Over engineering


In the past years i have more and more moved to post my commentary on political developments in the OpenStreetMap Foundation towards the end of the year before the OSMF board elections instead of timely commentary of things as they are happening during the year. I am going to make an exception here by writing down some observations and thoughts on more recent trends and developments i consider particularly noteworthy.

If you have followed some of my more recent OpenStreetMap related posts here you might have observed that i have put an increasing emphasis on pointing out that the value put in the OSM Community on technical work in contrast to non-technical, in particular intellectual work, is quite seriously out of balance and that this is increasingly affecting the OSM Community’s ability to handle the various challenges it faces.

The recognition of this trend and its effects on my side has been emphasized in particular also by the OSMF more recently moving strongly towards an increasing dominance of technical interests and viewpoints. On the level of the OSMF board this in particular manifested in the departure of Allan Mustard from the board end of last year. Allan was the last remaining board member with a distinctly non-technical professional background. Everyone on the board now has a technical professional background and most more specifically in the domain of IT and software development. Allan’s departure from the board is of course not the singular cause of this shift in the OSMF, this is more the conclusion of a long term trend overall which – on the board level – started much earlier with people with a broader non-technical perspective on the board increasingly resigning and the OSMF membership increasingly electing people with technical backgrounds.

At least to me it became increasingly clear in the last months how much of a paradigm shift this is and how much of an impact on actions and decisions of the OSMF this could have in the future.

Beyond the composition of the OSMF board this trend is best visible in form of the shift in expenses for paid work. Until late 2020 the OSMFs main regular expenses for paid work were administrative assistance and accounting. This has completely shifted by contracting a software developer for iD and hiring a sysadmin since then. The exact amounts of money spent here are not known (contracts are not published any more and we will probably have to try to reverse engineer this info from the financial reports at the end of the year). In addition there has also been an increasing volume of non-regular paid technical work (in particular the three hand picked projects in the aftermath of the microgrant program). The newly revived Engineering Working Group now has a EUR 50k budget for paid work – the highest of any working group after Operations if i am not mistaken.

A project of the Engineering Working Group is also what i want to discuss in more detail here. Earlier this year the EWG has decided to contract a study for changing the OSM data model.

The specific details and motives for this are unclear – the minutes do not reveal substantial information on that. What we know is that this study was contracted through single tender action (the contract terms are not disclosed, not even the exact aim of the study) and not through the EWGs project funding framework.

The study the EWG has contracted has now been published and this is what i want to discuss a bit more in depth here. I am not going to comment on the technical aspects in substance but i want to share a few thoughts on the economic and social context of the whole thing.

I am – by education – an engineer myself, with a master and a PhD in mechanical engineering. During my early years in engineering i had – like many other engineers – a tendency to look down on consulting companies doing feasibility studies and receiving quite significant amounts of money for those while having no real street credibility so to speak in the domain of engineering. Furthermore these consulting companies often did not predominantly seem to employ engineers but people with a background in economics or social sciences.

This negative view of the young engineer in me has significantly changed since then. And in case you wonder: This change has happened already before i became a consultant myself ;-). While i think many larger generic consulting companies (which is what many people have in mind when they hear the term consulting) have very questionable business practices and models, i meanwhile have a significant appreciation of the work of smaller specialized consultancies, in particular in producing feasibility studies, and consider their role in our society with its highly specialized competencies and division of labour to be quite essential.

My impression is that what the OSMF apparently did here is the approach of a naive young engineer towards doing a larger project: Contracting an experienced engineer with practical work experience in implementing this kind of project for a feasibility study with the aim to find out how they can make the project work.

There are very good reasons why this approach is not typically taken.

One obvious reason is that the contracted engineer has, if they are also a likely candidate for being contracted to implement the project, a clear conflict of interest. This is one of the main reasons why feasibility studies tend to be done by independent consultancies who have no stake in the actual implementation of the project.

The second important reason is that in most larger engineering projects the main risks and obstacles are typically not technical in nature. To truly assess the feasibility of the project, the risks involved and the resources required, you need experience outside the domain of engineering. You need to regard the broader social and economic context of the project. This is one reason why consulting companies frequently employ social scientists and humanists.

