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November 14, 2020
by chris
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The OSMF – changes during the past year and what they mean for the coming years – part 2

In the first part of this blog post i summarized the most important developments in the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) during the past year from my perspective. In this second part i will – based on the observations from the past year and recent trends being visible – give a lookout on how the OSMF could develop in the coming years.

After my previous piece on the OSMF and the perspective for the upcoming general meeting, Severin Menard has published an interesting and likewise critical take on the current situation of the OSMF. I agree with most of what he wrote and his culturally somewhat different perspective on things is very valuable. Definitely recommended for everyone to read.

Corporate takeover – it has already happened

There is one thing however i disagree on with him – the assessment of a corporate takeover as a risk of the future. During the past weeks there have also been some half baked initiatives started (last minute before the general meeting as usual) from within the OSMF board towards resolutions meant to protect the OSMF against external takeover. My view is that these measures and the focus on a defensive strategy against an external attack aimed at controlling the OSMF are meanwhile setting the wrong priorities because the corporate takeover has essentially already happened behind the scenes without that being clearly visible to the outside.

Large corporate OSM data users are not really that interested in staging a coup in the OSMF and run the OSMF themselves at this time. That would be expensive to do and bear a large spectrum of fairly big risks and also it would – if successfully executed – immediately lead to a struggle for control between the major corporate players. The main goal of corporate actors with the OSMF is and has been for some time to prevent meaningful regulation of corporate activity in OSM and of OSM data use based on the OdbL. If that goal is secured, a secondary goal would be for the OSMF to serve as a shared neutral intermediary platform between the different corporations to steer independent volunteer activity in the OSM community in the corporate data users’ collective interests.

The parts of the OSMF board not affiliated with corporate or organized interests seem to have, during the past years, developed the idea that these corporate interests can be negotiated with and that the future of OpenStreetMap lies in compromising between the organized and corporate interests and the core ideas and values of the project. This quite clearly is an illusion – expecting a big corporation like Facebook to make compromises with an insignificant player like the OSMF is at best naive.

If the goal to prevent meaningful regulation of corporate activity through the OSMF has been accomplished permanently, corporations have no reason to oppose effective takeover prevention of the OSMF – because that would help protecting their position in the OSMF against third parties gaining influence. And effective prevention of meaningful regulation does not even depend on there being a pro-corporate majority among the OSMF members because the corporations have other significant channels of influence in the OSMF now (through their financial constributions, through their participation in the working groups and through lobbying of the board on non-public channels).

We will in the near future have a fairly good test case for how robust the ability of corporate interests in the OSMF is in preventing meaningful regulation in form of the attribution guideline that has been worked on during the past years. There are essentially three scenarios of what could happen:

  • The OSMF board decides to adopt a guideline roughly based on the corporate wishlist from the LWG with some minor adjustments for the optics, to maintain the impression that it is not directly what corporate lobbyists have written. That seems the most likely scenario at the moment but it bears the strong risk that the craft mapper community will openly oppose this interpretation of the ODbL which would fundamentally endanger the OSMF’s position in the OSM community.
  • The OSMF board adopts a guideline reflecting the community consensus reading of the ODbL (likely similar to what i drafted) that unconditionally requires attribution that practically makes the user aware of the origin of the data. That would be strongly against the corporate interests and corporations would certainly do everything within their power to prevent that (including withdrawing funds which would leave the OSMF in financial peril because the strongly increased costs make it depend on regular corporate contributions).
  • A decision on the matter is avoided by dragging out the process indefinitely. Although not ideal, because it would be a kind of unstable situation, this would be acceptable for the corporations because it would maintain the status quo of the OSMF not becoming active against data users with insufficient attribution. It would also avoid an open break with the OSM community, although there would be likely increasing pressure from the OSM community on the OSMF to get active in cases of insufficient attribution by the OSMF’s corporate financial contributors.

Some will likely reject my idea that the corporate takeover of the OSMF has already happened. They will argue that if that was true, corporations would push much more aggressively for their interests. I don’t think that is the case though. As explained, the primary interest large corporations have in the OSMF is not positively accomplishing something, it is preventing things negative for their interests from happening. Accomplishing that is much more valuable for them than anything they could proactively try to push for in the OSMF.

What we will certainly see in the coming years is corporations trying to consolidate their influence on the OSMF, in particular by more and more corporate employees being encouraged to volunteer and being paid for work on the OSMF in the working groups, on the board, in committees and other ways. This will happen rather quickly in most of the working groups probably, supported by the move of the OSMF to position itself more like a corporate actor which, as i have explained before, is likely going to have a negative effect on motivating volunteers without career interests in OSM for the OSMF. My estimation is that in 1-2 years a solid majority of the people engaged actively in the OSMF in one way or the other is either employed in some form in an OSM related job or otherwise has a carreer interest at least partly motivating their involvement in the OSMF. Most of them will be employed by corporate OSM data users or organizations around OSM like HOT. Currently in the OSMF board for example we have already at least three members to whom this applies, two corporate employees (Mikel and Paul), one small business employee (Rory).

Centralization of the OSMF

The other big upcoming trend in the OSMF i can observe is an increased centralization of power towards the board. The OSM community overall is highly decentralized and the OSMF has always been kind of an abnormality within that with its hierarchical structure. But traditionally in the OSMF most of the work has been done in the working groups – including development of policies – and the working groups had a high degree of independence, starting from being created by grassroot initiative from within the community, to allowing also non-OSMF members to participate and to by convention allowing board members to contribute, but not allowing them to have a lead role. We more recently, however, see a trend towards more and more policy being either actively influenced by the board or being developed by the board itself from the start. Early manifestations of this trend were the already mentioned Crimea decision (where the board overruled standing policy developed by the working groups) and the organized editing policy (where the board flat out rejected the first draft of the DWG and demanded a more lenient policy). This year we saw a large number of cases where the board created internal policy, often presenting the results as a done deal without having an open discussion – like in case of the diversity statement – further emphasizing this trend.

In addition, as i have discussed in the first part, we saw during the past year the establishment of several committees (a concept that previously did not exist in the OSMF) – put together by and under direct control of the board. And for this year’s general meeting we have an AoA change proposed that allows the establishment of committees consisting of board members and OSMF members and to delegate any powers of the OSMF board to these. In other words: It would allow the OSMF board to recruit volunteers or paid staff (paid by either the OSMF or by third parties) and delegate any kind of function of the board to them. Obviously, such committees would be under immediate and absolute control of the board, people could become members of such committees only by appointment by the board and the board could dissolve or remove powers from such a committee at any time. But, in contrast to the working groups – which don’t have any formal powers and depend for any meaningful decisions on approval by the board – the commitees could be equipped with any of the formal powers and rights the board has within the OSMF.

The effect the establishment of such committees would have is a massive shift in power within the OSMF from the working groups towards the board. Currently the board is essentially limited in what they can do by their numbers. Board members are not able to delegate their formal powers to others. Work requiring more hands can only be done by the working groups, which have a high degree of independence. If the mentioned resolution passes, the board would essentially no more depend in any way on the working groups of the OSMF – they could assign any tasks so far in the remit of the working groups to the committees they appoint and control without any restrictions.

We can already see right now that the board is increasingly trying to take direct influence on what the working groups do and how they work. In public communication they have expressed an interest in reshaping the remit of the CWG and to reactivate the EWG (which – since the EWG is completely inactive right now outside Google summer of code management – amounts to nothing less than bootstrapping a new working group, something the current board at the beginning of the current term still considered inappropriate).

An interesting test case for the tendency of the board to seek direct control over what happens in the OSMF is the establishment of the planned software dispute resolution panel. The DWG has expressed interest in this task but it seems likely that the board will prefer to directly control the composition of this panel.

What is not visible is any indication that this trend in centralization of power in the OSMF is balanced in any way by more independent oversight over decisions and processes within the OSMF. The idea, for example, that the local chapters could gain some kind of meaningful power in the OSMF’s structure and processes, or that the OSMF could share control over key elements of the OSM infrastructure (database rights and the contributor database) with the local chapters, is not in sight. Given how keen the current board seems to be to gain more immediate control over everything within the OSMF, it seems unlikely that the board will be willing to relinquish any power voluntarily any time soon.

Decreasing diversity and brain drain

Another trend that has already been visible for quite a few years is the increasing difficulty for the OSMF to attract competent and committed volunteers. As i have pointed out in context of the plans of the OSMF of paying people for work, this will likely have a significant negative effect on volunteer motivation.

Now, if you see this problem only as a numbers game, it is not unlikely that it is possible to fill this deficit with paid people (paid either by the OSMF or by external interests) or by people which view volunteering in the OSMF as a career builder. As indicated above, this development is already in progress. There are a number of effects this is going to have:

  • Parts of the OSMF (working groups, committees) will become increasingly dominated by culturally narrow circles of people with shared interests (like their careers or shared interests of outside organizations they are affiliated with) – interests which are distinct from the funadamental goals and values of OpenStreetMap. This process is going to be self emphasizing because once this happens the working group or committee in question becomes increasingly unattractive to anyone outside this narrow spectrum who does not share the interests of the group – even if that group of people considers themselves to be open and welcoming to others.
  • It will probably be in particular the deeply committed OSM community members who have many years of experience in the project for whom volunteering in the OSMF will become increasingly unattractive and who will likely seek to contribute in functions outside the OSMF. That means there is likely to be a quite significant brain drain of competency and experience.
  • The de facto goals of the OSMF will increasingly drift away from the goals and values of the OpenStreetMap project to the special interests and culture specific values of those who happen to be dominating the organization. From within the OSMF and its communicative echo chamber it will potentially not be so visible – the prevailing opinion on the OSMF board often already seems to be that that OSMF’s and OpenStreetMap’s goals are neccesarily identical, in an L’état, c’est moi kind of way.

