In this third part of this year’s discussion of the OSMF i am going to look at the overall trends in the organization as i see them. For the first two parts see here and here.
It is hard to make reliable predictions regarding the OSMF board with four of seven board members being new next year. What is clear is that if there is a substantial change in direction or work style pursued by the new board members, that is going to be a hard uphill battle for them against the inertia and established work culture within the organization. Two of the board members who are going to continue have made it clear that they are going to want things to mostly stay as they are and the third one has shown no indications of different interests so far. Some of the candidates in their statements and answers have also made it clear that they pursue a conservative agenda.
So, based on the assumption that this conservative desire to keep things going in the present direction will prevail, i am going to describe a bit what i perceive to be the current trends in the OSMF as they are likely to continue in the future. I don’t want to be too repetitive to what i wrote in previous years so this is just a few notes on the more recent changes of direction and new tendencies. I am also – for every section – constructively going to provide a suggestion for the OSMF how to turn the development in a more positive direction. Based on the experience from past years i don’t have high hopes that these are going to be followed, but i think it is important to outline that concrete better alternatives exist and that they are, for the most part, not difficult to pursue. And i want to give the four new board members, whoever they might be, the benefit of the doubt.
Centralization of communication and cultural homogenization
With the definitive roll-out of the behavior control framework and the new communication platform, the trends of previous years for more explicit centralized control and management of community interaction have started to substantially manifest this year. There are mainly two trends i expect to come out of this:
- An increasing encapsulation of people on the new platform from the rest of the OSM community. In a nutshell: that new platform and how it is managed is modeled after Facebook rather than Usenet. The strongly hierarchical elements and the prominent display of participation and engagement scores in the design of the platform’s user interface and the clear distinction between the logged in user tracked in their activities at every moment and the not logged in anonymous outsider with very limited options all support this by underlining and affirming an exclusive sense of ‘we’ on it. A desire to exclude people not using the platform has already been articulated on various occasions by users there. How fast and how far this will go is not sure yet, because at the same time there is
- a trend of fragmentation of the OSM community into closed social circles. Due to the exclusive nature of the new platform, requiring participants to significantly adjust to the social standards and expectations that are imposed centrally, quite a few local communities have decidedly not adopted the new platform as a place of exchange. Since the OSMF has expressed no commitment to continue to provide the more traditional infrastructure like the mailing lists and because of trends in communication styles, many local communities have moved to proprietary platforms like facebook, telegram or dicord instead. These have the advantage for the local communities that the commercial operators give them more freedom than the OSMF on their platform to self manage the channel in their own style. But many of these channels are semi-public (so you can only read them after having actively signed up to them – so there is no permanent public record) which often leads to significant radicalization in particular in smaller groups.
To be clear: It is perfectly expected and necessary that a diverse and multi-cultural project like OpenStreetMap socially structures into different local groups and communities with different local cultures. The key for this to work is that these groups need to interact with each other on equal levels based on tolerance and respect for each other on the foundation of the basic universal core values of the project. This can only work by accepting and tolerating that they might differ fundamentally in their cultural values, social conventions and collective and individual goals otherwise. This way different local communities form a loose but stable and inclusive sense of ‘we’ overall across culture boundaries, unconditionally including anyone who likes to participate under the basic premise of the project of cooperative mapping. What does not work and where unfortunately the current trend seems to go, is, that one part of the global community tries to impose their cultural standards and values on others and by doing that attempts to colonialize the project while others increasingly encapsulate themselves, partly in reaction to the colonial tendencies, to protect their cultural values. This is what we see happening right now. Unfortunately, the most likely reaction from the OSMF is going to be to increase the pressure and extend the radius of cultural homogenization and cultural imperialism.
What could the OSMF do to avoid this? Go back to the roots and provide communication infrastructure openly to any group within the project to manage under their own responsibility. Offer support and guidance when self managed communities struggle dealing with difficult individuals or outside interference but have trust in people to be socially responsible at large, even if they don’t abide by and subscribe to your cultural values.
Decreasing diversity within the OSMF
In addition to these trends in the OSM community at large we also see an increasing commitment in the OSMF to the currently dominant culture in the organization. I mentioned in the first part that the first board committee with non-board members involved has been staffed exclusively with Americans. It is likely that fundraising in the future will therefore perpetuate the dominance of US corporations and organizations among the financiers of the foundation. And since corporate OSM data users and organizations like HOT are meanwhile the main source of new volunteers in the OSMF working groups, this will also have an influence on diversity among volunteers in the working groups that are not selected by decision from the top. And this is – as pointed out in previous years – a self emphasizing problem as the increasing presence of people with a professional interest in OpenStreetMap in the structures of the OSMF makes these less attractive for hobbyists.
