Risks for and resilience of the OpenStreetMap project


There is currently a public brainstorming session going on in the OpenStreetMap Wiki in the format of a SWOT analysis, initiated by Allan Mustard, newly elected member of the board of the OpenStreetMap foundation. This has resulted in an interesting and still growing collection of view, ideas, wishes and to some extent also complaints about the project from a lot of different perspectives and i encourage anyone to read this and possibly contribute your own ideas.

The form chosen, the SWOT analysis, is done for a multitude of purposes in business management and i don’t think very much of most of these, especially when applied outside the business domain. Still as a collection of ideas initially it is perfectly fine. Care needs to be taken when analyzing and interpreting these ideas of course because it is all too easy to read into things your personal preferences and wishes.

What i will try to use this approach for here is looking at the OpenStreetMap project in terms of the risks it faces and its resilience regarding possible harm the project might face in the future. The OSMF has in the past largely neglected to have a systematic look at this and it is really time this changes. I am not sure this is actually what the OSMF board intends to do with these ideas or if they want to in a way use it for some classical business optimization ideas – that remains to be seen.

Of course i am in this process also affected by my personal view on things, i will however also try to explain why i see things the way i do and many of the relationships i am going to point out in the following are things i have already analyzed and explained in the past more elaborately.

Subjectivity of negative and positive

What SWOT does is looking at a project or business and its chances and risks in four categories spanning two dimensions, namely inside (strengths and weaknesses) and outside (opportunities and threats) factors and factors of positive (strengths and opportunities) and negative (weaknesses and threats) influence. The simple mistake that is often made is mixing the internal and external factors. The more difficult problem is distinguishing between positive and negative factors, between strengths and weaknesses or between opportunities and threats. This largely depends on your point of view and goals. Let me give two examples from the OpenStreetMap context.

  • If 15 years ago when OpenStreetMap was just starting some manager would have done a SWOT on the project they would have most likely identified the lack of people with formal qualification and training in cartography and geodata processing as one of the big weaknesses of OpenStreetMap. Yet later as the project grew it turned out to be one of the strengths of the project because it prevented OpenStreetMap to adopt many of the outdated and non-sustainable principles the professional cartography world at that time was firmly tied to and it allowed OpenStreetMap to rapidly recruit a large volunteer mapper workforce with in depth local knowledge.
  • As i have pointed out repeatedly i consider the principle of verifiability in OpenStreetMap to be one of the most important rules and values of the project that enables and ensures a functioning egalitarian cooperation within the project across cultural barriers without cultural dominance. At the same time i consider the fact that the OSM database contains and maintains a significant amount of non-verifiable data a weakness. Many corporate and other organized data consumers however who have in their maps a need for non-verifiable data like sovereignty claims for example would like to see OpenStreetMap include more non-verifiable data in its scope and consider the lack of such data a weakness.

Long story short – what you categorize on the positive and the negative side in a SWOT analysis is largely subjective and depends both on the depth of understanding of the project and its context by the person making the analysis as well as the goals for which the analysis is being made.

For the purpose of this blog post i will consider the goal of the OpenStreetMap project to be the collection of verifiable local geographic knowledge through egalitarian, self-determined cooperation of individuals into a global uniform open database.

Internal and external factors

While identifying what internal and external factors are is not ultimately that difficult, this categorization in case of OpenStreetMap fails to consider the complexity of the situation, in particular if you look at things from the perspective of the OpenStreetMap Foundation.

Outsiders often have a bit of difficulty with that because they often in analogy to other projects perceive OpenStreetMap to be an organization in itself. But it is not. OpenStreetMap is loosely connected social project of people working together for the common goal of cooperatively mapping the world from local knowledge in the form of an open database. The OpenStreetMap Foundation is an organization created for the purpose of supporting this social project with infrastructure and other support. But the OSMF has no mandate to either lead or control the OpenStreetMap project.

Because of this structure looking at OpenStreetMap through SWOT will usually require to engross OpenStreetMap and the OSMF into one imagined virtual organization whose strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are to be analyzed. This however will give an incomplete and distorted image because this entity of OpenStreetMap and the OSMF does not actually exist. Therefore i here want to look at system of the social project of OpenStreetMap and the OSMF in a more comprehensive fashion.

For that i will first look at the strengths and weaknesses of OpenStreetMap and the OSMF. Here is what i identified as the strengths and weaknesses of these. Based on the goal formulated above and obviously through my personal perspective. This is not meant to be a replacement for the more extensive collection of ideas on the wiki i linked to but is meant to explicitly work out the differences between OpenStreetMap as a social project and the OSMF.