Seeking influence on OpenStreetMap

As a result of what i wrote in the previous sections it seems likely, and there are already indications for it, that the OSMF is going to increasingly try to take influence on the OpenStreetMap project itself, getting in conflict with the basic premise of the OSMF of supporting the project but not controlling it. The fields in which this is likely going to happen are in particular:

  • Community communication channels: One prevailing narrative from within the OSMF more recently has been that “fragmentation of communication” in the OSM community is a big problem that needs to be addressed. That terminology is in itself interesting by the way – the same thing, when considered positively, is called diversity, when deemed negatively it is framed fragmentation. But that just as a side note. We can expect there to be strong pushes from within the OSMF to try taking tighter control over communication channels hosted by the OSMF by imposing behavior regulation. If these attempts will be successful will need to be seen. What can be said with near certainty is that if that happens it would have the opposite effect of what it claims to want, it would more strongly fragment the communication within the OSM community by essentially squeezing out those who do not want to subject themselves up-front to a narrow culture specific communication rule set in their communication and who would move to communication channels outside the control of the OSMF.
  • The OpenStreetMap website: Traditionally the OSMF has no say in the design of the OpenStreetMap website – it is developed in the classic OSM tradition of do-ocracy and consensus. But there have been increasing voices from within the OSMF expressing the desire to less prominently feature the map as the symbol and the main instrument of inter-cultural cooperation in the OSM community and re-design it more like a corporate website and more proactively communicating the OSMFs interests to the visitor. We will likely see a move in that direction in the coming year – if that is going to be successful is not sure in my eyes though.
  • Mapping and tagging: The OSMF board has last year already made a move that could lead towards taking an influence on mapping and tagging in OpenStreetmap, something that is in principle strinctly forbidden by the mission statement of the OSMF, through the plans for a software dispute resolution panel. The primary purpose of the panel is resolving conflicts w.r.t. development decisions of the iD editor which are primarily conflicts about tagging presets and validation rules. Deciding on such conflicts (which is what such a panel would need to do) would inevitably amount to making tagging decisions. The OSMF of course has no means to enforce such decisions currently beyond their influence on the iD development, but still, the potential of attempts in that direction is definitely there. As i have explained above, a secondary interest the financiers of the OSMF have is steering the craft mapper community into a direction beneficial for their data uses. Members of the current OSMF board have already expressed that they deem usefulness of the geodata collected in OSM as the primary goal of the project – in contrast with the traditional goals and values of the project which put in foreground community cohesion. And if you assume usefulness of the data to mean usefulness for the economically important corporate data users’, interests of the corporations and goals of the OSMF board seem to align here. Still, in contrast to the previous two points where clear trends and already visible, on this matter i would not make a clear prediction.

Conclusions

Now this outlook onto the next years is obviously rather bleak and, indeed, my view of the near future of the OSMF is fairly dark. For OpenStreetMap in general i see this, however, as a valuable chance to emancipate itself from the OSMF a bit more – which, no matter where the OSMF is steering, would be a healthy thing. And i also want to point out a few chances i see for the OSMF in the near future. As i will explain, the likeliness of these actually happening is quite small – yet i find it important to show that the OSMF is not inevitably doomed, but that what happens still depends on the people in positions of power making responsible decisions and there is still a possibility for developing into a much more positive direction. Two examples:

  • With the Brexit and the possibility that a move of the OSMF from the UK to the EU is advisable, there is a real chance in the context of such a move to restructure the OSMF from the highly hierarchical and centralized form essentially required by British company law, into a federated organizational structure with checks and balances and meaningful subsidarity rules, as it would be appropriate for an organization within the highly decentralized OSM community. This is, unfortunately, highly unlikely to happen even if a move of the OSMF takes place, because it would essentially require the OSMF board to decide to give away much of its power to more federated authorities in a new organizational structure. But the possibility is there – there are no meaningful principal hurdles against implementing such a change beyond the general difficulty of moving the organization in the first place.
  • The OSMF has the chance, due to the strongly increased public visibility in the last years, to gather the necessary means (and i mean this independent of contibutions of larger corporate financiers with either explicit or implicit strings attached) to return to and to concentrate on positioning itself as a neutral infrastructure provider for the OSM community. With that i mean to – like a state providing roads and other infrastructure to its citizens – provide neutral infrastructure for everyone to use without discrimination. This idea is not the same as desiring a very small OSMF. Infrastructure can be extensive and expensive. If the OSMF would want to offer each local community around the world the infrastructure to design and run their own real time updated map for example, the costs of this would be fairly massive but at the same time it could be highly beneficial for supporting cultural diversity in the OSM community. The key here would be neutrality and non-discrimination. Much of what the OSMF currently does in new money spending is not – the already cited idea to financially support people whose work we know and enjoy is fundamentally incompatible with this idea. Unfortunately, like in the previous point, this vision would require restraint from the OSMF board to resist any urge to govern and actively steer OpernStreetMap in a direction they deem desirable – something i do not see being likely to happen with the current board.

As i wrote in part 1 of this post, i present my prediction for the direction in which the OSMF is headed here to be proven either right or wrong by what will actually happen. And i would be happy to be proven wrong – either by what the future will actually bring or beforehand by convincing arguments brought up by those who see a different development coming. In other words: I openly challenge anyone who disagrees with my analysis to present and argue for their own predictions in public.

One thing the OSMF board seems to have lost over the past year is the willingness to expose their vision and their plans and ideas to an open discussion and try to convince the OSM community of the merits of their ideas in open discourse. Probably at least in parts because with the money the OSMF has, it seems easier to just buy the implementation of your plans instead of engaging with and convincing the community to support you.

And i call to everyone in the OSM community to not accept this. Whether you have the feeling the OSMF is going in the right direction or not, whether you agree with my analysis here or disagree: You should require people in the OSMF to present arguments and reasoning that convince you of the merit and the solidity of their plans and their actions and require them to present a meaningful vision and expectations for the success and outcome of their actions which can be tested against the actual future development just like my predictions. What is best for OpenStreetMap is not the median of all interests articulated, weighed with the amount of money behind them. What is best for the project can only be decided through arguments and reason.

November 13, 2020
by chris
2 Comments

The OSMF – changes during the past year and what they mean for the coming years – part 1

In my previous blog post regarding the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) i indicated that i was going to write a bit on the high impact changes that have happened in and around the OSMF during the past year and what implications they are going to have for the coming years – both on the OSMF internally as well as the relationship with the larger OpenStreetMap community.

Some of the changes i list in the following are probably universally agreed on to be of significant impact on the future of the OSMF and the OpenStreetMap project, while others are probably changes others consider insignificant procedural modifications – some of them are possibly even changes that the OSMF board and working groups have not been consciously aware of that they happened. You can obviously have different opinions on this kind of thing – significance of changes is evidently a subjective assessment. The reason i list them here is because they play a role in the predictions on the future development of the OSMF i will discuss afterwards.

Communication habits and style

One of the most impactful changes during the past year – yet also probably one of the more subtle ones, especially for those not that familiar with the OSMF organizational culture during the previous years – is the change in communication habits and style within the OSMF, in particular regarding the board. I already mentioned that the past year was within the OSMF characterized by a fairly massive rollback in transparency and a decrease in open and public deliberation on decisions. Identifiable components within that field are in particular

  • The OSMF board has closed half of their meetings to the OSMF members. The closed meetings are not officially called board meetings and they are created in addition to the monthly official meetings allowing the board to pretend that transparency has not decreased but for everyone who has listened in on board meetings in previous years and now can see that the character of the public meetings has changed fundamentally: there is almost no deliberation on decisions any more, most decisions are undisputed – meaning that the decision has often essentially already been made in non-public communication and the vote in the public meeting is just pro forma.
  • The volume of non-public internal communication of the OSMF board has increased massively – probably at least by an order of magnitude – compared to previous boards. This is not publicly directly visible but can be derived from public statements that have been made and is confirmed by non-public statements of individual board members. At the same time, the volume of public two-way communication of the board members with the larger OSM community on publicly recorded channels has decreased. This can be attributed to several fairly communicative board members having left the board (in particular Frederik, but to some extent also Heather). Additionally it can also be explained by the current board members being more familiar and more comfortable with a sparse and asymmetric top-down style communication in public and perceiving publicity in communication as a burden.
  • The OSMF board also started having closed meetings with external interests, in some cases on a regular basis. This was extremely rare before. We only have limited insight into such meetings in some cases based on minutes published, but they reveal a disturbing level of ruthlessness in lobbying by those external interests that puts into the question the wisdom of having such meetings without public oversight.
  • Most public communication of the board has now the character of after-the-fact presentation of their views on matters where they have already made up their mind rather than a public deliberation in the early phase of a decision making process meant to gather outside perspective before the board members have formed an opinion. In some cases this has gone to extreme forms where the board has released certain highly significant pieces of information just minutes before a public meeting.
  • Public statements of board members also indicate that they view the larger OSM community – or at least critical views from within it – with animosity (example).

Some unexpected positive developments during this year in communication habits in the OSMF we owe to the COVID19 pandemic. This essentially forced changes that were previously suggested already but rejected:

The question is of course how sustainable these positive developments will be or if the powers-that-be will push to restoring previous habits despite their disadvantages of exclusivity and environmental impact.

Social structure of and diversity within the OSMF

One of the first things the current OSMF board did during their term was introducing the so called diversity statement – which i commented on and analyzed in detail and which, as explained, essentially codifies the English language and Anglo-American cultural dominance in the OSMF. Practical effects of this have been relatively subtle so far but there are a few trends becoming visible as to the diversity in the OSMF.

