SotM Milano – a summary


I have returned from Milano (from a warm northern Italy to a similarly warm southern Germany) and completed viewing most of the talks i missed at the conference that were recorded and that i did not get around attending. Based on that here a quick summary. I might cover some more specific topics in separate posts later.

First a bit of statistics based on the attendee list – which is not completely reliable because it does not exactly represent who was at the conference and because the Company Name is just a free form field. Note to the SotM WG: Please don’t provide the attendee list as a ridiculously convoluted PDF. This won’t prevent Google from actually harvesting the data in there and it makes this kind of analysis much more difficult. I also would consider it very useful if in the future you would during registration ask people for a bit more information on themselves for statistical purposes which could provide a lot of useful insight into the visitor structure of the conference.

There were 355 per-registered attendees according to the list of which 209 have a company name specified (after removing a few obvious errors interpreting the field incorrectly). That is about 60 percent. As said this is not really a reliable indicator but it is clear from it that the majority of the attendees were visiting SotM as either part of their job or their visit being paid by an organization.

The companies/organizations with the largest numbers of attendees were:

Telenav: 8
Facebook: 7
Mapbox: 7
Microsoft: 5
Grab: 5
Heidelberg Institute for Geoinformation Technology: 5
HOT: 5
Politecnico di Milano: 4
MapAction: 4

The geographic distribution of the attendees was as follows:

Naturally the countries with short travel distance brought in the largest number of non-corporate, non-organization visitors. Of the 66 visitors from Italy only 30 have a company name specified. Of the 58 from Germany it is 25. For the United States on the other hand it is 35 of 47. As said the accuracy of these numbers is not very good but overall it seems quite clear and understandable that when coming to the conference requires a long and expensive journey this significantly reduces the likeliness that a hobbyist community member will come. This seems to be confirmed in conversations because when talking to people from outside Europe most seemed to have either some business connection or are involved in some project that goes beyond a hobby.

The scholarships

There would probably be quite a lot to be said about the scholarship program but so far we seem to have no information on the scholarships beyond what can be found in the program booklet which lists the names of 17 OSMF scholars.

The program

As i already wrote in the pre-conference post the program was not really of particular interest for me. There was no talk i considered a must see and after looking over most of the talk recordings this seems to be confirmed. This absolutely does not mean the talks were bad or that they were not interesting for me – not in the least. But i did not try to watch as many talks as i could but instead spent more time talking to people. This is a bit of a dilemma of course since listening to talks can also be a good starting point for approaching others and starting a conversation.

Since not all the rooms were recorded on video this also meant that i missed a few of the talks without the opportunity to watch them afterwards. I however hope there will be a more or less complete collection of slides available for all the talks – if you gave a talk and have not yet sent the slides to the organizers please do so.

Meeting people

As already indicated meeting and talking to people was my main goal for the conference. There were good opportunities for that although with more than 350 people there were also plenty of cases where you failed to meet someone for the whole three days because you just never really ran across each other. One thing that worked amazingly well was being introduced to others by someone who already knows both people. Christine Karch in particular seemed to be very industrious at that. This is something i can very much recommend to others at such conferences – if you are interested in meeting someone but you are either reluctant to simply walk up to them or you just can’t find them because you don’t know how they look you can just ask someone who knows both of you to make the introduction. Such introductions can also help bridging language barriers by helping out with a bit of translation.

I in particular enjoyed meeting and talking to Dorothea Kazazi, Martin Koppenhoefer, Nicolas Chavent and Rafael Avila Coya all of which i never had met in person before – but of course also many others who i had met before.

The social event

The place of the social event was nice and the food was good but it was not ideal for an OSM conference in several regards:

  • The constraints of entering the place (practically the requirement to wear shoes and that you were not allowed to take larger bags or other things into the place but had to deposit them at the entrance) were something the organizers should have announced in advance. One person from the German community who was routinely walking barefoot and had no shoes with him that evening was not allowed to enter and many were uneasy with leaving their bags with valuable stuff like laptops or cameras.
  • For most of the conference visitors the social event is primarily an opportunity to talk to other visitors of the conference. The music played at the place of the social event that got louder the later it was, made this somewhat unnecessarily difficult.