Strengths of OpenStreetMap

  • The project has proven to successfully connect people across culture and language barriers in pursuit of its goals and can be expected to be able to continue doing so even in a changing technological and economic environment. OpenStreetMap is unique in that regard, no other project currently tries to connect people across cultures in a completely egalitarian fashion for a common goal in similar way.
  • The project organization is both on a social and on a technological level highly federated and does not depend much on central management and infrastructure.
  • The project is built on a flexible and generic data model that can be adjusted to represent different types of geographic elements in different forms.
  • The data basis of the project is both spatially broad meanwhile and deep in detail in many high interest areas making it competitive or better with alternative data sources in most aspects.
  • The openness to editing by everyone allows OSM to quickly adjust to a changing geography and record a highly diverse collection of information.
  • There is an extensive body of software development and map design work around the project.
  • Tools for contributors are largely available in a fairly broad spectrum of languages allowing a lot of people relatively low language barriers for contribution.
  • There is an active local mapping community in many parts of the world.
  • The OSM community has developed and established a mostly functional culture of communication internationally between mappers and resolving conflicts based on the primacy of the local community and on-the-ground verifiability.
  • A license that so far has mostly prevented non-open forks and that requires (or at least encourages) attribution.

Weaknesses OpenStreetMap

  • The size of the active community identifying strongly with the goals of the project and engaging in community discourse is relatively small while there are a lot of people involved who use OSM as a platform for their own interests without identifying much with the project’s goals and values.
  • A lot of data is added without there being a sustained and organically grown local community with a responsibility for maintaining the data in their area.
  • Development in and around the project on the data use side (esp. maps) is often somewhat self absorbed and does not look a lot at developments in other parts of the geodata/cartography world and is therefore often not intellectual/technological avant-garde any more. There is a significant lack of connection/exchange with cartographic and geodata research and development outside the OSM context.
  • Tagging concepts and conventions in OSM have a high inertia that further increases with the project growing and often transport a significant element of cultural and geographic bias which hampers accurate mapping in parts of the world that differ significantly from the region of origin of the project (UK and Central Europe).
  • The OSM community currently lacks a broad spectrum of community map design projects that properly represent the geographic diversity covered by the project.
  • We are lacking the ability to effectively regulate organized non-individual activities within the project.
  • We have and maintain a significant amount of data in the OSM database that does not comply with the principle of verifiability, that cannot be maintained under the project’s paradigm and that is therefore a frequent source of dispute.
  • Our ability to recruit and motivate local contributors varies a lot in different parts of the world as well as between different social groups.
  • The culture of communication between different local communities in OSM across language barriers is in serious need of improvement.
  • Technically the OSM data model has some significant weaknesses that cause scaling problems with the growing volume of data.
  • The project has difficulties with introducing more significant technical changes and innovations due to the lack of competent volunteers and the at the same time increasing complexity of the technical ecosystem.

Strengths of the OSMF

  • The OSMF has recruited a significant number of competent volunteers who are able to provide important support to OpenStreetMap in various fields.
  • The OSMF is in a comfortable and stable financial situation and does not currently have to worry about paying its expenses.
  • The technical core infrastructure the OSMF provides for the project has been running fairly smoothly for quite some time despite the continuously increasing demands.
  • Basic administrative functions of the organization are running smoothly.

Weaknesses of the OSMF

  • The OSMF membership is fairly far from proportional representation of the active OSM community and this is not improving significantly.
  • There is a massive English language dominance in the OSMF and no culture of any non-English communication within the organization.
  • The OSMF currently financially depends on corporate contributions in the long term (although assets would provide a comfortable buffer to change that without urgency in making a quick transit at the moment).
  • The large amount of money the OSMF sits on provides a strong incentive for the OSMF to detach itself from the OSM community and make itself independent of the volunteer work from the community.
  • The OSMF board has in the past often shown a poor ability to make constructive decisions or to implement them.
  • Most of the WGs have a very low turnover in volunteers and the OSMF in general has a low ability to attract new volunteers.
  • The OSMF has both in boards and working groups a fairly firmly established work culture and tradition which is founded not in current OSM community culture but in the OSMF’s own history.
  • Because the OSMF is open to everyone to join and contribute in the working groups it is open to outside influences without the ability to select whose membership and contributions are actually beneficial for the project and its goals.
  • The OSMF has a rather incomplete set of internal policies and rules, especially w.r.t. volunteer recruitment, Conflict of Interest handling, transparency and process documentation. Those rules which exist (like FOSS policy and board rules of order) are often not consistently followed.