As discussed in the first part, the Engineering Working Group this year took on the fairly remarkable initiative to draft a framework for open calls for tender of projects to be financed by the OSMF. While this is of course specifically designed for software development projects, it could be used as a blueprint for similar procedures being made mandatory everywhere in the OSMF where outside paid services are contracted. While this in principle would be a very positive perspective i see two problems with that:
- It is uncertain if this framework will actually be followed for any larger projects at all. The OSMF board in particular has a long history of creating policy but then flat out ignoring it.
- Even if procedures like this are made mandatory everywhere, there are well known techniques to work around the open competition these are meant to ensure. If those drafting the call for tender know in advance who they want to win the bid, they can design the call in a way that makes this outcome likely – even without outright cheating in the assessments.
Same applies for selection of volunteers. Many of the committees that were created by the board during the past years (specifically here, here, here, here and here) were staffed based on an open call for volunteers. But it was clear from the beginning that the main criterion for selection was the people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm. Plus occasionally some ensemble optimization for on-paper diversity. To put it very bluntly – if you were not part of this small inner circle of people whose work we know and enjoy of the OSMF board (which probably contains no more than about 30 to 40 people) and do not happen to have any desirable formal traits that look good for diversity on paper, you did not need to bother volunteering in such calls. And as a result people likely stopped volunteering – so despite the formally open call the selection becomes highly non-diverse. The end result is: The staffing of committees with volunteers by the board in an intransparent process became one of the most significant factors working towards less diversity in volunteer contributions in the OSMF.
- Put everything into the open. Transparency is the best cure against favoritism or the appearance of favoritism.
- Stop trying to control who does volunteer work. Simply publish tasks that you think need doing and call for people to work on them in their own initiative and responsibility (and cooperating as a self organized group if necessary for the task in question). Offer support for that work but don’t try to steer it. Believe it or not – there are many people in the OSM community willing to volunteer for the project who are better managers than you are.
- Let the local chapters do selection of political appointees. There are meanwhile sufficiently many local chapters for such a process being much more inclusive and representative than the usual self referential people whose work we know and enjoy approach of the board.
- Introduce a meaningful subsidiarity principle to the OSMF. I have said so in the past – i repeat it here.
There seems to be a general sentiment among the board members proactively communicated in the past months that they largely suffer from work overload and burnout.
While there is certainly some truth to the workload of the board having in total increased over the past years, it is important to recognize that much of the workload of the board is self-imposed. Self-imposed either because
- The board has taken on tasks and is getting involved in matters that are not in its domain as defined by the OSMF mission. As Simon also has recently pointed out the board has in the past few years gotten much more involved in operational work (with an often highly questionable outcome i might add).
- The board has in the past made many decisions to substantially grow the operational scope of the OSMF without making sure a self sustaining infrastructure to support this scope exists. On the contrary – almost all of the structures newly created by the board in the past years – like various special committees etc. – were appointed by the board and were designed to be under direct control of the board and require regular board activity to continue working. This not only massively increases the board workload in total (both for actually doing these tasks and for keeping track of them), it also leads to awkwardness when the board does not live up to these self imposed obligations, like in case of the software dispute resolution panel, as described in the first part of this blog post series.
The solution is obvious – to (a) be more diligent in limiting the board to its core tasks and to (b) trust the community to pursue tasks in the interest of the project in an independent and self determined fashion, either in the OSMF working groups, in the local chapters or in self organized groups independent of formal organizations. Again – the OSMF mission outlines this principle quite clearly, the board would just need to follow this.
Unfortunately, the measure the current board seems to increasingly favor instead to mitigate the work overload problem as perceived seems to be to hire paid management. It is even possible that the proactive communication of the workload issues is partly a measure to pave the way for such a change among the OSMF members. Of course, such a step would break with existing conventions and policy and it would also massively change the inner dynamics of the OSMF and its relationship with the OSM community. It would most likely lead to a further exodus of volunteers who do not like to be supervised in their volunteer activity by paid management, from the working groups and the OSMF in general.