What has happened as a very positive step during the last year is that the board got free membership for active OSM contributors on the way – as mandated by the members in the last general meeting with huge majority. Very late during the year, essentially last minute for applicants to still be able to vote in the upcoming general meeting, but still it did happen and it was apparently quite successful. It is unclear if and how far this changed the membership structure of the OSMF – there have so far only been overall statistics published and no separate numbers on the free membership members. The fact that the application form is available in English language only (though separate translations exist meanwhile) is not a good sign though. In any case, one of the key flaws of the newly established system is that for non-mapping contributions the board decides with practically no external oversight on who may or may not become an OSMF member without paying a membership fee and who, as a result, is among other things able to decide on the composition of the board.

When i look beyond the membership, the OSMF has mostly become less diverse during the past year. That applies to the composition of the board, the working groups and to people who have an influence on what happens in the organization as well as in diversity in work style and work culture. The board is now an all male board with exclusively members from Western Europe and North America – four native English speakers and three Western Europeans (from Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg) all fluent in English. None of them has any cultural background outside Europe or North America.

In the working groups we can observe an increasing difficulty in recruiting qualified hobbyists with diverse backgrounds. As a result of this we saw on the one hand some becoming increasingly dominanted by corporate employees. This is most visible in the Licensing Working Group where the two remaining members who were not corporate employees have left during the past year (Simon and Nuno) and which is now a pure corporate lobbying group (except for Guillaume serving as a board liaison).

On the other hand, we are also seeing a trend of working groups forming increasingly closed and culturally narrow ecosystems within the OSMF, representing relatively narrow and special interests but pursuing them as if they were the interests of the whole OpenStreetMap project. Apart from the LWG, the Local Chapters and Communities Working Group is the main example here. It was established last year and is essentially in pursuit of the mentioned diversity statement but with no commitment to the traditional values and goals of the OpenStreetMap project or with a believable aim to represent the full diversity of local communities in OpenStreetMap (which is obviously impossible in an English language only framework).

A fairly massive trend we have seen during the past year was the establishment of additional ad hoc comittees in the OSMF through the board. The first of those was the diversity committee. The board at first wanted to establish a new working group for that but then realized that it is against established practice for the board to bootstrap working groups. So they created what they called a committee – which is kind of like a working group under direct control of the board. Later added were the microgrants committee (links to details on the members) and the FOSS policy committee. Recruitment of members for these to the outside was based on a public call for volunteers, but actual selection was intransparently done by the board. While it appears like these committees are open to anyone who wants to participate to do so, the board is actually the active gatekeeper here being able to make sure the committees are composed to their liking. Beyond the political preferences of the board (the quote from Guillaume from a different context: People “whose work we know and enjoy” characterizes this quite well) composition of the committees seems roughly based on the diversity statement mentioned above – people have been choosen strictly with a demonstrated good English language communication ability, some effort was put into into female representation and some exotic flavor in form of geographic diversity – but strictly no one with any kind of critical attitude towards the dominating organizational culture in the OSMF. If this was due to selection by the board or due to the lack of applicants i don’t know – but it does not matter. If the board reserves the right to hand pick the composition of the comittees to their liking without transparency or oversight, that obviously makes them unattractive to people with a less adjusted culture and opinion.

So far the committees have not been having a lot of influence, even the microgrants committee has in their selection essentially been overruled by the board, which hand picked several submissions not selected by the committee for separate financial support. But it is clear that the board here is experimenting with ideas how to establish more centrally controlled structures within the OSMF (as opposed to the working groups which traditionally have a high degree of independence). For the upcoming general meeting there is another proposal up to be voted on by the members to establish another kind of committee that is even more tightly controlled by the board and to which the board actually could delegate substantial decision making power.

A significant positive change in this field we saw last year was an increasing number of new local chapters being formally recognized by the OSMF. This is definitely a positive development. The OSMF board has however not taken the logical step to give the local communities a substantial say and formal power in the OSMF. Instead they have engaged in a number of fairly erratic steps: de facto dissolving the Advisory Board, giving local chapters an approximately once per year speaking slot of ten minutes in public board meetings – de facto required to be in English language – and most recently having a fairly ad hoc decision to have an audio meeting with local chapter representatives – which was also in English obviously and therefore visited mostly by native English speakers. It seems essentially the board is stuck here in the commitment to English language and Anglo-American cultural dominance in the OSMF, combined with the de facto impossibility to engage in a meaningful discourse with the local OSM communities world wide without opening up to other cultures and languages.

Checks and balances within the OSMF, applicability of rules

We had prominent failures of the OSMF complying with their own decisions and policy in the past – most notably the Crimea decision in which the board ignored standing OSMF policy to make a politically opportune decision. This year we had an – in my memory – unprecedented number of cases where the board simply ignored their own policy in their decisions and actions. I mentioned some of the more prominent cases in my previous OSMF related blog post already.

What we also saw during the last year was the complete and ostentatious failure of the OSMF in implementing meaningful corruption prevention measures. I wrote about the problem of corruption in and around the OSMF separately. As discussed there, the board has during the last year codified the grossly insufficient status quo in their dealing with conflicts of interests although, both before and afterwards, there have been cases where they failed to meet even these very weak requirements. When they discussed a particularly obvious case of failing to properly address conflicts of interest more recently they not only failed to draw any meaningful consequences from the demonstrated fact that they are not able to reliably recognize even their most obvious CoIs, they also made jokes about this during the meeting, explicitly demonstrating they are not taking the risk of corruption in the OSMF board seriously.

All of these things seem to be symptoms of a larger problem, namely the lack of any meanigful oversight or checks and balances in the OSMF. While the OSMF membership is in principle able to control the board and even dismiss individual board members with simple majority, practically this right is never exercized. Neither is the possibility of the membership to initiate and decide on resolutions in the general meetings to force the board to do certain things – like to follow their own policy. During the past years i have – often to the (at times) strongly articulated displeasure of the board – been by far the strongest critical voice within the OSMF and i have been fairly alone in that – though in individual conversations with others i have had much more differentiated and supportive feedback both from people who agreed with and those who disagreed with my critique. The board essentially has almost zero short term practical incentive to follow their own rules and policy. But, in the long term, the overall credibility of the organization and its ability to have a positive influence on the OpenStreetMap project suffers enormously from that.

Economic changes

The likely most impactful change the OSMF board has made during the past year is the massive increase in planned expenses of the OSMF. Traditionally, the largest part of the expenses of the OSMF is in computer infrastructure. Smaller amounts of money went into trademarks, face-to-face meetings of board members and other things. The SotM conference was also a larger cost factor but also usually brought in at least as much money as it costed. Almost all work in the OSMF, except for part time administrative assistance and specialized work like accounting, was done by volunteers. The costs of this were covered largely by routine donations, earnings through SotM, individual membership fees and targeted donation drives as needed.

Due to the tiered corporate membership system introduced some years ago and several large bicoin donations, the OSMF had towards the end of last year become fairly wealthy relative to the typical yearly expenses and with that background the board has now decided to start spending fairly significant amounts of money on paid work of various kinds. This decision came from within the board – potentially involving external advise but if that was the case it has not been disclosed to the membership. Public consultation on this matter took place – in line with the general pattern i described above – only on parts of the matter (specifically not on the project spendings) and only after the board members had already made up their mind on the topic.

I already commented on the likely social impacts of this move to more paid work in the OSMF. The other important impact of this development is that it massively increases the economic dependency of the OSMF on corporate money. Previously the OSMF was in a financially sustainable sitation, independent of regular corporate contributions, because the necessary spendings could be financed through donation drives and regular donations. This is no more sustainably the case right now and this will worsen in the future because the massive spendings on personell will likely incur additional administrative costs not yet budgeted for.

The effects of this are already visible to the keen observer – large corporate funding contributors of the OSMF, in particular Facebook, have during the past 1-2 years been increasingly bold in ignoring the attribution requirements of the ODbL and the OSMF has during the past year carefully avoided to take any actions of substance in that field. Of course the OSMF board will strongly reject the idea of there being any relationship between their non-action on the attribution matter and the significance of corporate contributions to the OSMF’s financial health in the long term. But the huge economic importance that the good will of the corporations has for the OSMF now is hard to deny. The massive lobbying of corporate representatives in the LWG and in non-public meetings and communications of corporate representatives with the OSMF board speaks for itself.

The important thing to recognize about the major strategic shift in the OSMF of moving from pure volunteer work to at least partially paid work is that it was not argued for through the benefits of it outweighing the disadvantages and risks – a real risk analysis was apparently never made. The main argument was essentially that it is a change without alternatives. Given the likely impacts on volunteer motivation the necessity of this change is of course a self fulfilling prophecy.

Policy changes

A field where relatively little of impact happened last year is in the domain of policy. The board decided on and published quite a large number of internal policy documents but given the slack practice of the board following their own rules these are not much more than momentary expressions of intention and not something that can be relied on in the long term.

The only major development in terms of policy during the last year was the continued drafting of an official guideline on attribution of OSM data use. The LWG (which is as i have pointed out above dominated by employees of corporate data users) has drafted essentially a wishlist of how they would like to see the OSMF to interpret the license in the most profitable way for them in the short term. The board has made some very minor changes to that – which immediately were strongly opposed by the corporate people on the LWG.

The hobby mapper community has rejected both the LWG and the board draft as grossly insufficient, in particular the fact that they – without any basis in the ODbL – intend to allow data users to not display attribution for OSM data use in cases where it is inconvenient for them. I have tried to summarize the views of the craft mapping community in an independent draft for guidance on attribution – which, just like the critical remarks of others in the community, seems to have been largely ignored by the LWG and the board.

At the moment it is not clear what will happen on that front – if the board will take a stand against the hands that feed the OSMF so to speak or if they will accomodate the interests of corporate data users and accept the possibility of an open break with the craft mapping community.

