The annual general meeting of the OpenStreetMap Foundation is approaching and some readers probably expect me to write about the last year in the OSMF and present an outlook on future developments. I do not plan to do so this year though and i want to explain a bit the background of this.
It is not that nothing i could write about happened in the OSMF in the past year – on the contrary, there were plenty of remarkable decisions made that would deserve a more elaborate discussion. But as the year went on and my collection of material on the matter grew i noticed that – while the way the OSMF is developing as an organization and sociologically remained fascinating – the perspective to write publicly about it in autumn in the form of an overall yearly review and lookout before the AGM seemed increasingly unattractive. This has led me to reflect a bit on why i write about these things.
I will start with a concrete example: In last year’s analysis i described an incident were a money spending decision was made in explicit and ostentatious disregard of the conflict of interest of one board member and i was struggling to understand how this happened without any of the other board members raising concerns. Of particular interest was the question if the board members were collectively unaware of the problem or if they noticed it but rationalized for themselves that there is no need to act on that problem. As a result of that i carefully observed similar cases this year of money spending decisions being made with board members subject to conflicts of interest. And based on that i now think i have a much better understanding about the social dynamics and the mindset of board members in such situations.
Me writing about these kind of observations here on the blog would probably quite significantly increase awareness of these matters from just a handful of people actively observing the OSMF to maybe a few hundred. But that is not enough to affect meaningful change in the OSMF – even if all of these would roughly share my concerns and ideas for improvements. And this is not a matter of limited reach but a matter of lack of interest.
Generally speaking, i do not mind writing for a small audience – if i did you would not see posts about map design and other things here. The difference is that these things have real world significance way beyond the circle of readers they reach at the moment. Commentary on the organizational developments and governance of the OSMF, however, only has relevance within the small world of the OSMF – unless of course you are looking at it from a organizational sociology standpoint with the OSMF as a case study. But i am not a sociologist. While intellectual curiosity about the social dynamics in an organization like the OSMF is one of the things that motivates me to observe the OSMF, i do not have the ambition to systematically publish my observations.
This does not mean i am going to completely stop writing about the OSMF. But as i previously have moved from real time commentary on acute OSMF matters to aggregate yearly analysis a few years back i am probably going to further move to focus on discussing long term developments with a multi-year horizon on a case-by-case basis. With that i would also pretty much adjust to the mode of discussion prevalent in the OSM community at large regarding the OSMF these days. Discussion on acute OSMF topics on channels with a public record has essentially ceased, so has meaningful pre-election discussion before the AGM. But there have been valuable irregular comments from others who – like me – keep an eye on and analyze OSMF politics. Like, for example, recently the insightful comments from Ilya and Simon.
This is the level on which meaningful discourse in the OSM community on OSMF matters tends to happen these days and where a valuable exchange of different views and perspectives is possible.
One other decision i have made in context of this is that this year i applied for active contributor membership in the OSMF. I had been struggling for quite some time with the moral implications of contributing to the OSMF finances – even if only on a very small scale – in light of the OSMF money spending habits and oversight mechanisms being massively at odds with what i deem minimally necessary. The active contributor membership gives me a way out of that dilemma. I am aware that this of course does not absolve me from the responsibility resulting from legitimizing the OSMF’s actions simply by being a member.
But i don’t want to create the impression here that everything is bad about the OSMF these days – no, there are both positive and negative developments in the past and there is potential for positive and negative developments in the future. And as far as bad decisions are concerned – these are not exclusively the fault of those making them originally, they are just as much a problem of the failure of the OSMF members to exercise responsible oversight and control.
To not leave the readers without anything of substance actually on the OSMF – here a short comment to wrap up this post.
Ilya in the comments linked to above diagnoses a communicative disconnect between the OSMF and the Overture Consortium and i would say a similar, probably even more fundamental, disconnect exists between the OSMF on one hand and the OSMF membership and the OSM community on the other. Like in the OSMF-OMF case this disconnect cannot be fully blamed on one side, it is a two-sided lack of understanding of each other and a lack awareness and acknowledgement of their problems and interdependencies.
But the key point here is that the big corporations the Overture consortium is composed of and the OSM community at large can much better afford to ignore other actors in the field communication wise. For big corporations this is simply the way they are used to. And for the OSM community being self sufficient was, back in the days when OpenStreetMap started, simply a necessity to emancipate itself from traditional geodata production. The OSMF on the other hand absolutely cannot afford a communicative disconnect with either the OSM community or their commercial environment (or even misunderstanding economic developments in its neighborhood – like the OMF or HOT). Yet, what the OSMF largely seems to be doing for the last years is digging itself in more and more with the small circle of people whose work we know and enjoy. And even though some people in the OSMF seem to start to realize how disastrous this is, the ideas to address this problem seem to go towards more corporate style PR and community management (i.e. trying to actively shape how others see them) rather than trying to understand their larger social and economic environment as it is.