Corruption and OpenStreetMap


This post is about a topic that i have wanted to write about for a long time and that has recently due to various developments in OpenStreetMap and in particular the OpenStreetMap Foundation become much more significant. These development are in particular

  • the large scale donations the OSMF has received during the past two years.
  • The massive increase in the OSMFs inflow of money due to corporate memberships since 2016.
  • The corresponding increase in expenses of the OSMF, in particular as part of the SotM scholarships and the starting microgrants program.
  • The massive increase in paid activities – both mapping and others – within the OpenStreetMap project.
  • The increased presence and activity of employees of corporations with OSM interests within the OSMF – including attempts at taking systematic influence.

What i mean with Corruption

Upon reading the title of this post some might have scowled about the use of the nasty word of corruption. I therefore first want to explain what i mean with it and why i think it is not only appropriate but essential to use this term when discussing the matter.

What i mean when i talk about corruption is when power entrusted to someone for the common good is used for the benefit of special or private interests. The important thing to keep in mind is that corruption is often not generally illegal. There are acts of corruption like bribery or extortion that are often forbidden, at least on the side of the beneficiary, but there are also activities that fall under the above definition that are broadly accepted and even considered admirable as for example clever networking. What has in addition also led to cases of legal corruption is that policy in certain contexts (be that legislation in a country or small scale policy making for example in OpenStreetMap) has already been designed to serve certain special or private interests against the common good or has been specifically designed to allow and endorse corruption that is considered either harmless or beneficial by the powers that be.

A lot has been analyzed and written about practical corruption, its effects and its dynamics. Broadly accepted aspects of corruption are for example:

  • Existing corruption or even just the perception of it often breeds more corruption because people loose the confidence to be able to make progress without corruption.
  • As a result, the damage of corruption on a community is often much larger than the material damage directly coming from the benefits channeled away from the common good towards special interests.
  • Corruption frequently is a double awareness issue – people engaged in corrupt activities often do not consider themselves to be corrupt and people in a corrupt organization/community often don’t see the signs of corrupt activity as such.
  • Related to that corruption – while being ultimately a moral issue – is for those faced with its presence in a community – not a decision between good and bad but a real moral dilemma.
  • Money is the main catalyst for corruption but by no means the only way corruption can function.
  • Corruption tends to be highly resilient towards attempts to eradicate it where it happens – largely because it becomes deeply rooted in the attitudes and beliefs of people and these are very hard to change through imposed regulation or even through shifting social norms.

Businesses tend to have an ambivalent relationship to corruption. Someone working for a business being corrupt and serving external interests as opposed the overall interests of the business is obviously bad for it. But using corruption outside the business itself to benefit their private interests is at the same time something potentially useful and profitable.

Conflicts of interest and corruption as a compliance problem

That corruption is widely considered a nasty word has a lot to do with the ambiguous relationship our societies and in particular the business world has towards corruption. Because of that in the English language a term has been established as a less problematic code to talk about corruption – the conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is essentially a situation that might lead to corruption. This is more harmless to talk about and in the English speaking domain widely has been adopted as the more socially and politically accepted way to talk about rules and procedures for compliance with those rules without actually identifying and pointing out corruption happening. The actual corruption can stay hidden in the closet, so to speak, while procedures for conflict of interest handling can be pointed to for showing that you are doing something or to meet legal requirements.

  • Because the conflict of interest is not considered bad per se, procedures almost always call for mitigation and not for avoiding the conflict of interest. Mitigation however often does not reliably prevent corruption, it often moves corruption to less open channels where it is harder to identify and address.
  • Trying to identify conflicts of interest is almost always a perception problem. If you rely on people identifying their own conflicts of interest that usually does not work. See above for the fact that corrupt people rarely consider themselves to be corrupt and have limited or no awareness of the problem. External evaluation can help but is potentially subject to corruption as well.

Overall conflict of interest procedures can only help with corruption to some extent and will typically not prevent it reliably. And if such procedures are implemented with the aim of compliance only (with legal requirements for example) they can be counterproductive even because they can prevent other more effective measures against corruption.

