Conservatism, progressive and regressive change – framing in OpenStreetMap politics


A bit more than half a year ago i analyzed the political structure of the OpenStreetMap Foundation in the aftermath of the previous board elections. I identified two main factions within the OSMF membership – the craft mapping supporters and the corporate and professional interest faction. In terms of power balance these dominate the OSMF membership about 2:1. That is not representative for the OSM community obviously and as i pointed out back in the election analysis there are likely distinct other factions within the overall OSM community that are not adequately represented in the OSMF membership. Still, these two large factions are also present in the OSM community overall and their diverging views manifest frequently in policy related and other discussions.

I also pointed out that the craft mapping supporters are largely defined by a common set of values while the corporate and professional interest faction is defined through common interests. That is something to keep in mind in the following.

The reason why i revisit this topic now is that a new narrative has come up and is being communicated in the past months in OSMF politics – that is the need for change for OpenStreetMap and of conservative opposition from craft mappers against it. This narrative is largely coming out of the corporate interest faction and is framing the craft mapping supporters as conservative and opposed to any kind of change in principle and themselves as being the advocates of urgently necessary change. An OSMF board member has in public communication recently indicated to being inclined to adopt this narrative. I will get to that in more detail later.

What i did not discuss in my election analysis was how the factions i identified came into being historically. To get a realistic impression on the nature and the motivation of the different political movements in OpenStreetMap understanding the history of the project is paramount.

OpenStreetMap was founded and became successful largely because the existing situation of available cartographic data in many countries (in particular in Europe) was highly dissatisfying and disappointing for many people interested in maps. One part of the problem was that existing cartographic data producers, which were mostly government institutions, held a tight grip on their data making it difficult and expensive for everyone else to use it. But that was only one part of the problem. The more significant issue was that the data was poor quality for the needs of those using the maps. Poor especially in being an accurate representation of the local geography as perceived by the locals of the area. The reasons for that were largely that

  • the specifications to which the data was generated were decided by the needs of the institutional map producers who ultimately did not care about how accurately their data and data model represented the geographic reality and if it includes all the information relevant for the map users.
  • the technology and source data to produce cartographic data was kept under tight control by the mapping institutions where its broader availability could threaten their dominance on the market.
  • technical service companies and technology developers were working in a symbiotic relationship with the institutional map producers and due to that had no incentive for developing significant innovations or expanding their customer base in a way that might threaten that symbiotic relationship.
  • the actual data production was steered by cost efficiency so areas of low significance for economic and other institutional interests were typically extremely outdated.

As a reaction to this highly dissatisfying and severely deadlocked situation OpenStreetMap developed the approach to crowd sourced mapping that we all know today. Many of the fundamental principles of OpenStreetMap that the craft mapping supporters value today:

  • the focus on local knowledge,
  • the emphasis of OpenStreetMap as a social project and not merely as a collection of useful geodata,
  • the primacy of the local mappers and the local community of mappers in all decisions regarding mapping,
  • the free form and mapper centric tagging – not being designed for the needs of the data user but for convenience of and efficiency for the mapper,
  • the insistence on independence from any larger outside organizations, in particular w.r.t. any technology used for mapping,
  • the rejection of centralized decision making w.r.t. mapping and tagging,
  • the openness and transparency of all decision making processes

are a direct reaction to the described systemic issues of the cartographic data landscape the project faced when it was founded.

What happened then was that OpenStreetMap slowly but continuously gathered more interest among individuals to whom the premise of OpenStreetMap as a map by the people for the people appealed or who likewise felt the limitations of existing institutional cartography and wanted to participate in overcoming those. As OpenStreetMap grew and gained support among individuals, smaller businesses and startups, the cartographic institutions in different countries, as well as their customers (traditional map publishers as well as Google etc.), continued to ignore OSM – they were conservative in the sense that they were satisfied with the status quo in cartographic data and dreaded the risk of revolutionary changes. The individuals attracted by the project this way, as well as the businesses embracing and supporting the fundamental values of the project as described – and building business models around them – formed the core of the craft mapping supporters.

