State of the Map 2021 – observations


The last weekend the State of the Map conference 2021 took place – the second time as a purely virtual conference, you can find my comments on last year on this blog as well.

This commentary is somewhat preliminary because i did not yet view some of the most interesting talks because of real world obligations and the multiple competing tracks. And since the talks were pre-annouced to be recorded and to be made available afterwards while the panels, workshops and self organized sessions were not i focused on the latter a bit more.

The concept of a virtual conference – second iteration

I presented some general musings on the idea and appeal of a virtual conference in last year’s comments most of which still applies of course. Many of my more radical suggestions to depart from a pure 1:1 virtualization of an in-place conference and embracing the fundamentally new chances of the virtual format have not been followed. I have the impression that many of the influential people in the OSMF and around the conference still view the virtual conference as a temporarily necessary stop-gap replacement of what they actually want – a physical meeting of the international OSM jetset – and therefore don’t want to start things that could in any way be incompatible with moving fully back to what they know and enjoy.

Compared to last year where everything had a fairly improvised feel to it, this year the whole conference framework was much more slick and organized. But to me this is not really a positive thing. It is not that last year things technically did not work on a larger scale and this year i saw plenty of cases of (minor) glitches, in particular when you tried to join a room the browser tab often froze for a considerable amount of time. To me this slickness of this year’s conference was most visible in form of the much tighter constraints, less freedom, more builtin distance between the participants of the conference and less freedom for free form interaction. Specifically:

  • I missed the pads that were last year used for comments, questions and discussions of the talks. The free form and non-linear nature of the pads offered so much more freedom for interaction, working together and expressing yourself than this year’s linear chats and isolated fire-and-forget questions.
  • Linear group chats in general pose a structural disadvantage to slow typers and non-native English speakers and incentivize asocial tactics to dominate a discussion. They promote shallowness in discourse and essentially prevent any more elaborate discussion with multiple participants.
  • Last year’s SotM was essentially an open event where everything (streaming of talks, interactive conference rooms, pads for discussion) was openly accessible to everyone without registration. I saw this as a huge benefit and it contributed a lot to the open get-together flair of that event. This year everything (except for maybe streaming of talks) was only open to registered visitors of the conference (and i am not even sure you could still spontaneously register during the conference).
  • There does not seem to be a permanent record of the chats available to follow up on and continue afterwards.

Don’t get me wrong, this was still overall a well made conference and i saw a lot of effort on side of the organizers to make this suitable and inviting for a large variety of people (including in particular the translation efforts – which i did not check out myself). But from my perspective it was in many ways also a step back compared to last year and i kind of fear that is in a way a (potentially mostly subconscious) step to pave the way back to a primarily non-virtual conference again.

Observing filter bubble maintenance in action

The most memorable impression for me was observing the echo chambers most of the panels at this conference turned out to be and essentially observing filter bubble maintenance in action.

The panels i am talking about here are:

First of all there might be a bit of a cultural difference of course. To me a panel discussion on any serious topic would be an event where people with significant differences in their perspective and opinion on a matter meet, each presenting their views and then discussing them so they come to insights that represent an additional value compared to the sum of its parts. In other words – to me a panel discussion is essentially a dialectic format.

The panels from this conference however were more like the panels of a fan convention where actors and producers of popular performing arts praise themselves and each other for their achievements, tell anecdotes and engage in friendly and shallow banter and the main aim is for everyone to have a good time and enjoy themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong – my issue is not that such events took place at SotM. What i found remarkable however is how the participants of all of these panels clearly thought that they were having a meaningful and insightful conversation while what happened was essentially that they reaffirmed each others’ existing preconceptions. The main result of the events was the reinforcement of the existing filter bubbles of the participants and the parts of the audience on the same wavelength by excluding huge parts of what is already a small and relatively homogeneous subset of the OSM community (the conference visitors) from their perception and celebrating a friendly conversation within that bubble to be a discussion with meaning regarding and representative for the larger reality.