What has also not happened on the policy front is that the board has – despite the need for decisions and actions being fairly clear for more than a year and having been called for by the LWG for quite some time – not taken any steps w.r.t. the upcoming Brexit and the resulting legal and practical operational risks for the OSMF (as a formal British organization but with its main function closely tied to EU database protection legislation). The board investing a lot of time and money into other fields while not doing anything of substance on the Brexit front (at least nothing visible to the membership or the public, specifically they apparently so far have neither decided to prepare for a move nor decided to definitely stay in the UK) is worrying.

Conclusions

Overall, this look back at the past year probably seems like a fairly massive list of grievances regarding the work of the OSMF during that period with only a few bright lights in between. I therefore like to emphasize that for the most part these developments are not the result of malicious intent. As far as i can see the OSMF board is well meaning with many of the changes implemented during the past year i listed above, trying to address issues they perceive to be urgent based on their own perspective and based on the voices within the OSM community they listen to. But, unfortunately, they seem to be unaware of the problematic consequences and risks many of these changes are going to have – due to their own inability to recognize them and the unwillingness to listen to and engage with the arguments and reasoning of those with a more critical view. As i have expressed before, the current board seems to view their public communication mostly as a negotiation of different interests, so critical arguments regarding changes that the board plans are predominantly perceived to be conservative interests that want to keep things as they are for conservatism only and as such are dismissed. It does not seem to be on any of the board members’ radar that the possibility that the full diversity of perspectives in the project (which many of us view both as a challenge and a highly rewarding aspect of OpenStreetMap), is not only valuable but also essential to fill the gaps in the understanding of the social mechanisms within the project each of us (including the board members) has. As a group of seven people often intensely engaged in internal communication among themselves and often dealing with the same matters for weeks, the board has a much increased risk of getting the wrong impression that their collective perception of the project is sufficient to make good decisions without engaging in an open discussion with other views.

In the second part i am going to continue with a lookout on what seem to be likely developments for the coming years in the OSMF, based on what we have seen this year. This is meant to provide more concrete illustration why i see many of the developments of the past year critically. But also it is meant to provide a public test case for my reasoning to some extent – if i am wrong in my predictions i will be happy to admit that i have misjudged the situation. If however i turn out to be right no one can say afterwards that they were surprised by the developments.

October 12, 2020
by chris
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Mapping images update

After more than a year without changes i added a number of new images for mapping in OpenStreetMap to my collection. The reason for the gap was that i needed to make some changes to allow the setup to scale better after the tile database had grown to more than 10GB.

What i added so far is:

A new Sentinel-2 image of Ushakov Island – the last larger island discovered on Earth in 1935 – and which due to changing ice margins could use an update in OSM.

Two new Landsat images of Northern Greenland from this year – the first from early July and the second from late July. Both have quite a bit of cloud cover so you need to look which is best in the particular area you want to map. You can also still find the older images i previously added for the area.

An autumn colors Sentinel-2 image from 2019 of the eastern Alps supplementing the one from the western Alps i added before. This is useful for leaf_cycle mapping of forests and in some areas also for updating glacier extents. But beware that there is some fresh snow in October already of course.

An updated Sentinel-2 image of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia from September this year featuring autumn colors in addition to the current status of construction work.

All new images are going to be available in the editors soon probably – if you can’t wait you can also add them manually based on the links provided on my preview map.

October 2, 2020
by chris
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Autumn colors 2020

Some impressions from this year’s autumn from a satellite perspective.

Eastern Franz Josef Land in late Autumn 2020

The first one is a glimpse of eastern Franz Josef Land (most prominently featuring Graham Bell Island and Wilczek Land) with a mixture of the last traces of summer thaw in the form of bluish glacier ice and a first hint of snow and frost on the not ice covered areas.

The second is a view from south of the Suntar-Khayata Range in the Russian Far East.

South of the Suntar-Khayata Range in Autumn 2020

In this area autumn colors prominently highlight the two most common tree types in much of northeastern Siberia – Larix gmelinii (Dahurian larch) and Pinus pumila (Siberian dwarf pine). The larch features a yellow-orange color in autumn while the pine stays green.

Larch often dominates in the lower parts of the valleys around the rivers while the pines are more common on the upper slopes near the tree line.

What can also be nicely seen in this view is the naled or Aufeis at higher altitudes in the valleys where river water flooding land areas and freezing at the surface during winter has led to the formation of ice cover that – as can be seen – in some cases does not fully thaw over the summer which is visible in a highly contrasting white on images.

Towards the south tree types become more diverse and the interpretation of the colors less clear. Also the change in colors has not yet progressed that far.

The third and last image is from the Kamchatka Peninula showing the bright white of the freshly snow covered cone of the Kronotsky volcano between the darker autumn colors of the area.

Kronotsky, Kamchatka in Autumn 2020

All images based on Copernicus Sentinel-2 data. For Orientation: Locations of all the views shown can be found in the following map:

September 14, 2020
by chris
3 Comments

OSMF general meeting and board elections

The date for this year’s general meeting of the OSMF with the election of three board members has been announced a few days ago. Since in previous years i have quite extensively covered the OSMF board elections some will probably expect me to do this again this year. I have decided however not to do so. There is likely not going to be a detailed commentary on candidates, on the OSMF membership structure or analysis of the election results here. I want to explain a bit of the background that led me to this.

Last year i, for the first time in the history of my involvement in the OSM community, gave a concrete voting recommendation for the OSMF board elections. In retrospect however i have to say that recommendation turned out to be wrong. Not in the sense that the candidates recommended clearly turned out to be a worse choice than other candidates running but in the sense that my recommendations were based on expectations that turned out to be wrong. Or in other words: Even if the recommendations i made were the right ones considering the alternatives i made them for the wrong reasons.

There are a large number of observations that led me to this critical assessment but the most obvious and easiest to understand is probably the following: The public board meetings introduced by the 2016 board have widely been considered a highly significant move towards better transparency of the OSMF and as fundamental in facilitating oversight of the OSMF board through the OSMF membership. Over the years many of the public discussions on OSMF policy in the OSM community originated from these meetings and they have developed into a crucial component of the OSMF membership exercising their role of oversight over the board. Therefore when in the campaign before the previous board elections one of the candidates (Steve Coast) expressed his desire to close the meetings again this was widely considered as an ill advised, revisionist idea based on an elitist attitude and the failure to regard the social dynamics between the OSMF and the OSM community. Yet the new board in May started closing half of their meetings to the public and essentially stopped having any meaningful deliberation on decisions during the public meetings – or in other words: They have decided to explicitly not embrace the more parliament like nature the board has now as i explained in my last after-election analysis. This was somewhat disguised by calling the non-public board meetings ‘board chats’ but it is clearly visible that these are in fact board meetings – probably more so than the actual public board meetings which more and more degrade into a play presented as a facade to the public while the actual decision making all happens non-publicly now.

Another example for a surprising development was that within the microgrants program which finally after several years of gestation was brought on the way end of last year the practical implementation ignored just about every part of the framework the previous board had decided on – with the blessing and in parts even based on the initiative of the board – but without actually revising the framework itself.

Long story short – a lot of what the current board does, appears to not be very well thought through or erratic or just plainly does not seem to make a lot of sense from the outside perspective. And this is not just my own personal impression. Bewilderment and concern about many of the more recent board decisions and choices is fairly widespread among experienced community members. Many of them articulate that more carefully and less pointed than me but the overall sentiment is similar. And the factual refusal of the board members to engage in a critical argument based discussion in public in most cases does not help.

That is not meant to say everything the board has done during the past year is bad or is based on misguided motivations. Not at all. The board has attempted to address a number of highly important matters including such previous boards have not managed to deal with for many years. But in doing so they have too much focused on their narrow personal horizon and the echo chamber of their internal communication and as a result failed to see or to properly address aspects of the matters they dealt with leading to the mentioned bewilderment and concern.

That is also not meant to say what the current board has done since the last election has been universally unpopular. On the contrary. In particular the decision to start spending money on a fairly massive scale compared to previous years (with so far from what i can see between a quarter and one third of a million Euro being added to the per-year budget) has gained a lot of interest and support in particular from people and organizations who hope that some of this money might be used in support for their specific interests or that the OSMF might move to a more active role towards steering the OSM community into a direction in the interest of the OSMF membership or the financiers of the organization.

As i have written elsewhere these fairly massive changes will lead and are leading to more and more people starting to regard the OSMF as a commercial actor representing specific interests rather than a selfless advocate and supporter of the values of the project and its core interests and goals. I observe myself to also increasingly view the OSMF as such. And in general i try to invest my free time in fields where i can make a positive difference, where people are open to the arguments and reasoning i can provide and where people are willing to engage in an open discussion providing new insights for both them and me. Over the past half year this is less and less the case in the OSMF. Hence my motivation to contribute to the political processes within the OSMF is not very large any more.

What you can read between the lines in the above is also that i think the upcoming election is unlikely to change anything of substance in the direction of the OSMF. This direction has massively changed during the past year and even if the upcoming election results in three new board members who want to massively steer in a different direction that would – in combination with four remaining board members and their political convictions solidified over the past year – only have the potential to block further changes. It would however not revise the changes made during the past year which will therefore inevitably continue to have their influence on the social dynamics within the project and within the OSMF. That is not meant to say that if you vote and who you vote for in the upcoming election does not matter. Of course there are character traits and qualification that could be helpful in board members to address the mentioned problems (like the demonstrated ability to critically evaluate their own actions and decisions as well as the ability to recognize and appreciate things beyond their own horizon – not to mention that a few women or people with a cultural background from outside Europe and North America could help here obviously) but i don’t have confidence if any specific candidate could ultimately make a significant difference and especially not that i would be able to identify such a candidate.

What i will probably do before the elections is a review of the most impactful changes that were made in the OSMF during the past year and a prognosis in what direction the OSMF will develop in practical aspects during the next years based on these changes. Many of the more recent high impact decisions have not yet manifested in practical changes clearly visible to everyone but many of them allow for a fairly clear prognosis on what is going happen based on the economic and social context they have been made in. The OSM community is likely going to have to deal with an adversarial OSMF in the future more often than in the past – not so much due to decisions deliberately being made against the interest and goals of the project but due to neglect in considering consequences and listening to bad advise guided by special interests. Having an idea of upcoming developments in advance is going to be useful for dealing with that.