I am not sure if it is realistic to expect people in the EWG and on the OSMF board to realize they took the wrong approach here and recognize the need to revise that. But i know that there are plenty of people in the larger OSM community who have a broader perspective on the matter and who will therefore likely be interested in a more critical commentary on the approach taken to this project here. In any case i thought it is prudent to make this comment early to give everyone the chance to consider it.

What impact does this have on the actual matter of the OSM data model and its future development? I obviously have my thoughts on that too. But this is beyond the scope of this blog post.


  1. I just looked at the PDF and was at a complete loss for words. I’m glad you had some.

    At this point, I think, the best option would be to thank Jochen and to look into alternative approaches. Like, indeed, an outside consultancy, which at least would have an incentive at looking at prior work.

  2. > You need to regard the broader social and economic context of the project.

    It was done in this case.

    What kind of context was missing?

    • I do not really want to go into the details of the study. My point was more that choosing Jochen for writing this study was because of his experience as a software developer and engineer, not because of his experience with the social and economic context of OpenStreetMap.

      I am not inclined to do a detailed critique of Jochen’s study here because i think he did a good job in terms of analyzing the problem and the best solution as he perceives it (which is naturally almost exclusively from the technical side). This would have made sense as part of a bid from Jochen on an open call for tenders, which should, for a project of this scale, have been preceded by a feasibility study.

      So in a way the main problem is that things are done in the wrong order. Which is a dilemma. Because if the OSMF would decide to correct that mistake and contract a serious feasibility study now, that would invalidate Jochen’s study. Although that would not necessarily disqualify Jochen from later bidding on the project’s implementation, should that go ahead after the feasibility study, it would be a fairly awkward situation.

      On a more general note – i am not typically inclined to provide free advice on the paid professional work of others. If the EWG contracts a study on a project they want to initiate i am not going to provide an analysis of that study for free. If they want my advice on that they can obviously contract me as a consultant. Or they could have asked for advice before contracting a paid study – then i would have been glad to provide suggestions.

  3. > Until late 2020 the OSMFs main regular expenses for paid work were administrative assistance and accounting. This has completely shifted by contracting a software developer for iD and hiring a sysadmin since then.

    Alternative situation, with either (1) default editor being controlled by single company regularly violating OSM license on a massive scale[1] or (2) default editor not being maintained was even worse.

    And having just few unpaid volunteers for sysadmin work was also not ideal.

    [1]even when there is enough space to attribute Mapbox three times then OSM attribution is still hidden on mobile devices, in clear violation of ODBL

    • Thanks for the comment. I did not argue that the individual choices of contracting a developer for iD and hiring a sysadmin are bad. I argued that this is a component in the shift of the OSMF towards more strongly valuing technical work.

      If these hiring decisions were of a long term net benefit for the OSM community is still an open question of course. Introducing paid work in a certain field were previously most work was done by volunteers (this applies to the sysadmin position) has an immense effect on volunteer motivation and we have yet to see how this works out in the long term. In case of iD, development was already dominated by paid work before but there were alternatives to the choice taken – the OSMF could have moved the iD instance of to a volunteer maintained fork. This would have been possible both originally when Quincy was contracted and later when Quincy quit and Martin was contracted after some time.

      I am not saying any of these options would necessarily have been better – but we will never know because a different choice was made, by people predominatly with a technical background i might add. And this was a choice that contributed to moving us towards a stronger dominance of technical work and qualification in and around the OSMF.

      An interesting test case for this will be the future of map design in the realm of the OSMF. As you know the OSMF is actively seeking to bootstrap new map design projects these days and it will be interesting to see if what is being supported and endorsed there is going to be maintained and controlled by people with predominantly technical (software development) abilities or with non-technical (map design) qualifications and experience.

  4. > What we know is that this study was contracted through single tender action (the contract terms are not disclosed, not even the exact aim of the study) and not through the EWGs project funding framework.

    I agree that it is a very big problem and I think that it was a gigantic mistake. Not sure what can be done about this.

    There was nothing urgent here that would justify this kind of procedure.

  5. For those who are interested in thoughts on the actual subject of the OSM data model – Ilya made some quite meaningful comments on that on – unfortunately not the ideal platform for this kind of commentary.

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