Corruption in OpenStreetMap – why is it a problem

So given that corruption is not necessarily illegal and that legal requirements can be met by implementing procedures for conflict of interest handling why should it still be a problem for OpenStreetMap?

OpenStreetMap as a project of egalitarian cooperation of individuals has as such inherently a small surface of attack regarding corruption. But despite the egalitarian nature of the project on the social level in principle people have different roles within the project and such roles involve some people having various sorts of power entrusted to them. The do-ocratic system the OSM community is proud of (and which is often the basis of assigning power in OSM) is inherently prone to corruption because the ability of people to do things – the basis of the do-ocratic system – can often be massively influenced by outside interests and money. We see this on the level of mapping obviously, where organized and paid activities in many parts of the world account for a significant fraction of all mapping activities but we also see it on the development level, where many influential positions are filled by people who are paid by special interests.

This kind of corruption has the potential to completely undermine the very foundations of OpenStreetMap as a social project. If the volunteers in the project see that to accomplish something and improve things in the interest of the project they have (a) to primarily interact with people who are getting paid for their work by outside interests and (b) to fight an uphill battle against or need to align themselves with these special interests to accomplish things for the common good, that can be massively demotivating and will lead to in particular qualified people interested in the common good withdrawing from activities – or adjusting and becoming corrupt themselves.

Corruption as a central issue of the OpenStreetMap Foundation

In principle much more directly affected by the problem of corruption than the OSM community as a whole is the OpenStreetMap Foundation. At the beginning of this post i listed various material changes that more recently started contributing as strong driving factors for corruption in the OSMF. What however makes the problem much more drastic is the almost complete lack of problem awareness within the OpenStreetMap Foundation.

The OSMF board has recently adopted a new policy regarding conflict of interest handling that makes it explicit that they regard corruption purely as a compliance problem. What they essentially do is codify the status quo in looking at corruption risks (which is already questionable regarding legal compliance but is quite clearly insufficient regarding actual corruption prevention) and postulate it to be sufficient to satisfy British law. Beyond that there are no documented general measures for corruption prevention in the OSMF at all. In particular

  • there are no rules at all regarding what would disqualify someone for any position in the OSMF. Some of the working groups have their own rules for membership preventing people to become a member with an obviously high risk for corruption. But this is just tolerated by the OSMF board and such working groups sometimes are viewed with envy and resentment by the rest of the OSMF due to the higher level of trust they tend to receive from the community because they are being perceived as islands of integrity.
  • There is no independent oversight whatsoever or detailed transparency regarding money spending beyond the formal financial auditing – which again is regarded exclusively as a compliance issue. This equally applies to the purchase of IT infrastructure and services and to things like SotM scholarships. In the latter case, the OSMF board seems to even actively ignore the problem – dismissing responsibility and accountability for the spending of money by declaring a financial independence of the SotM working group.
  • The previous point is visibly not a problem of legacy structures maintained from a time when the OSMF and OSM were both much smaller but is a current issue grounded in either a lack of awareness or an unwillingness to act. This has become visible with the recently introduced microgrants program. This kind of money spending has inherently a very high risk for corruption as probably anyone can imagine. Yet the OSMF board in their framework has not formulated any rules as to how corruption within the microgrants program can be prevented. There are again no criteria what would disqualify anyone from playing any role in this program – be that in the committee tasked with selecting applicants (where most of the members have formal connections to external interests that could lead to corruption) or as an applicant or in some other role (translating texts, mentoring projects etc.).
  • Also otherwise there are no codified documentation requirements within the OSMF for decision making processes beyond the basic legal requirements of British corporate law. The board routinely deliberates and negotiates – also with lobbyists – about political decisions, even of significant economic and social reach, on non public communication channels without records and there are no rules requiring disclosure of such negotiations to the OSMF members. Where records likely exist (like for example for internal mailing lists of board and working groups) there are no rules for retention periods and access rights.
  • There is – and i have criticized that countless times already – a deeply rooted culture of non-transparency within the OSMF and the aversion to daylight of people within the OSMF seems to be increasing. Unfortunately this is a self emphasizing problem. When an organization increasingly performs work in secrecy, initiating transparency on specific things is increasingly perceived as inconvenient because it requires a lot of compartmentalization efforts from those involved. Looking only at the OSMF board you can observe for example while the volume of board decisions has increased from previous years quite visibly, the volume of public deliberation and discussion of these decisions has not. Most of the public communication of board activities now happens in an indirect, synthesized form through minutes and other selective reporting of activity that has happened in private, not through that activity itself being transparent.