These lists are obviously not only somewhat subjective, they are also incomplete. Still i think they provide a good summary of some of the most important points. Keep in mind these were put together based on the goal stated upfront. Someone who would like to see the goal of OpenStreetMap to be to collect useful geodata as it is the view of many larger OSM data users would see things quite differently, would for example see the federated and decentral nature of the project as a major weakness.

Opportunities and threats

The strengths and weaknesses are significant in terms of determine the resilience of the project against threats and i will come back to this later on. But to get an idea of the risks the project might face that could threaten it the more interesting part are the opportunities and threats. And here i need to draw a picture to properly illustrate the relationship between the OpenStreetMap project, the OSMF and their context.

Opportunities and Threats for OpenStreetMap and the OSMF

The opportunities are in green, the threats are in red. To not have too much text in the diagram i kept it fairly short and i will try to explain some things in more detail here.

The biggest arrow in the diagram are the opportunities provided to OpenStreetMap by the people of the world – the potential for new individual volunteers from all over the world, their local knowledge and their competence and skills as well as their interest in the data. That is the core resource and the social basis of OpenStreetMap.

The biggest threat to the project – and i might have over-emphasized that a bit to prove a point here – i have identified to come from the OSMF. Many people will assume that this is because the OSMF manages the central OSM database and without that OpenStreetMap would cease to exist. That is only point three on my list of threats though. The main OSM database can be fairly easily duplicated elsewhere should the OSMF for some reason be compromised. The two things the OSMF at the moment however has exclusive control over that are essential for OpenStreetMap are the data for the OSM user accounts of the mappers and the legal rights to the OSM data granted to the OSMF through the contributor terms. That means should the OpenStreetMap project right now for some reason need to continue without the OSMF it would need to start from scratch in terms of user accounts and it would not be able to change the license in the future because the right for the data and the right to possibly change the license based on a vote among active contributors lie with the OSMF. The risk of this actually happening might be considered low but the potential damage of that would be extreme. Therefore my high assessment of this threat.

The largest threat for the OSMF and in return the most likely reason for the scenario of a loss of the OSMF for the OpenStreetMap project as discussed above is the influence from organizations and corporations on the OSMF. This is the risk for the OSMF that has been quite frequently discussed more recently with multiple attempts of corporations on various levels to achieve some level of control and regulatory capture of the OSMF.

Compared to the OpenStreetMap project itself the OSMF is the more promising target for attempts of corporations of exercising influence because the OpenStreetMap project due to its decentralized nature provides a fairly small and elusive surface of attack for such endeavors. For corporations it is hard to deal in any way with a project without a centralized structure – which is both a disadvantage for constructive and positive interaction but at the same time a huge advantage regarding malevolent activities.


So what conclusions should we draw from this in terms of risks for the OpenStreetMap project and how the OSMF can help to mitigate these risks and increase the resilience of OpenStreetMap? From my perspective the following points are important:

  • Protecting the OpenStreetMap project from the risks that could arise should the OSMF for some reason – like regulatory capture from the side of corporate interests – not be able to fulfill its function to support the project and its values any more. This would mainly involve relinquishing exclusive control over certain key functions the OSMF currently has. There are multiple possible strategies to do that.
  • Protecting itself from malevolent or egoistic influences of corporations and organizations with an economic interest in influencing the project in a certain direction against the interests of OpenStreetMap.
  • Working hard on the OSMF’s weaknesses, in particular on extending its own membership for a more balanced and broader representation of the active individual mappers in the community who are invested in and in support of the core values of the project.
  • Implementing robust and effective regulation of organized activities in OpenStreetMap where they negatively affect the normal non-organized mapping, the social cohesion of the project and the organic growth of the local communities.

This is of course based on looking at things from the risk side primarily. The opportunities identified offer of course also potential to increase the resilience of the project. Increasing and extending the positive support of OpenStreetMap from the OSMF however always bears the risk of creating dependencies which result in new risks and projecting the cultural imbalance within the OSMF onto the project. So the most desirable strategy would be to implement measures that enable the OSM community to make better use of its own opportunities that exist independent of the OSMF, especially in terms of attracting new volunteers for the project. Key when doing that however needs to be actively communicating the values and basic principles of the project – something that has in the past unfortunately often been neglected in the desire to be welcoming to a diverse number of people. OpenStreetMap needs to be open and welcoming to people with just about any personal and cultural background but it does not help to pretend subscribing to the basic core values and goals of the project is not a requirement because attracting people who reject these basic values only results in conflicts and also poses a significant risk for OpenStreetMap.

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