All of these panels had participants that could have provided very valuable contributions to a dialectic or argumentative panel discussion on the subjects discussed (and where i would for example definitely say i could learn a lot from having a conversation with them on the subject in question). But without anyone on these panels questioning the preconceptions and assumptions of the participants and opening their eyes to other perspectives on the matter the intellectual value and the gain in insight of these events for listeners on the subject matter was negligible.

In the Paid-Editing/AI-Mapping Tools panel – which was moderated by a professional scientist who should by profession be used to and experienced in questioning and challenging his views and preconceptions i decided to inquire about this with the question:

Why does your panel consist exclusively of people working for large corporations. Do you think others (small businesses, self employed people, hobbyists) have nothing important to contribute on the matter of paid editing and AI mapping tools or did those you have asked decline to participate?

The answer was sobering: They indicated not to believe that those not represented on the panel in their eyes had nothing important to contribute but they still chose to only invite representatives of large corporations.

Some thoughts on the map reading Q&A

When the call for proposals for this conference was announced i was fairly unsure if to submit something. The most natural thing to submit would have been a talk. But the talks were – like last year – to be pre-recorded to then be streamed to the visitors at the specific times of the schedule only. It seems a bit weird to me – not to say disrespectful to the international audience residing in different time zones – to impose such an artificial constraint (since the talks are prerecorded) and to essentially imitate a live event without it actually being live.

Now having talks pre-recorded and not live makes a lot of sense, in particular it lowers the hurdles to have a talk at such a conference massively. Last year i suggested to make use of the natural possibilities coming with that and to make the talks available to be watched by the visitors whenever is convenient for them in advance and to then asynchronously discuss them and to wrap that up with a live discussion similar to what we had now. But this suggestion was not picked up, probably because it was perceived to be a too radical change and it would be incompatible to moving back to a live non-virtual conference without giving that up again of course.

Anyway – my thought was if the conference organizers want to have the conference as a live event only i would want to do something that actually uses the benefits of live interaction with the audience. At the same time i wanted to try introducing the idea of asynchronous participation (like in my suggestion of making the talks available for viewing in advance) into what i do. That is how i developed the idea of an interactive Q&A workshop.

Here are my spontaneous observations and impression of how it went:

For the pre-event asynchronous involvement of the audience i had created a wiki page and a pad to submit topics to discuss. Speaking live at a virtual event of this form is difficult because there is an almost complete lack of real time feedback from the audience. At the same time it is live so in contrast to a pre-recorded talk you can’t just make cuts and re-record certain parts or the whole thing if necessary. Because i kind of anticipated that my original plan was there to be more audience interaction during the workshop.

But while i had advertised it on the diaries and on the OSM-Carto issue tracker there was only one submission (From Jerry (SK53), many thanks for that) before the start of the conference. And Jerry was not present live in the workshop (which was fine – turning up at the workshop was not a prerequisite for submitting case examples) so i could not start off with an interactive approach to the whole thing. And although during the conference a number of more submissions came in i ended up not having any live dialog in audio/video with the audience. That was a bit unfortunate (and i could probably have tried to encourage that more) – it would likely have been an improvement for both me and the audience to connect a voice and a face to the questions and have more symmetric discussion of the case examples.

In the end most of the interaction took place on the chat and the questions. The splitting into chat and questions in the conference interface was something really confusing and IMO quite pointless. You could only show either the chat or the questions and it is easy to miss additions to one of them while concentrating on the other. I see that there is a potential benefit of having anonymous questions but even that would seem possible while still conflating the two in the same display.

Over the duration of the workshop (which ended up to last for 1:30 instead of just one hour) the interactivity improved (probably mostly because i got more used to keeping an eye on the chat and questions and integrating them into my discussion) but for my taste it was still too asymmetric – as said i would have liked more true dialog.

The other important observation i made: For a live event like that involving a screenshare presentation it would be really good to have a triple-screen-setup. You would essentially need:

  • one screen with the conference interface (video, chat, controls etc.)
  • one screen to share
  • one screen for your notes and staging of materials to share

I only had two screens set up connected (had a third one – but that was on a different computer so of limited use) which made things a bit more complicated.