August 28, 2020
by chris
0 comments

South Sandwich Islands winter view

I have shown both summer and winter images of the South Sandwich Islands here before but a recent good weather window offered an opportunity for a much better winter view based on Sentinel-2 data.

South Sandwich Islands in Winter 2020

Sea ice extent is pretty far north this year, it often in winter ends somewhere between the islands but this year in the area reaches as far as 55 degrees north – that is further north than Cape Horn.


The image can as usual be found on the catalog on services.imagico.de.

August 20, 2020
by chris
0 comments

Severnaya Zemlya in August 2020

Last week there were a few days of exceptionally good weather in parts of the Russian arctic and this allowed me to assemble a cloud free satellite image mosaic of Severnaya Zemlya – an archipelago i have featured here on the blog in the past – including a map which to this date remains the most accurate one of the islands available.

Severnaya Zemlya in August 2020

Clear views of the islands in summer are rare so the mid August window in this year has been the best opportunity for clear images for at least the last five years. The situation is also unusual in a different way. As you can see the Laptev Sea to the east of the islands is almost free of ice while there remains a significant amount of drift ice to the west on the Kara Sea. Historically in most years this is the other way round – the eastern coast of Severnaya Zemlya has in many years been enclosed by dense sea ice for most of the summer.

This image mosaic can be used to supplement the timeline of images of the Matusevich Ice Shelf and the Vavilov Ice Cap i have shown here before.

Matusevich Ice Shelf 2020

Vavilov Ice Cap 2020

Some more detail crops from the mosaic – which you can as usual find on services.imagico.de.



July 11, 2020
by chris
2 Comments

Conservatism, progressive and regressive change – framing in OpenStreetMap politics

A bit more than half a year ago i analyzed the political structure of the OpenStreetMap Foundation in the aftermath of the previous board elections. I identified two main factions within the OSMF membership – the craft mapping supporters and the corporate and professional interest faction. In terms of power balance these dominate the OSMF membership about 2:1. That is not representative for the OSM community obviously and as i pointed out back in the election analysis there are likely distinct other factions within the overall OSM community that are not adequately represented in the OSMF membership. Still, these two large factions are also present in the OSM community overall and their diverging views manifest frequently in policy related and other discussions.

I also pointed out that the craft mapping supporters are largely defined by a common set of values while the corporate and professional interest faction is defined through common interests. That is something to keep in mind in the following.

The reason why i revisit this topic now is that a new narrative has come up and is being communicated in the past months in OSMF politics – that is the need for change for OpenStreetMap and of conservative opposition from craft mappers against it. This narrative is largely coming out of the corporate interest faction and is framing the craft mapping supporters as conservative and opposed to any kind of change in principle and themselves as being the advocates of urgently necessary change. An OSMF board member has in public communication recently indicated to being inclined to adopt this narrative. I will get to that in more detail later.

What i did not discuss in my election analysis was how the factions i identified came into being historically. To get a realistic impression on the nature and the motivation of the different political movements in OpenStreetMap understanding the history of the project is paramount.

OpenStreetMap was founded and became successful largely because the existing situation of available cartographic data in many countries (in particular in Europe) was highly dissatisfying and disappointing for many people interested in maps. One part of the problem was that existing cartographic data producers, which were mostly government institutions, held a tight grip on their data making it difficult and expensive for everyone else to use it. But that was only one part of the problem. The more significant issue was that the data was poor quality for the needs of those using the maps. Poor especially in being an accurate representation of the local geography as perceived by the locals of the area. The reasons for that were largely that

  • the specifications to which the data was generated were decided by the needs of the institutional map producers who ultimately did not care about how accurately their data and data model represented the geographic reality and if it includes all the information relevant for the map users.
  • the technology and source data to produce cartographic data was kept under tight control by the mapping institutions where its broader availability could threaten their dominance on the market.
  • technical service companies and technology developers were working in a symbiotic relationship with the institutional map producers and due to that had no incentive for developing significant innovations or expanding their customer base in a way that might threaten that symbiotic relationship.
  • the actual data production was steered by cost efficiency so areas of low significance for economic and other institutional interests were typically extremely outdated.

As a reaction to this highly dissatisfying and severely deadlocked situation OpenStreetMap developed the approach to crowd sourced mapping that we all know today. Many of the fundamental principles of OpenStreetMap that the craft mapping supporters value today:

  • the focus on local knowledge,
  • the emphasis of OpenStreetMap as a social project and not merely as a collection of useful geodata,
  • the primacy of the local mappers and the local community of mappers in all decisions regarding mapping,
  • the free form and mapper centric tagging – not being designed for the needs of the data user but for convenience of and efficiency for the mapper,
  • the insistence on independence from any larger outside organizations, in particular w.r.t. any technology used for mapping,
  • the rejection of centralized decision making w.r.t. mapping and tagging,
  • the openness and transparency of all decision making processes

are a direct reaction to the described systemic issues of the cartographic data landscape the project faced when it was founded.

What happened then was that OpenStreetMap slowly but continuously gathered more interest among individuals to whom the premise of OpenStreetMap as a map by the people for the people appealed or who likewise felt the limitations of existing institutional cartography and wanted to participate in overcoming those. As OpenStreetMap grew and gained support among individuals, smaller businesses and startups, the cartographic institutions in different countries, as well as their customers (traditional map publishers as well as Google etc.), continued to ignore OSM – they were conservative in the sense that they were satisfied with the status quo in cartographic data and dreaded the risk of revolutionary changes. The individuals attracted by the project this way, as well as the businesses embracing and supporting the fundamental values of the project as described – and building business models around them – formed the core of the craft mapping supporters.

This continued until it became more and more inevitable for many cartographic data users to use OpenStreetMap data for economic reasons. This happened at different times for different data users – smaller companies and public institutions often being earlier than large corporations or big institutions. We have all seen for the past years many news headlines of prominent adoptions of OpenStreetMap. And this is obviously an ongoing process.

With the exception of some newly founded companies creating a business model explicitly around OpenStreetMap, very few of these late OpenStreetMap adopters actually wanted to use OSM data. Many in the OSM community have seen at one time or another some company trying to interact with the OSM community in a more or less clumsy way. The fundamental conflicts between typical corporate cultures and the social conventions of the OSM community are frequently discussed and fairly obvious. Many of these late OSM adopters would have very much preferred if OpenStreetMap was actually more like the institutional map producers – the shortcomings of which were the reasons OpenStreetMap was created and gained popularity. Of course preferably without the exorbitant license fees and the limitation to a national scope. And of course crowd sourcing work to reduce costs is perfectly fine as long as the volunteers are properly managed, based on the centrally defined needs of the stakeholders. These late and reluctant OpenStreetMap users who engage with the project not because they share its fundamental values but out of economic interests formed the core of the corporate and professional interest faction. That includes a large number of individuals who engage with OSM largely because they have or strive for a career in the domain of these commercial and institutional OSM data users.

It is important to keep in mind that the issues OpenStreetMap faced when it was founded are not overcome today, not by a long shot. In some countries institutional cartographic data producers have opened at least some of their data to the general public without artificial economic barriers but, as explained above, these barriers are only one of the things OpenStreetMap strives to overcome. The other thing that OpenStreetMap has accomplished is mainly breaking the dominance of centrally managed and non-inclusive data production steered by special interests instead of the needs of the people. But this accomplishment is fragile and will not last without ongoing commitment to the values of craft mapping described above.

I have talked to and listened to craft mappers and craft mapping supporters about their motives for supporting and emphasizing the traditional craft mapping values in a lot of cases and i rarely see anyone supporting these values due to a traditionalist, conservative attitude, in other words: who want to stick to these principles for their own sake and for stability and continuity itself. The vast majority of craft mapping supporters subscribe to the goals of fully democratizing cartographic data production. They see these principles as necessary parts of bettering our society in the way we manage and share our collective human knowledge of the world geography. In other words: The supporters of these traditional principles of OpenStreetMap support them as part of a shared truly progressive agenda in the original sense of the word. Many of them fight everyday for this goal and to overcome the issues and biases of institutional map production. Many of them would feel deeply insulted by the fact that their progressive values – which prove their usefulness and importance daily – are viewed by board members of the OSMF, who are meant to and have been elected to defend the values of the project, as a mere conservative clinging to traditions for their own sake and resisting change for no good reason.

The above illustration is remarkable and frankly a bit shocking because it fully adopts the views of the corporate and professional interest faction in disregard of the historic context as explained above.

What the above illustration does is fairly perfidious framing. It is titled “extreme positions” implying that it contrasts extremes on both ends of the political spectrum. But then if you look at the words used it is clear that the author – consciously or subconsciously – favors the right side and presents it as less extreme. Terms used on the left side imply radicalism (only, total) while the wording on the right side imply moderation (some, adapters) and concern (need, risk). If you wonder about the colors used – those match the colors of the US two party political system – red for the Republicans, blue for the Democrats. That fits the framing of the craft mappers as conservatives. The irony is of course that in Europe and elsewhere red is traditionally the color of socialist political movements.

To be clear – i do not just read things into a single, innocent slide taken out of context from a whole presentation here. Nowhere in the whole talk is there an acknowledgement of the present day relevance of the fundamental principles and values of craft mapping for the future of the project, values that OpenStreetMap as described above was founded on and that remain meaningful and essential to this day.

It is quite annoying to see corporate lobbyists pushing for example for automated data generation tools they designed and control, refusing and ignoring an open argument-based discourse on these, but then claiming that craft mapping supporters reject technological innovation in mapping in general. That is at best ignorant, at worst dishonest. But what’s more important – it is quite worrying to see OSMF board members subscribing to this narrative despite there being evidence in plain sight that this is wrong.