The awards

Since i somewhat unexpectedly won the award for influential writing (sorry Anonymaps) it seems somewhat ungrateful to criticize them – but i will do it anyway. Apart from the general and hard to solve problem of English language bias which i mentioned previously i also have a problem with the innovation category where none of the nominees would qualify for what i would consider innovative work. This was similar in previous years. I would probably just remove that category from the awards in the future. The way the awards are run they are essentially a popularity contest and popularity and innovation are simply two things that normally do not go hand in hand, innovations if they do at all typically only become popular quite some time after being made and the awards are for stuff made in the previous year.

I would also suggest two further changes:

  • limiting the awards to individuals and small groups of identifiable individuals.
  • adding a ‘none of the above’ option to the voting form and not issuing the award if this option receives more votes than any of the others.

In any case congratulations to the other winners who apart from the wrong categorization in the innovation category i would without reservations all consider deserving winners – without necessarily meaning that the other nominees would all have been less qualified. We all for example had a good laugh about the fact that Simon Poole lost to Richard Fairhurst by one vote after having previously given a recommendation to vote for Richard.

Next year

In my pre-conference post i mentioned that it is unlikely that the SotM is going to take place as close to where i live as this year any time soon – seems i was wrong about that. For me Heidelberg is obviously convenient but this also means there is a clear trend for the SotM being more concentrated on Europe again – with three out of four taking place in Europe. This contrasts with the four years before where three out of four were outside of Europe – kind of in compensation to the first four years which all took place in Europe.

Some general thoughts on the conference

For me personally the SotM visit was a pleasant experience. I however have a seriously uneasy feeling about the fact that the SotM claims to be a conference for the whole OSM community which it from my perspective clearly is not. Given the size and diversity of the OSM community this claim seems unrealistic anyway but maintaining the pretense kind of stands in the way of developing organization and structure of OSM conferences in a direction that is sustainable and productive for the project.

What SotM practically consists of currently seem to be three groups of people:

  • the business visitors who visit the conference as part of their jobs.
  • the international OSM jet set consisting of relatively wealthy active OSM hobbyists who are able and willing to invest the money required to visit the conference from their own pockets.
  • members of the local communities near the place the conference takes place.

Everyone else, in particular local mappers and community members from elsewhere, is not realistically present at the conference – even if scholarships might add a few of those. No one should make the mistake of assuming the visitors of SotM or even the non-business part of them are even remotely representative for the global OSM community.

The main difficulty of planning the SotM conference seems to be balancing the interests of the three groups mentioned. Even before visiting the conference this year my opinion on this has been that emphasizing the weight of the third group and making sure to widely rotate the location of the conference would be the best approach – maybe even to the point of not organizing a separate international conference but instead every year hooking into a different regional conference and giving it special support during that year. But since of the three groups of people mentioned the third one is quite clearly the least influential and least powerful one i don’t have the illusion of this being likely to happen.


  1. > Note to the SotM WG: Please don’t provide the attendee list as a ridiculously convoluted PDF.

    That was because the OSM wiki refused all other file formats. Even the ones it said it supported I had trouble with. After trying Microsoft Office instead of Libre Office, I gave up and just PDFd it! I had more urgent SotM things to worry about.

    • Oh, come on – a simple CSV or an SQL dump from the database – just pasted inline into a wikipage if there is no other option – would all have been fine.

  2. >also means there is a clear trend for the SotM being more concentrated on Europe again

    Alternatively, you could argue that the team that wins (at least for the last two) is the team that takes on the advise after initial rejection and comes back with a stronger bid the following year. This was the case for Milan and Heidelberg!

  3. > But since of the three groups of people mentioned the third one is quite clearly the least influential and least powerful one i don’t have the illusion of this being likely to happen.

    You’d be wrong. We have talked at length about that and hopefully it will happen some day. To a degree it already does. For example SotM 2017 was hosted by the Japanese team in place of their regular event. Since then Italy decided to host it and retain their (Italian language) OSMit event. We have also had a local community propose a set up similar to what you describe. We were ready.

