


In Carl Sagan’s science fiction novel Contact, which likely most of the younger readers here have not read and which today probably seems a bit out of time with its cold war setting, there is a remarkable story about half way through the book – not a narration of something that actually happened in the book but in a way a picture painted with words:

[…] And now along comes an invitation. As Xi said. Fancy, elegant. They have sent us an engraved card and an empty droshky. We are to send five villagers and the droshky will carry them to – who knows? – Warsaw. Or Moscow. Maybe even Paris. Of course some are tempted to go. There will always be people who are flattered by the invitation, or who think it is a way to escape our shanny village.

And what do you think will happen when we get there? Do you think the Grand Duke will have us to dinner? Will the President of the Academy ask us interesting questions about daily life in our filthy shtetl? Do you imagine the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan will engage us in learned discourse on camparative religion?

No, Arroway. We will gawk at the big city, and they will laugh at us behind their hands. They will exhibit us to the curious. The more backward we are the better they’ll feel, the more reassured they’ll be.

It’s a quota system. Every few centuries, five of us get to spend a weekend on Vega. Have pity on the provincials, and make sure they know who their betters are.

I do not intend to equate the picture drawn here with the SotM scholarships but this is something i always remember when i read things about and think about the SotM scholarships.

As i indicated in my general post on SotM earlier the official communication on the SotM scholarship program is fairly sparse. There was a call for scholarship applications in January combined with some explanation on how applicants are chosen which creates more questions in my opinion than it answers – i will get to that later.

Applicants were – like in previous years – required to use Google services to submit their application which clashes both with the OSMF FOSS policy and data protection requirements.

This is all that was publicly known about the scholarships until the conference when in the conference booklet the list of scholars and the list of members of the selection committee was published. The list of scholars is now also on the wiki. For comparison we also have the list of scholars from 2017 but nothing from the previous years.

Before i go into more details about the selection and the selection process – not providing information on who is involved in selection and rating when you ask people to apply for something, no matter if scholarships or talks, is pretty much incompatible with the idea of a transparent organization. Doing so not only afterwards but already when calling for people to apply is a matter of simple courtesy IMO. This is in particular the case if the selection process for the committee is also intransparent and undocumented.

The scholars 2018

We know from Christine’s more recent report about SotM-WG work that there were over 200 applications for scholarship – and this is still the only publicly available information on the applications.

We know who was ultimately selected – this was published in the conference program booklet and later also on the wiki. Since we have no further information on the applicants evaluating that is difficult. I therefore will not discuss the merit and qualification of the scholars selected individually. There is simply no basis for that without knowing about the other applicants. But as you will see there are some hints regarding the selection process in there.

Half of the scholars were men, the other half were women, the geographic distribution was as follows:

  • Europe (Germany (x2), Portugal, UK, Russia): 5
  • Central/North America (Mexico): 1
  • South America (Colombia): 1
  • Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique): 4
  • Asia (Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China): 5

You can clearly see the aim to accomplish an impression of overall geographic and men/women balance at the first glance in that – as well as a broad age distribution (although this might be purely incidental). This is interesting because the documented process does not in any way describe ensemble selection, it purely describes the independent assessment of individual applications which is extremely improbable to result in an ensemble like this – no matter how the more than 200 applications are distributed. So you can conclude that the individual application rating is – despite being the only part of the process that is documented – ultimately of rather limited influence on the overall selection and the ensemble optimization regarding some idea of balance (which definitely includes gender and location – but possibly also other criteria) is much more significant but at the same time completely undocumented and intransparent.

If you look at the geographic distribution of the scholars more closely you can also see that geographic balance of the ensemble is less broad than it might seem at the first glance. Yes, the most populated continents are all present but what is clearly missing are scholars from:

  • the whole Middle East and Central Asia
  • the whole Mediterranean region – despite the conference taking place in Italy!

The Middle East, Central Asia and Northern Africa were by the way already missing in 2017.

Note an English language bias is a deliberate choice in the scholarship program – which however inevitably also leads to a certain cultural bias. Combining a deliberate language selectivity with an ensemble optimization for coarse grained geographic diversity leads to both the occurrence of gaps like the ones mentioned at a more fine grained geographic scale than the one optimized for and to a huge inbalance in chances of applicants with similar inherent qualifications depending on where they are from. And that qualified applications from certain regions were rare among the more than 200 is not a valid explanation here because the selection already starts with the overall presentation of the scholarship program.