The sad thing for craft mapping supporters is not only that their progressive values are dragged into the mud but also that following the agenda of regressive, reactionary change of the corporate and professional interest faction would essentially mean rolling back what craft mappers through hard work have accomplished during the past 15 years. The main difference would be that control over cartographic data and its recording methods would no more be in the hand of government institutions on a national or subnational level but would be centrally managed on a global level largely in the interest of corporate data users with global ambitions.

I am aware that the above historical outline is much easier to understand for readers from Europe and other countries where the existence of monopolist institutional map producers formed and still forms a strong motivation for engagement in OpenStreetMap and for supporting its goals and values. In countries with either no dominant institutional cartographic data collection or where this is performed in a more open and more diverse fashion, this is much more difficult to understand without the first hand local experience. And i deeply sympathize with that difficulty. But it would be highly regrettable if other parts of the world could not learn from the painful experience we have made in some countries of Europe without making essentially the same mistake and letting cartographic data collection become dominated and controlled in a centralized, non-democratic fashion largely in disregard of local needs and local knowledge. And since OpenStreetMap is a global project it would not even be possible to let local communities newly learn this lesson without dragging the rest of the world into equally repeating history.

At the beginning of this post i linked to my after election analysis of the previous OSMF board election where i identified the two large political factions in the OSMF membership. In that same text near the end i also explained what i perceived to be the main challenges for the board this year, one being to embrace the more parliament like nature of the board which means having more open and constructive debate about the best decisions and engaging in open arguments with each other and the community about values, strategy and decisions. I emphasized this and the importance of a broad argumentative discourse on the merits of policy ideas later in comments. Unfortunately during the first half of this year the opposite seems to be the case. The board is more and more moving their deliberation on decisions into closed meetings and seems less and less willing to defend their plans and decisions in public discussion. Most board members have almost fully withdrawn from public two way discussion on OSMF politics on channels with a public record. Instead new closed formats have been introduced where the board confers with organized interests rather than individuals. The number of cases where in public board meetings there has been a substantial exchange of arguments w.r.t. a contested decision is minimal now. This is not a healthy development. The results – as they can be observed in the talk linked above – are not the product of malicious intent, they stem from views developed within the relatively narrow scope of the people on the board and who the board consults which misses a broader critical scrutiny through the whole diversity of knowledge and experience in the OSM community.

My advise to the board is to reconsider that direction. Making decision might seem to be easier if you take a more selective view and only listen to people you are comfortable listening to. But that is not a sustainable path. You don’t have to listen to my advice if you don’t like to but you should definitely subject your considerations and your reasoning behind decisions to critical evaluation also and especially from sides and viewpoints that you dislike, disapprove or simply are not aware of. The best way to do that is public scrutiny open to everyone and engaging in argumentative discourse with people who question your reasoning and decisions but if you have other ideas to do that feel encouraged to explore them as well. However having public consultations on position papers and interpreting the comments received like the results of a survey is not a substitute for actively engaging in an open struggle of arguments for finding the best decision.

But i also want to appeal to the craft mappers and the craft mapping supporters to always diligently communicate why and how the principles you value are important for the goals and the future of OpenStreetMap. Even if that seems self evident for you, it is not always for everyone else. I have done that on various occasions here on the blog and in many discussions elsewhere, but it is important for everyone to do this actively. And while this is relatively clear and undisputed for the central values and principles i listed above there are of course also traditions in OpenStreetMap that are not in support of the goals of the project. Being willing to have an open discussion about those with people who bring up a differentiated critique (and not just a blanket decrial of craft mapping values) is likewise essential for OpenStreetMap staying a force for progressive change.

TL;DR: The framing of craft mapping supporters in OpenStreetMap as conservatives opposed to change is inappropriate given the historic context and present day work of craft mappers all over the world towards progressive change. It has been created by regressive, revisionist interests that would like to roll back the ongoing democratization of geographic knowledge and its collection OpenStreetMap stands for in pursuit of short sighted economic goals.

July 7, 2020
by chris
1 Comment

SotM 2020 – a few thoughts on the experiment

Last weekend has been the 2020 State of the Map conference – which did not take place like it was originally planned and as it has been conducted in the past years at a specific physical place (in this case Capetown, South Africa) but was done in a purely virtual distributed form across the internet.

I regard this change – forced by the pandemic situation we all struggle with these days in some form – as in a way a welcome disruption. Due to an outside event the powers-that-be have been forced to try something they would not have tried probably in many years to come otherwise.

The implementation of the virtual distributed conference as an afterthought on an originally planned physical single place event led of course to some flaws and inconsistencies in the practical setup and to not using the full potential of the virtual setting in all of its aspects. This is obviously owed a lot to the desire not to throw away work already done. The most obvious issue resulting from that approach is that the main conference program contained almost exclusively program items submitted by people under the original premise of a physical conference – or in other words: The chance to hold a talk at the virtual conference still depended on the willingness and ability of people to travel to South Africa and be there for the talk in person.

This means the conference in its program was not even remotely as diverse as it could have been it it had been set up as a distributed remote conference in the first place. This should IMO be kept in mind by everyone evaluating how SotM 2020 turned out.

I regard the whole event mostly as an experiment to test various techniques and methods and means of communication to have a virtual conference in the OSM context. This applies both to behind-the-scene infrastructure and the public interfaces. If the SotM WG documents and shares their findings publicly that could have use far beyond SotM for the OSM community.

Practical observations from the conference

The pads for collecting questions and comments on talks worked great. This is definitely a concept that could play a central role in future distributed conferences. Initially the questions were asked anonymously which has led in particular in case of Frederik’s talk to quite a lot of people making vile comments under the disguise of anonymity. It was later established that questions and comments should be signed. I also think that the use of pads could be extended to non-talk program items like self organized sessions.

general feedback pad of the conference – there was a similar pad for questions and comments on each of the talks

The attractiveness of the pads to a large extent comes from the real time capability (which is essential for a real time conference obviously) combined with the non-linear free form structure of the text (which contrasts pleasantly with most other real time communication channels that tend to have a strictly linear structure).

There are quite a few things that could be improved about the audio. This starts with the levels of the pause music relative to the talk audio levels and continues with reverberations in poorly dampened rooms of some presenters and feedback noise in some people’s audio setup. That is mostly a matter of sufficient testing and experience with setting up and adjusting equipment in a way that works well. That takes time from everyone involved obviously. This is the hardest the first time but gets easier once you gain experience. And i am confident with the corona virus crisis incentivizing many people to gain more practice in remote communication knowledge and experience in this field is much improving every day. More communication about how to ensure good audio recording and communication quality within the community, sharing experiences and techniques used, would definitely be helpful.

None the less what also became clear to me during the conference is that the willingness of people to engage in communication was very clearly in the order written conversation > audio communication > video. I think this is an observation to consider for any audio or video conversation in the OSM context. Video meetings might be very convenient for heavily engaged extroverted community members with a pre-existing prominence but for many people this can be a source of discomfort. And cultural and language barriers can be strongly emphasized by use of real time audio and especially video communication.

Comments on the talks

I have not watched all the talks of the conference so this is more a list of anecdotal observations than a complete review. All the talks of the main conference program were pre-recorded while the Q&A after the talks were live. The pre-recorded talks offered a lot of options for presenters which would not be available in a live conference talk and which were used very differently by the presenters. Ilya in his talk Send me a Postcard IMO showed the most innovative approach to this. Watching this talk is recommended to anyone who in the future might be in the position to pre-record a conference talk as a positive example.

Some of the talks i watched so far that i consider particularly interesting:

Allan’s American perspective on the political spectrum of OSM

Allan’s keynote Winds of Change in OpenStreetMap – While this did not provide much new information of substance to those following OSMF politics in general and who have read past statements from Allan on that subject, it seems to provide a valuable glimpse into the current mentality of the OSMF board regarding their work. Although Allan had a prominent disclaimer that these are his personal views and do not represent those of the board, it is quite clear from statements and actions of other board members that they see many of these things similarly. There is quite a lot of accurate analysis in the talk but also quite a few highly questionable selective perceptions, assumptions and conclusions. I might comment about some of those separately although it is not clear at this time if the board is currently willing to openly discuss the merits of their views and opinions on the OSM community and the future of the OSM project and on the OSMFs role and defend their views and conclusions on these matters in a public setting.

Frederik explaining OpenStreetMap

Frederik’s talk There might have been a misunderstanding… – As usual Frederik explains in a well understandable way many of the central aspects of the OpenStreetMap project which new contributors as well as data users often struggle with because they differ from what people are used to, either in other internet communities or in the world of geodata. Naturally, a lot of these frequently misunderstood aspects of OSM are also fairly controversial and this has – as hinted above – led to a lot of critical and in parts insulting comments on the talk by people who would like these things to change and for OSM to become more compatible with their expectations. What Frederik presents however is for the most part not wishful thinking – presenting how he would like OSM to be – but how OpenStreetMap actually works and functions based on knowledge derived from many years of practical involvement in the project. Other long term participants will largely be able to confirm that. So whether you like these aspects of OSM or not and in what direction you might want OSM to develop in the future this is a very useful talk to watch to understand how OpenStreetMap ticks.

Mikel mocking concerns about conflicts of interest of corporate employees in the OSMF

Mikel’s talk An Incomplete History of Companies and Professionals in OpenStreetMap – Essentially Mikel is painting corporate activities in OSM and their history in rosy colors while saying: just pay no attention to all the skeletons lying around here. A lot could be criticized about selective presentations of facts as well as factual and logical errors or about the technique of jokingly dismissing and ridiculing differentiated philosophical critique of the influence of corporate interests in OSM. Anyway – I think this is a valuable talk to watch to get a glimpse into the mindset of many corporate employees involved in OSM as part of or in relation to their job.