In terms of the actual content of the workshop – it ended up being a bit less basic map reading and more advanced map design questions – like problems of scale dependent rendering and how to deal with the rural-urban divide. I had prepared some material on the matters of road layering and urban landuse, which was more focused on basic explanation of the map but which i ended up not using because there were more than enough questions from the audience to fill the time. But i am a bit afraid that for some of the less experienced listeners the whole workshop was a bit too advanced towards the end.

What i am kind of wondering is if it would make sense to develop something like a regular recurring event out of this outside SotM. Considering how widely the standard map style is used and referred to in the OpenStreetMap world it is quite definitely severely under-explained and under-discussed on a level above the basic “I want feature x to be rendered” and outside the scope of actual style development. Any input on that idea would be welcome.


  1. Thanks for this post Christoph! To me, a conference is always about meeting and talking to people, not about listening to talks and panels. And this part was not very prominent this time. One part that I enjoyed is breakout rooms. I’ve participated in two, and they both had great discussions of topics of interest, true dialogs with new ideas coming out of.

    Maybe that’s what we should focus on. Some kind of a SpatialChat-like rooms with predefined topics and five-minute entrées, professionally logged for future reference.

    I’d say for non-native English speakers, text-based chat is much much better than voice chat. They (read “me”) have more time to build phrases and convey their thoughts. And it’s easily stored! But — the info channel is very narrow this way, you’re missing on intonation, body language, and a general feeling of a person behind words. And that is often the only reason people travel to conferences.

    • Hi Ilya, thanks for the comments.

      I would agree on the significance of meeting people and that the breakout rooms and self organized sessions had a lot of positive elements. That is another field where there seems still a lot of unused potential in the virtual conference format and current implementation is too much stuck in the paradigms of a physical event.

      In a way i think the socializing was also working a bit better last year due to the more open and more informal structure – though IIRC it was not that inclusive, much of the informal conversation last year was among people who already knew each other well.

      Yes, topical rooms would be a possibility. As would be the option of visitors to indicate and communicate their interests to others. An interesting idea would also be to somehow translate the concept of people you know introducing you to other people you don’t know to the virtual platform.

      My critique of the text chat was not meant to indicate voice chat is necessarily better, it was more meant to point out the limitations and disadvantages of the *linear* chat. I know that to all the twitter, whatsapp etc. users this is often nicely familiar but it is objectively not a very good way of inter-cultural group communication. I don’t mind it being available as an option but it is not nice if it is the only option.

      In the long term i think an interesting approach to the whole socializing component of virtual conferences would be connecting local groups rather than just individuals. Or in other words: Having a virtual conference organized as a connection of various local in-person meetings. This is challenging – both technically and socially – and it is definitely not the answer to all of the problems of virtual conferences. But it is something worth exploring IMO – in particular for the purpose of connecting across language and culture barriers.

  2. Interesting. I was a participant in the OSM and Govs panel and find it is difficult to consider it from afar, as you have here. A bit like being a player in a football team…you can’t see the game as a whole.

    • Hello Jez, thanks for your comment. And i am glad to see reflection on the matter from panel participants.

      I did not go into a lot of detail in the blog post to keep it brief but in case of your panel some of the points where i would see a lot of unused potential are:

      • OpenStreetMap & Governments as a topic could evidently have used a government perspective. Alan tried to bring that in a bit through the moderation but that is of course no substitute for having people working currently in the specific domains.
      • The French community has some fairly impressive and unique cooperations with public institutions. Not having that present on the panel is IMO a significant gap.
      • World wide there are a lot of cases of OSM/Government interaction that are very different from what was present on the panel. There was no one from Africa or South America on the panel and the only people from Asia were from countries with a strong British/American influence on the administrative traditions and norms.
      • I would in particular also find an inside look on the situations in Russia and China would have been of high value.

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