These deficits alone however are not the main problem that worries me and that makes me conclude that corruption within and through the OSMF has the potential to be a massively destructive force in the OSM community in the future. What really worries me is that the OSMF has meanwhile and is continuing to separate itself from the OSM community in terms of social norms and values. I already mentioned the matter of transparency where the OSM community is accustomed to a very open work style in everything while the OSMF generally has a culture of working non-publicly by default. But there are other fields as well in which the OSMF increasingly makes decisions that lead to astonishment within the community. Such a widening social and cultural gap between the organization OSMF and the community whose interests and common good it is supposed to support nurtures the development of systemic corruption as within the organization special interests start being perceived to be identical with the common good.

There are a number of social factors that are likely to promote systemic corruption that i find present in the OSMF and to some extent also in the OSM community in general:

  • The increased presence of people, especially also in positions of power, who engage in OpenStreetMap as part of or connected to their professional careers – and due to that often have a lot to gain and to loose personally through their position. This inherently incentivizes corruption.
  • The rather limited level of awareness of the overall goals and values of the project in everyday work and the cavalier attitude of many towards them.
  • The apparently very small role ethics play in decision making in the OSMF in general. I am for example fairly staggered that in discussions of diversity in the OSM community, ethical considerations seem to be fairly alien to a large fraction of the people who contribute to the discussions.
  • The persistent dismissal and lack of awareness of the failure of the OSMF to proportionally represent the OSM community and its cultural diversity in its structures and decision making processes.
  • The lack of a culture of argument and constructive debate in decision making processes in the OSMF and that decisions are mostly regarded purely as matters of negotiation between different interests rather than a competition of arguments and reason.

What to do about it?

I am somewhat at a loss with how to substantially address these issues (without the nuclear option so to speak to bury the OSMF into insignificance) so i would welcome input from people with practical experience in fighting and preventing corruption, in particular in organizations in developed countries.

There are however a few suggestions that i would likely consider helpful measures:

  • Everyone involved in the OSMF should aim for transparency as much as possible. I would encourage anyone who is engaged in non-public OSMF processes of some form – be that within the board, the working groups, some committee or otherwise – to publish and report on what is happening beyond the officially presented record like minutes. Especially if you see signs of possible corruption, decisions being made and implemented that are likely more serving special interest than the common good of the OSM community. Or non-public attempts of influencing processes and decisions by special interests. Or the failure to address risks of corruption or other ways decisions are made and mechanisms work that are not in the interest of the OSM community. If you feel the social structures do not allow you to openly point out the issues you see, you can contact someone you consider trustworthy to disclose such things for you in anonymity.
  • If you feel like you can’t contribute in a certain context any more without betraying your values then withdraw from that field. I have in the past encouraged people to involve themselves in the OSMF where they think they can productively contribute and i would continue to do so. But i also can very well understand if people feel they are not able to do so because they would have to sacrifice their values to do so. Voting with your feet to show where unacceptable structures exist within the OSM community is ok. The standing of an OSMF working group or any other structure within the OSM community does not derive from its formal existence but from how far it practically works for the common good of the community.
  • Create platforms and publicly cooperate to discuss and develop OSM related political ideas and strategies outside the realms and the cultural constraints of the OSMF.
  • Hold people in positions of power accountable for what they do. Openly question decisions and processes you find questionable and do not refrain from doing so because you perceive it to be socially inappropriate.
  • Help establishing moral criteria, in particular personal integrity, as the main qualifications for people to get into a position of power.

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