Janet explaining aid work in rural Tanzania

Janet’s talk Building mapping communities in rural Tanzania – challenges, successes and lessons learnt – I found this interesting because of a certain observation. In the beginning a number of specific non mapping related examples are shown of aid being given to people in rural areas of Tanzania for everyday life problems. And emphasis is admirably given to helping locals solving these problems themselves in a sustainable and independent fashion using locally available means. Yet when it comes to mapping and digital technology the same initiative (and from what i know also many other humanitarian mapping projects) critiquelessly rely on commercial services and proprietary tools and encourage locals to use and rely on those services and tools that increase and perpetuate dependence of local people on non-local corporations for their local mapping work instead of educating people in using open source technology and tools they can manage and control themselves.

To be clear, i am not at all saying that this talk in any way constitutes an example for particularly bad practice in that regard, on the contrary the examples shown illustrate a principal awareness of the issue that is missing elsewhere. But to me it demonstrates quite well how fundamentally different measures are applied to the goal of supplying aid in a way that enables locals to solve serious problems in a sustainable fashion outside the digital world and within it.

Ilya making a case for sending postcards in an innovative style video

Ilya’s talk Send me a Postcard – I mentioned his talk already above as an example for making innovative use of the possibilities pre-recorded talks offer. Beyond that this talk is also recommended because Ilya has, more than most other prominent figures in the OSM community, a realistic appraisal of the challenges of inter-cultural communication in the OSM community.

Susanne explaining different approaches to localize a mapper from their editing work

Susanne’s talk Analyzing the localness of OSM data – this was one of the talks of the academic track which i found intriguing because it discusses a bit about how to thoroughly approach a subject from a scientific perspective – critically evaluating the concepts you intend to study in your research (here the localness of data and contributions in OSM) and defining the terms you use before you actually engage in studies. It does not present much in terms of actual results so this initial and highly important part of scientific work plays a prominent role in the talk. Like most scientific works analyzing OpenStreetMap in some form this also does not question the scientific profession’s own preconceptions (prominently manifested in the unquestioned assumptions that there has to be an inherent advantage in geodata collected by professionals compared to collection by hobby craft mappers) but it otherwise shows a thorough and open approach to the subject. Knowing the economic constraints of institutional scientific research these days i don’t have high hopes that the ambitious plans sketched in the presentation will be implemented without shortcuts being taken that devalue the results. But the willingness to be thorough is visible.

Looking into the future of distributed OSM conferences

In my opinion this conference – which as explained i regard as kind of an experiment – shows a bit on how much unused potential exists in the idea of a distributed conference. If this potential is being used in the OSM context in the long term significantly depends on how much the OSMF, the SotM working group and both the wealthy and influential international OSM jet set as well as the traditional corporate supporters of SotM conferences are willing to abandon the dear tradition of expensive and wasteful flying around the world to meet at a single place in large numbers in favor of trying out new and more inclusive possibilities.

A few further ideas on what possibilities a virtual conference format could offer beyond what has been tried this year:

In a distributed conference the hurdle to submit a talk proposal would be much lower because it does not require a commitment to make an expensive travel to the conference location. I can already imagine people fearing the program committee might be drowned in submissions. The solution to that is to not think of this in terms of a physical conference. You don’t actually need to make a pre-selection of talks based on abstracts submitted, you can let people simply submit their pre-recorded talks. That would require more effort on the side of a presenter than submitting a bloomy abstract which would filter out any non-serious submissions. And assessing a talk based on scrolling through the video for a few minutes is much fairer than doing so based on just an abstract. So having the program committee select talks rather than abstracts is likely the better and fairer option for a virtual conference. Alternatively you could skip the selection of talks altogether and simply make all submissions accessible to the conference visitors. After all a virtual conference is not subject to the physical limitation of available rooms. That you might not necessarily be able to offer a moderated live Q&A for all talks is clear – but there are options to solve that with some creativity.

The other idea is that a virtual distributed conference might be set up not only removing the constraint to a specific place but also spread out the conference in the time domain. Time zone differences are a serious issue with an international real time online conference – this could be observed at SotM 2020 quite well. So why not forego squeezing the conference into two days but instead spreading it across something like one or two weeks. A few days before the beginning of the actual real time part of the conference you make available the pre-recorded videos for everyone to watch at a time of their choosing. And they have the option to comment and ask questions asynchronously then. The speakers of the talks then have also some time to consider the questions and comments carefully before there is a moderated real time video session where the written feedback is discussed and further real time discussion is possible. The whole thing could be wrapped up by an integrated mechanism to allow speakers to provide some followup to the discussion in the days afterwards.

Allan (with Gregory as moderator) during his self organized Q&A session

With Allan’s keynote we had already a demonstration during this conference giving a bit of a glimpse on how this might work. There was no Q&A immediately after the talk but there was a longer Q&A later in the evening in form of a self organized session. Conference visitors in addition to asking questions during the talk streaming could afterwards for several hours re-watch the talk using the re-live feature and ask further questions and make comments. It was a bit unfortunate that Allan did not have more time to more carefully read the questions and prepare more elaborate answers which could have been the basis for a more interesting live discussion or later followup comments. But overall i think it was already visible how a more slowly paced dialog between presenters and visitors of the conference could facilitate a more productive and meaningful discourse.

To wrap up this blog post two more things: I consider it a fortune that with moving the conference to a distributed setting the scholarship program was scuttled for this year. From what i have heard the selection has already been completed and was conducted more or less like in past years despite the fundamental issues i pointed out before without any increase in problem awareness being visible in the OSMF. Had the scholarship program been actually gone through and again several ten thousand Euros of OSMF money been spent under questionable circumstances like this i would have felt compelled to completely boycott the conference because of that.

For future distributed conferences (no matter if they have a non-virtual component or not) it should be fairly obvious (and others have pointed this out) that with the money in the past spent on financing questionable short term travel around the world for a handful of selected individuals a lot more people (likely a factor of 10 to 100 more!) could be enabled in participating in the conference by spending a similar amount of money to finance access of people all around the world to digital communication bandwidth and equipment to participate in the conference remotely. That can take the form of subsidizing mobile data packages for individuals for the duration of the conference or things like renting a conference room with high bandwidth internet for a local group of mappers – many options would be possible here.

Finally i want to applaud the organizers for building the whole setup of the distributed conference mostly on open source software and open platforms. As it has been pointed out there is still room for improvement here by not prominently featuring proprietary communication platforms like Twitter, Telegram and Slack but the intention and commitment to be open on the core infrastructure is well visible. This is admirable especially considering not all events in the OSM world or even the FOSS world that have been moved to a virtual setting due to corona show such a commitment.

It would not be the internet without cat content – Ilya’s cat is making an appearance

July 1, 2020
by chris
6 Comments

SotM 2020 artwork – projections and generalization pitfalls in symbolic maps

The State of the Map conference of 2020 has recently published two logo designs for T-shirts and stickers and i want to have a few comments on cartography and design of those here.

Although i don’t know when these designs have been originally developed they seem to kind of reflect the overall weirdness of the virtualized conference which – while the conference being completely non-physical – tries to maintain the impression and the characteristics of a localized physical event as much as possible and unfortunately IMO also retaining much of the exclusivity of a conference where the costs of participation for the average visitor would have been in the order of EUR 1000 or more. While the virtual conference is open for participation as visitors to anyone without charge the main program consists of talks only by people who were originally willing and able to travel to South Africa for that purpose. But that is subject for a different blog post. This one is about cartography.

The designs developed for the conference you can find here (developed by Bernelle Verster, CC-BY-SA 4.0):

official SotM 2020 T-shirt design

official SotM 2020 sticker design

The map projections

First of all it is refreshing to see that neither of these show a mercator map. That is promising and admirable considering the overwhelming dominance of the Mercator projection in the OpenStreetMap world where Earth is essentially a square and the vast majority of people who produce maps and the vast majority of OSM specific data processing tools for map production know nothing else.

So what map projections have been chosen here? The first one uses the Dymaxion or Airocean projection. This is a variant of the class of icosahedral projections which map the approximately spherical surface of Earth to an icosahedron and then cut this open in some fashion to create a flat map.

generic icosahedron projection

The Dymaxion projection is somewhat more complex than plain icosahedral projections because it in some cases does not only cut along the edges of the icosahedron but through the faces. Combined with an optimized rotation of the icosahedron this allows a continuous display of the land masses of Earth with no larger land areas being cut and the rather limited distortion of mapping the spherical surface to the icosahedron faces leads to a overall very low distortion map.

the Dymaxion projection

This projection also has a different distinctive property – it is an interrupted projection, meaning it has an edge far longer than half the circumference of the earth. There are other, more common interrupted projection like the following.

Example of other interrupted projection

The advantage of the interruptions is that they allow the map to combine low scale and shape distortions within the non-interrupted parts of the map. They however have the disadvantage of being completely unable to properly represent relationships across the interruptions. In case of the Dymaxion projection the interruptions are placed over the ocean and as long as the map user is only interested in land areas this is fine. Things like the proximity of Africa and South America across the Atlantic Ocean however are not properly represented.

Another property of this projection is that there is no alignment whatsoever to the earth rotational axis. Some consider this an advantage claiming the Earth is spherical and without any direction having particular significance. This however neglects the fact that the rotation of the Earth is of fundamental importance for the planet and a map projection where this is not taken into account is poorly suited to illustrate climate zones or other phenomena related to the Earth rotation.

For a South Africa conference logo this map projection is an interesting choice because South Africa is located at the far periphery of the Dymaxion map – opposite to the main axis of the map formed by the Pacific Ocean rim. I am not sure if this was a conscious choice of the designers but in a way the Dymaxion map very prominently celebrates the unique position of southern Africa on Earth.