The scholarship selection committee 2018

The other aspect we can look at based on the small amount of information we have is the composition of the selection committee. This is listed in the program booklet and is as follows for 2018 – name with country and the various relevant affiliations:

  • Alessandro Palmas (Italy, local team, PC)
  • Christine Karch (Gemany, SotM-WG, Geofabik, PC)
  • Gregory Marler (UK, SotM-WG, PC)
  • Heather Leson (Canada, OSMF board, HOT, IFRC)
  • Ilya Zverev (Russia, Maps.ME)
  • Johannes Birgir Jensson (Iceland, local chapter Iceland)
  • Maurizio Napolitano (Italy, scholar 2017)
  • Mikel Maron (US, OSMF board, SotM-WG, HOT, Mapbox, PC)
  • Rebecca Firth (UK, HOT, scholar 2018)
  • Rob Nickerson (UK, SotM-WG, local chapter UK, PC)
  • Selene Yang (Nicaragua, Geochicas, PC, scholar 2017)
  • Sidorela Uku (Albania, PC, scholar 2017)
  • Stefano Sabatini (Italy, local chapter Italy, PC)

Doing a bit of counting we have:

  • 8 members who were also on the progam committee
  • 4 members who were also in the SotM-WG
  • 4 members work for companies/institutions with OSM connection and potential sponsors
  • 3 members from Italy (which is the host country)
  • 3 members from the UK
  • 3 members who are also HOT members
  • 3 members who have a function in an OSMF local chapter
  • 3 members who have been a scholar the previous year
  • 1 member who was also accepted as a scholar the same year

Now i know that there are many people who see no problem in this and think the various affiliations are just testimony to the qualifications of these people. I strongly disagree. Let’s start with former scholars. I think it is a great idea to recruit former scholars of the conference for selection in later years. Having been a scholar certainly can give a useful perspective what important qualifications are for a scholarship SotM visit to be useful. A bit of care needs to be taken to avoid this leading to self replication of certain patterns of selection bias but this is manageable as long as former scholars are not dominant overall. But this in my eyes absolutely requires a rule that anyone who has been on the scholarship selection committee is for that year and for the future disqualified from applying for a scholarship. Everything else is inappropriate in my opinion. It is all right if the host country has a relatively strong representation but three members (of 13) from the UK IMO really stretches the limits of what can be considered a geographically and culturally diverse committee.

The most important thing in my eyes however is the independence of the scholarship selection from the sponsoring of the conference – both on the giving and the receiving side. Even the appearance that sponsors have any influence on the selection of scholars of the conference would in my eyes completely delegitimize and undermine the whole program. This should rule out inclusion of people who work for potential sponsors and people involved with sponsorship acquisition.

I also think having people who are both involved in the program committee and scholarship selection is a bad idea. There is inevitably quite a lot of overlap between the candidates of the two but at the same time the criteria for the selection are inevitably different. But a committee member who is evaluating a talk submission from a person whose scholarship application he/she has just reviewed (or the other way round) cannot simply delete the opinion formed on the person in question based on different selection criteria. It is inevitable in such a situation that the criteria for evaluation get mixed and that is undesirable for a fair selection.


Overall i have two main points of critique for the SotM scholarship program:

The first is the intransparency, the lack of documentation and the lack of auditability of the selection process. This combined with the clear indication that ensemble optimization and not individual qualification assessment is the main basis for the selection and with the various problem in the scholarship selection committee composition leads me to conclude that a significant reform in the process would be important independent of my second point.

My second point is a more fundamental critique of the whole idea of a scholarship program in the current form. This connects to the quote i started this blog post with. The question i am asking myself – and which i think everyone should ask is what is actually the purpose of the scholarship program. Yes, superficially this is to allow people to visit the conference who otherwise due to limited financial means could not. But i don’t think it is sufficient to leave it at that. Why do we think this is something good to do – and more importantly: Why is it better to spend the money this way than for other purposes.

The whole idea of shipping people from their shabby villages to the big and shiny global OSM conference is highly problematic. Bringing people to where “OpenStreetMap is happening” at the moment will mainly perpetualize the fact that OpenStreetMap is a project of a small privileged world in Europe and North America. If we really want to make OpenStreetMap more global we need to invest in bringing the idea of OpenStreetMap out into the world without colonizing it with our cultural values we have put on top of the basic idea of OpenStreetMap to create a map by the people for the people. A scholar visiting SotM will primarily learn how the privileged and rich do OpenStreetMap and will likely bring that idea of OpenStreetMap back home with them which can be counterproductive for the local community developing their own OSM identity.

Yes, this picture is a bit one sided obviously but it is an important counterpoint to the narrative of altruistically allowing people to visit SotM who otherwise could not. The idea that the scholarships are primarily for the benefit of the scholars and the local communities where they come from is nonsense. They are at least as much for us to feel better in our comfortable lives in Europe and North America because we get a bit of superficial diversity without any substantial endangerment of the status quo because we ship the people here where they have to adjust to our culture and not the other way round and we ship them back once they have served their purpose.

So whatever opinion you develop regarding SotM scholarships – don’t make the mistake of taking the simplified view of this being a simple altruistic endeavor to help people with limited financial means. I don’t say scholarships cannot make sense under any conditions but i think so far no one has presented a well balanced and self critical concept how SotM scholarships can work in a way that is morally sound and how a scholarship program needs to look like to satisfy this.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

By submitting your comment you agree to the privacy policy and agree to the information you provide (except for the email address) to be published on this blog.