    Anyway, thanks for the positive write-up. It’s great to hear that we are aware of all the concerns already and are working on these. For a moment, I was worried that you had found something new! 😀

    P.S. The awards: How about nominate some yourself? Or do you agree that no innovation is happening?

    P.P.S. I agree that we could have communicated more about the social event. Confirming the footwear policy was unfortunately not on our list of things to do.

    P.P.P.S There are not really any more delegate details we can share. There is no GDPR case to share these outside of OSMF. Feel free to suggest some though.

    • Don’t rejoice too fast, i am not done writing about SotM. Or to put it differently: You still have a bit of time to be proactively transparent about your processes. Trying to hide behind the GDPR is somewhat petty – you know quite well that the in-transparency of SotM-WG work i criticize has nothing to do with personal data protection.

      • Actually I don’t have any time. After 2013, 2016, and 2017, I decided that 2018 would be my last SotM. Hurray, I no longer need to deal with all the stuff that made SotM work more like an unpaid stressful job.

        I am disappointed that I didn’t get far enough with general documentation, but unfortunately this was always squeezed in the priority list behind the essentials to make sure SotM actually happened and the requests/questions.

        Btw, I expect you’d be thoroughly bored with more SotM info. The good stuff in the form of our aims, timelines, and budget guidelines is all published. We also publish submitted talks for community feedback. Beyond that its all very mundane chat mainly trying to find a volunteer for each task, researching the visa stuff, chasing speakers to get them to confirm attendee, chasing sponsors for their content and producing invoices for people who feel they need something more than the automated email (despite the invoice having no extra info). Chasing. Chasing. Chasing.

        So yeah, I am rejoicing. Bye.

        • Rejuvenation of the people involved is often difficult to accomplish in volunteer project so i applaud your initiative to support this. Talking to various people from the SotM-WG i have hope that changing dynamics of the team could lead to a positive development with more transparency and more openness to the OSM community for involvement and input in conference planning and organization.

          Regarding if detailed information about processes is boring – yes, it can be to look through tons of uninteresting stuff to find the information that is actually of interest. But this is something i am pretty used to (most working in the technology domain are) and don’t mind. And i have in the past already mentioned (on osmf-talk and in personal chats) various things i think should be made available. But even with information not being available it is possible to analyze what is available and to identify the issues this raises. As said i would find it better if the SotM-WG is proactively more open about things but it is natural that people have blind spots about these things and you sometimes need to point them out with ostentation to get things going.

        • >Chris
          I understand that there are three groups. I also think that the SotM conference should be held for the entire OSM community. However, I do not think that the “third group” should be emphasized. This is what I understood after organizing SotM 2017 which was held a year ago now. I understand your idea of ​​3rd group.

          Even though the third group`s importance is partial, it is still important.
          First and second groups, sponsors, scholarship members are all important in essence.
          It is natural that it is an international conference.

          Last year, I heard the word “SotM community” from one of the members who volunteered. A great advantage of hosting SotM locally is the formation of the SotM community. Local OSMer involved in the conference and others were able to create a sense of solidarity, sense of unity to many people. And I think there is no doubt that the activities of the SotM community are boosting the OSM community.

          >I decided that 2018 would be my last SotM.
          It was a great privilege meeting you and to hear that this would be your last SotM is an unfortunate news for all of us. We accept your decision and we hope that we will still be able to work with you in the OSM community. With that being said, we are grateful for the time and work you have bestowed on the community.

          • The point i was trying to make by identifying the three groups is that no matter what their relative importance is they do not include a huge part of the OSM community, that is those who do not belong to the first two groups and who also do not belong to the third because they do not live near the place. The scholarships do not substantially change that.

            IMO the current way SotM deals with this – to continue pretending it is for the whole OSM community while it evidently is not – is the worst way to handle this. Accepting that selective representation is an inherent part of the current conference concept would enable a more constructive discourse on how to deal with the geographic and cultural diversity of the OSM community in general.

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