This continued until it became more and more inevitable for many cartographic data users to use OpenStreetMap data for economic reasons. This happened at different times for different data users – smaller companies and public institutions often being earlier than large corporations or big institutions. We have all seen for the past years many news headlines of prominent adoptions of OpenStreetMap. And this is obviously an ongoing process.

With the exception of some newly founded companies creating a business model explicitly around OpenStreetMap, very few of these late OpenStreetMap adopters actually wanted to use OSM data. Many in the OSM community have seen at one time or another some company trying to interact with the OSM community in a more or less clumsy way. The fundamental conflicts between typical corporate cultures and the social conventions of the OSM community are frequently discussed and fairly obvious. Many of these late OSM adopters would have very much preferred if OpenStreetMap was actually more like the institutional map producers – the shortcomings of which were the reasons OpenStreetMap was created and gained popularity. Of course preferably without the exorbitant license fees and the limitation to a national scope. And of course crowd sourcing work to reduce costs is perfectly fine as long as the volunteers are properly managed, based on the centrally defined needs of the stakeholders. These late and reluctant OpenStreetMap users who engage with the project not because they share its fundamental values but out of economic interests formed the core of the corporate and professional interest faction. That includes a large number of individuals who engage with OSM largely because they have or strive for a career in the domain of these commercial and institutional OSM data users.

It is important to keep in mind that the issues OpenStreetMap faced when it was founded are not overcome today, not by a long shot. In some countries institutional cartographic data producers have opened at least some of their data to the general public without artificial economic barriers but, as explained above, these barriers are only one of the things OpenStreetMap strives to overcome. The other thing that OpenStreetMap has accomplished is mainly breaking the dominance of centrally managed and non-inclusive data production steered by special interests instead of the needs of the people. But this accomplishment is fragile and will not last without ongoing commitment to the values of craft mapping described above.

I have talked to and listened to craft mappers and craft mapping supporters about their motives for supporting and emphasizing the traditional craft mapping values in a lot of cases and i rarely see anyone supporting these values due to a traditionalist, conservative attitude, in other words: who want to stick to these principles for their own sake and for stability and continuity itself. The vast majority of craft mapping supporters subscribe to the goals of fully democratizing cartographic data production. They see these principles as necessary parts of bettering our society in the way we manage and share our collective human knowledge of the world geography. In other words: The supporters of these traditional principles of OpenStreetMap support them as part of a shared truly progressive agenda in the original sense of the word. Many of them fight everyday for this goal and to overcome the issues and biases of institutional map production. Many of them would feel deeply insulted by the fact that their progressive values – which prove their usefulness and importance daily – are viewed by board members of the OSMF, who are meant to and have been elected to defend the values of the project, as a mere conservative clinging to traditions for their own sake and resisting change for no good reason.

The above illustration is remarkable and frankly a bit shocking because it fully adopts the views of the corporate and professional interest faction in disregard of the historic context as explained above.

What the above illustration does is fairly perfidious framing. It is titled “extreme positions” implying that it contrasts extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. But then if you look at the words used it is clear that the author – consciously or subconsciously – favors the right side and presents it as less extreme. Terms used on the left side imply radicalism (only, total) while the wording on the right side imply moderation (some, adapters) and concern (need, risk). If you wonder about the colors used – those match the colors of the US two party political system – red for the Republicans, blue for the Democrats. That fits the framing of the craft mappers as conservatives. The irony is of course that in Europe and elsewhere red is traditionally the color of socialist political movements.

To be clear – i do not just read things into a single, innocent slide taken out of context from a whole presentation here. Nowhere in the whole talk is there an acknowledgement of the present day relevance of the fundamental principles and values of craft mapping for the future of the project, values that OpenStreetMap as described above was founded on and that remain meaningful and essential to this day.

It is quite annoying to see corporate lobbyists pushing for example for automated data generation tools they designed and control, refusing and ignoring an open argument-based discourse on these, but then claiming that craft mapping supporters reject technological innovation in mapping in general. That is at best ignorant, at worst dishonest. But what’s more important – it is quite worrying to see OSMF board members subscribing to this narrative despite there being evidence in plain sight that this is wrong.