There are a number of peculiarities in the actual image of the T-shirt design. One is a phantom island in the Pacific Ocean west of the Galapagos Island which does not exist in the real world. The other is the incorrect location of Kerguelen Island ad the upper edge of the map only about half the distance from Australia compared to its actual location.


The sticker design in a way goes into a completely different direction and uses an orthographic map projection with southern Africa at its center. This essentially is the appearance of the Earth from infinitely far away above this location. It shows half of the planet only obviously – which might make people from North America especially uncomfortable possibly.

As an additional quirk it uses approximately a south up orientation – which positions the Antarctic approximately where the logo covers the map.

Generalization pitfalls

The sticker map brings me also to the second topic of this post – the cartographic generalization pitfalls of designing maps like this. The problem you are dealing with here is that for a T-shirt or a sticker you do not want an excessive amount of detail, you want a clear map where the shapes of the geography are well recognizable. This is a standard task of cartographic generalization but unfortunately maps like this are rarely made by actual cartographers. The most obvious problems with the generalization used are that the Red Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea are degraded to lakes in the Sticker design. That is a big no-no in cartography (although we see this also in interactive online maps which are often designed by software developers which unfortunately often leads to a neglect of the cartographic side of things).

One other issue – which is unfortunately also fairly common in other small scale maps – is the inconsistency in what islands are shown and not shown on the map. The Dymaxion map displays Hawaii, Galapagos and even the South Orkney Islands but neither the Falkland Islands or the Lesser Sunda Islands or New Caledonia.

Neither of the maps probably use OpenStreetMap data as a basis – which is a bit ironic for an OpenStreetMap conference of course. They even seem to use a different data basis which is visible in the Antarctic where the Dymaxion map misses the Ross Ice Shelf but includes the Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf while in the sticker map it is exactly the other way round. I hope this illustrates that taking care in data source selection and using accurate data of known and consistent quality is not something you can simply forgo when doing small scale illustrations. Though common practice already in pre-digital times picking a possibly decades old data set of unknown provenance out of convenience because it has already been preprocessed for your needs is rarely a good idea and often leads to replicating errors.

inconsistent rendering of the Antarctic in both maps

To demonstrate that and how these issues can be improved upon i prepared alternative versions of both designs. You can see and download them below. All of them are under CC-BY-SA like the original designs. Using ODbL OpenStreetMap data.

The projection of the sticker map is – although very similar – not completely identical and i produced different variations of the T-shirt design with different generalization levels and rendering styles of the coastline. Further individualization is encouraged.

I hope both the discussion of the issues with the maps in these designs and the demonstration of improvements to those help designers producing such illustrations understand better how quality cartographic work is at the core of any quality graphics design work involving maps. And maybe the few examples discussed here provide the interested reader a somewhat better idea of what constitutes quality in cartography in particular at small scales.

Sticker design with better generalization of the coastline based on OSM data (SVG)

Just the map without logo and text

T-shirt design with improved generalization – low detail version (SVG)

T-shirt design with improved generalization – high detail version (SVG)

T-shirt design with improved generalization – filled color version (SVG)

These are of course also examples of the map design and cartographic data generalization work that i am offering – if you have need for such services you are welcome to contact me about that.

June 20, 2020
by chris
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Single symbol patterns in maps

I have written quite a bit both theoretically as well as practically about the use of pattern for area characterization in map rendering. Using either a pictorial or a structure pattern can help differentiating in the characterization of areas without the need to use an extensive and potentially confusing number of different colors and can be more intuitive than using colors alone as well.

Patterns that repeat the same symbol either in a random or a regular periodic arrangement are well suited for area shapes that vary a lot in size. The repetitive nature of the pattern makes sure that its characteristics can be identified even from just viewing a small part of a polygon.

pictorial and structure pattern for differentiating areas

When visualizing polygon shapes of relatively small and uniform shape and size however this advantage is less useful and in case of pictorial symbols the repeating symbol is kind of redundant and adds unnecessary noise in many cases. Traditionally therefore small polygon shapes in interactive digital maps are often visualized with point symbols for detailed differentiation. This however has also a number of disadvantages, in particular point symbols blocking each other or interfering with labeling.

blocking point symbols

One idea for a possible alternative is what i would call a single symbol pattern. This means essentially rendering a single point symbol for the polygon but not rendering it as heavy symbol above all polygon shapes and linework and blocking each other and labels but like a pattern as an extension or variation of the polygon fill.

The use case where i now have tried this idea on is sport pitches. In OSM-Carto sport pitches are rendered with a fairly heavy green tone illustrating the fairly specific nature of these features. But they are rendered all identically – independent of the kind of sport that is being practiced on the pitch.

One solution to illustrating the type of sport on pitches used by maps has been drawing line markings. In the OpenStreetMap context this has been done both manually by mappers mapping sport field markings explicitly with barrier=line – a practice that is not seen farourably by many mappers – or automatically, an idea first featured by the French OSM style and later in a variation compatible to varying map scales at different latitudes in the German style. This technique however has the disadvantage of being (a) only suitable for sports with a distinct line markings (b) difficult to read intuitively because the line pattern is kind of a code for the sport only readble by someone familiar with it and (c) it has the potential to be confused with other types of line signature in the style.

line drawings on the German style

Mapnik does not offer a technically simple and elegant way of rendering a single symbol pattern as a polygon fill. Obviously you can use a normal pattern that is very large with just one symbol in the middle and a lot of empty space around so it does not actually repeat in practical use. But this is neither elegant not does it offer a decent way of properly aligning the symbol. The technique i chose instead is using compositioning by first cutting out the pitch fill (using comp-op: dst-out) and then rendering just the pitches as a backdrop with the background fill and a point marker using comp-op: dst-over.

single symbol pattern rendering for soccer pitches

What i have also tried out with this change is enlarging the symbol to twice the size once the size of the pitch on the map allows this. This helps readability of the symbol especially in cases where there are labels overlapping the symbol (which as mentioned can happen since the symbol is non-blocking).

enlarged symbols for larger pitches

For the symbol design i chose the approach to visualize all sports uniformly with an illustration of a person performing the sport in question. This is a pretty widespread technique in sport symbology in general but in digital maps it is not that common so most of the symbols i had to develop from scratch. Having a uniform design concept avoids confusion and helps recognizing this group of symbols as a certain class within the map.

all the sports for which symbols have been added

As usual this change is available in the alternative colors style. More examples (all of which use ODbL OpenStreetMap data – like the other non-abstract examples above):

June 10, 2020
by chris
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Satellite image recording limits

When i announced the Green Marble mosaic version 2 mosaic recently i mentioned that the land coloring is based on MODIS data while the water color is created from Sentinel-3 data. There are multiple reasons for this choice of data sources and one of them is that only very few of the earth observation satellites currently operating actually record the whole planet surface. I discussed recording limits of individual satellites in the past and here i want to take a more systematic look at the matter.

As i have mentioned on several occasions most earth observation satellites record their images from a sun synchronous orbit meaning that the orbital plane of the satellite rotates against the earth rotation and thereby the orientation of the orbit towards the sun and therefore the lighting condition as it flies along its path stays constant from orbit to orbit. To achieve this the satellite has to be at a specific orbital inclination depending on its altitude. Since the range of orbital altitudes of earth observations is quite narrow their orbital inclinations are also similar. The orbital inclination also defines on how far north an south the satellite flies. When i plot the latitude limit of the ground track of the satellite’s orbit i get the following for the most commonly used open data earth observation satellites.

Southern ground track limits of open data earth observation satellites

Northern ground track limits of open data earth observation satellites

The satellites with the VIIRS instrument (Suomi NPP and NOAA-20) have the highest orbit with about 834km which leads to the lowest latitude limit. The satellites with the lowest orbits are Landsat and the MODIS satellites (Terra and Aqua) at an altitude of slightly more than 700km.

The actual recording limit of the satellites is defined by this ground track limit plus half the width of the recording swath of the satellite. This leads to – as illustrated in the following – Sentinel-2 recording slightly further north and south than Landsat despite a higher orbital altitude. But for Landsat we also have the practice of off-nadir recordings made by having the satellite look slightly sideways. The limit of these recordings as they are routinely being made is indicated by the dotted line.

Southern ground track and recording limits of Sentinel-2 (red) and Landsat (violet) including off-nadir recordings (dotted)

Northern ground track and recording limits of Sentinel-2 (red) and Landsat (violet) including off-nadir recordings (dotted)

The situation becomes a bit more complicated with the lower resolution instruments. Both Sentinel-3 optical instruments record asymmetric views and therefore have different recording limits in the north and south – in the north their view reaches up to the pole meaning there is no recording limit while in the south you have the limits shown in the following illustration in blue. Further south is the limit of the GCOM-C SGLI intrument which has a symmetric view and therefore equal limits north and south.

Southern ground track and recording limits of Sentinel-3 (blue) and GCOM-C SGLI (violet) as well as pole overlaps of MODIS (dashed cyan) and VIIRS (dashed green)

Northern ground track and recording limits of GCOM-C SGLI (violet) as well as pole overlaps of MODIS (dashed cyan) and VIIRS (dashed green)

No limits in either north or south are shown for MODIS and VIIRS – these both reach beyond the pole on both sides. These are the only data sources available that currently offer a truly global coverage of the whole earth surface in the visible spectrum. What i show in the illustrations with a dashed line is the limit of overlap across the pole – within these circles twice as many images are recorded therefore.

What has to be kept in mind is that the satellite orbits as discussed in the beginning are all very similar and the different recording limits primarily result from the different recording swath widths. And the wider view satellites differ in resolution over their area of view quite significantly because at the edges the earth surface is much further away than in the center of the view. Hence even though the poles are recorded by some of the satellites the resolution of these recordings is not as good as it is at lower latitudes where the best available image is always much closer to a ground track of the satellite.