In total it is likely that this would not work (in the sense that it would add more work to the board than it would take off them). But if it does, it would mean an OSMF run by paid management and labor leasing from corporate OSM data users as a new professional–managerial class of the organization with support from a number of unpaid interns running the working groups (who are motivated to volunteer – just like unpaid interns elsewhere – by career interests). The volunteer board would still formally sit above this. But since the main interest of the board in the process is to offload work, it would lack the ability to substantially exercise oversight over the management because they don’t understand the internal processes enough any more to develop meaningful policy. And the paid management will of course in that scenario have and pursue interests that are distinct and possibly substantially differ from those of the OSM community and the project.
If and when the board in the future might make a move towards hiring paid management the claim will likely be that they believe that they will be able to avoid the negative consequences sketched while still getting a net benefit. They would, however, likely be mistaken in that belief. It would therefore be a very good idea for the OSMF membership to ask the board, if and when they make a move in that direction, what their plan B is in case their belief about how this should work out turns out to be mistaken. Because the risks in that are immense.
And of course with the current work culture of the board, paid management positions would most likely be filled with people whose work we know and enjoy of the board – further emphasizing and perpetuating existing cultural bias in the organization. It is also not unlikely that a revolving door principle will develop where paid managers are predominantly recruited from former board members.
Interestingly, the upcoming board election of the OSMF can also be considered a poll of the OSMF membership if they want the board to continue the current line of direct involvement in operational work or if they should focus more on oversight and policy development. Many of the candidates in the election have positioned themselves quite clearly in that regard.
- Subsidiarity principle, subsidiarity principle, subsidiarity principle (if i could make every board member write that a hundred times i would do so).
- Maintain the taboo against paid management. Someone paid for their work in OSM telling a hobby volunteer what to do or how to do it is an affront against every single one of the millions of volunteers in OSM. That includes by the way people paid by a third party. Don’t take this lightly and don’t be so arrogant to assume you can manage these problems.
- Don’t try to control everything, concentrate on setting meaningful policy and exercise meaningful oversight where necessary but don’t interfere with operational decisions – as it is mandated by the OSMF mission.
- Move the OSMF out of the UK, and while doing that, create organizational structures that separate policy making and oversight over operational work from its management, while disallowing direct interference of oversight with the operational work. Clear separation of functions like this would massively reduce workload and stress while giving operational work the competence and freedom to organize their work independently without continuous interference by the higher-ups while maintaining a clearly defined and independently codified oversight over the operational work.
The OSMF as HOT 2.0
In the predictions from last year i indicated that the OSMF might in the future pursue a business model similar to that of HOT – selling OpenStreetMap as a solution for the needs of others, without substantially controlling the project. I also indicated that such a scenario would most likely be fairly unstable.
With the developments of the past year, in particular with the negotiations with HOT on a trademark license and the stalling of the OSMF board on the pursuit of ODbL violation by large corporate financiers of the OSMF, quite a bit could be written on that, where it might go and what risks and opportunities result from that. But i will cut this short here because – as i already indicated in the first part – i am not very keen to provide free consulting services to an OSMF in pursuit of commercial interests.
In total, my outlook on the future of the OSMF has brightened a bit. Ironically this is partly because the economic climate is getting more difficult and hence the ability of people in the OSMF to use money in pursuit of ideas that are bad for OpenStreetMap is likely going to be rather limited. But more importantly, this year’s board election has the potential – if the OSMF membership shows wisdom in selecting four new board members – to substantially change the work culture and the direction of the OSMF. The possibilities how to do that are fairly clear now – i outlined a few in my recommendations above. A lot more can be found in past comments of me on OSMF matters. Yes, there is of course equally a potential for a change to the worse. But even if that is the case – it is clearly in the hands of the OSMF membership this year – and even more, thanks to the active contributor membership program, every mapper who cares about OpenStreetMap in principle had the opportunity to become a member and vote in the interest of the project they care about. In other words: This year much more than in previous years it is in the hand of the OSMF membership to decide on the future of the OSMF.
In addition, i observe that the centralization and cultural homogenization attempts from the OSMF have led to an increasingly broader push-back from the community. As discussed above, this push-back and diversification also takes some rather problematic forms with the radicalization of smaller groups on proprietary platforms. But, overall, this is a positive sign: Local communities all over the world developing a robust self-confidence in the way they unite OpenStreetMap’s core values with their local culture. If these local communities now manage to overcome their relative isolation (which i discussed a bit for the German community in the previous post) and successfully engage in a peer-to-peer exchange with each other, that would be even better. Interestingly, the local communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America here seem to be ahead of the European communities with regular supra-national conferences and more regular exchange across language barriers.