The sad thing for craft mapping supporters is not only that their progressive values are dragged into the mud but also that following the agenda of regressive, reactionary change of the corporate and professional interest faction would essentially mean rolling back what craft mappers through hard work have accomplished during the past 15 years. The main difference would be that control over cartographic data and its recording methods would no more be in the hand of government institutions on a national or subnational level but would be centrally managed on a global level largely in the interest of corporate data users with global ambitions.

I am aware that the above historical outline is much easier to understand for readers from Europe and other countries where the existence of monopolist institutional map producers formed and still forms a strong motivation for engagement in OpenStreetMap and for supporting its goals and values. In countries with either no dominant institutional cartographic data collection or where this is performed in a more open and more diverse fashion, this is much more difficult to understand without the first hand local experience. And i deeply sympathize with that difficulty. But it would be highly regrettable if other parts of the world could not learn from the painful experience we have made in some countries of Europe without making essentially the same mistake and letting cartographic data collection become dominated and controlled in a centralized, non-democratic fashion largely in disregard of local needs and local knowledge. And since OpenStreetMap is a global project it would not even be possible to let local communities newly learn this lesson without dragging the rest of the world into equally repeating history.

At the beginning of this post i linked to my after election analysis of the previous OSMF board election where i identified the two large political factions in the OSMF membership. In that same text near the end i also explained what i perceived to be the main challenges for the board this year, one being to embrace the more parliament like nature of the board which means having more open and constructive debate about the best decisions and engaging in open arguments with each other and the community about values, strategy and decisions. I emphasized this and the importance of a broad argumentative discourse on the merits of policy ideas later in comments. Unfortunately during the first half of this year the opposite seems to be the case. The board is more and more moving their deliberation on decisions into closed meetings and seems less and less willing to defend their plans and decisions in public discussion. Most board members have almost fully withdrawn from public two way discussion on OSMF politics on channels with a public record. Instead new closed formats have been introduced where the board confers with organized interests rather than individuals. The number of cases where in public board meetings there has been a substantial exchange of arguments w.r.t. a contested decision is minimal now. This is not a healthy development. The results – as they can be observed in the talk linked above – are not the product of malicious intent, they stem from views developed within the relatively narrow scope of the people on the board and who the board consults which misses a broader critical scrutiny through the whole diversity of knowledge and experience in the OSM community.

My advise to the board is to reconsider that direction. Making decision might seem to be easier if you take a more selective view and only listen to people you are comfortable listening to. But that is not a sustainable path. You don’t have to listen to my advice if you don’t like to but you should definitely subject your considerations and your reasoning behind decisions to critical evaluation also and especially from sides and viewpoints that you dislike, disapprove or simply are not aware of. The best way to do that is public scrutiny open to everyone and engaging in argumentative discourse with people who question your reasoning and decisions but if you have other ideas to do that feel encouraged to explore them as well. However having public consultations on position papers and interpreting the comments received like the results of a survey is not a substitute for actively engaging in an open struggle of arguments for finding the best decision.

But i also want to appeal to the craft mappers and the craft mapping supporters to always diligently communicate why and how the principles you value are important for the goals and the future of OpenStreetMap. Even if that seems self evident for you, it is not always for everyone else. I have done that on various occasions here on the blog and in many discussions elsewhere, but it is important for everyone to do this actively. And while this is relatively clear and undisputed for the central values and principles i listed above there are of course also traditions in OpenStreetMap that are not in support of the goals of the project. Being willing to have an open discussion about those with people who bring up a differentiated critique (and not just a blanket decrial of craft mapping values) is likewise essential for OpenStreetMap staying a force for progressive change.

TL;DR: The framing of craft mapping supporters in OpenStreetMap as conservatives opposed to change is inappropriate given the historic context and present day work of craft mappers all over the world towards progressive change. It has been created by regressive, revisionist interests that would like to roll back the ongoing democratization of geographic knowledge and its collection OpenStreetMap stands for in pursuit of short sighted economic goals.


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  2. I couldn’t agree more. It’s somewhat Orwellian when my distrust of large corporate interests is somehow construed as ‘conservatism’. Give me a break.

    Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon seem friendly when offering a small amount of their amassed wealth but there is always strings attached. These companies make investments, even in their so-called charity work. There’s no discernable reason to believe that they don’t want more control over the project.
    Take a look at how Google through open source software dominates multiple tech fields.

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