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December 5, 2019
by chris
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2019 OSMF board candidates – analysis and recommendations

This year’s OSMF board elections are going to decide on four of seven seats of the OSMF board. The last time this happened was in 2015 when Henk Hoff, Oliver Kühn and Dermot McNally – all of which had been on the board for many years, resigned or their terms ended and they did not re-run. Back then the introduction of three completely new members changed the dynamics of the board significantly and led to a number of important reforms, in particular a significantly better level of transparency of the board’s work, specifically through the introduction of regular public board meetings, the creation of a FOSS policy for the OSMF (which unfortunately continues to be partly ignored – especially by some working groups), the creation of the current corporate membership system (the long term benefit of which is disputed but which was without doubt a high impact change) and the creation and filling of the paid position of an administrative assistant, which significantly changed the dynamics and work style within the OSMF – again with remaining question marks on the long term effects.

In many aspects the situation of the OSMF today is similar to as it was in 2015 with the board being dominated largely by people who have been on the board for a long time (none of those three newly elected to the board in 2015 are today on the board any more while there are four members on the board right now who have been a board member more than these four years, some of them significantly longer). Current board work is – at least from my perspective – dominated by structural conservativism, a culture of intransparency and a glacial pace at making decisions even on obviously significant and urgent matters. There also seems to be an increasing detachment of the OSMF board from the practical day-to-day work in the OSM community.

So this years election have the potential

  • to initiate a new age of dynamic work in the interest and in support of the project, its core values (https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/How_We_Map) and the hobby mapper community – following up on the trend initiated in 2015 which unfortunately did not prevail over the coming years.
  • to moor the OSMF more tightly into the conservative deadlock of different competing interests.
  • to open the OSMF fully to the organized and corporate interests which have been trying to find inroads into OSMF policy decisions for the last years on various levels.

All three of these possibilities are within reach based on the twelve candidates we have in this year’s elections. Having four seats open for election will also make this year’s election more like a parliamental election where some of the seats could be filled with people who do not even remotely have the support of the majority of OSMF members.

I already published two comments related to this year’s elections, one of them with instructions to candidates on how to write their election statements and how to answer the questions and another one analyzing the current composition of the OSMF membership and to what extent it represents the OSMF community. Here i will now get to the main thing – the election statements of the candidates and their answers to the questions and what conclusions i derive from this regarding their qualification.

The questions

Tell us a little about your OSM activities

This question asks the candidates to tell us about their background within the OpenStreetMap project. Apart from the factual information the answers to this question contain this also gives us a glimpse into the mindset and the self image of the candidates.

The question contained several specific individual questions and only Rory, Allan, Guillaume, Dietmar and Clifford answered these individually and these are also the candidates who have overall provided the most on-topic answers to this. The others wrote a more or less generic self presentation of themselves, in some cases very extensively (Jinal) covering aspects of marginal significance for OSMF work.

Quotes:

Clifford: I even attended a Corporate OSM Geo-Karaoke event. Fortunately for everyone there I didn’t attempt to sing.

Tell us a little about why you want to be a board member

This question asks quite specifically about the agenda and the priorities of the candidates for their time on the board. Most of the candidates do present some ideas here – but they vary quite significantly in how specific and concrete they are. Vague promises of increasing diversity, improving communication and transparency and other things dominate the answers of quite a few of them and i would suggest all voters to not get lured by this. Also everyone should be careful about ideas and promises of candidates in fields where they show a poor track record in in their past.

Voters should also be very careful about candidates who talk less about their own aims of what they plan to actually do themselves when on the board but about wanting to get others to do certain things. Some seem to think that a position on the board would allow them to do so – through either money or other means.

Guillaume presents the most convincing ideas here because he actually can demonstrate having worked towards several of these in the past. Allan‘s answer to this question is a good example how – even if you have no or very little specific goals – you can still provide a convincing answer to this question in a much better way than presenting some vague ideas about governance, leadership, communication etc. or promising the moon without being in any way believable in doing so.

Quotes:

Guillaume: The 2018 GlobalLogic incident wasn’t an isolated case. As I write in my manifesto, they tried again this year.
Steve: Reinstate a private portion of board meetings so that board members can speak freely.

Being a board member

These questions are interesting not so much because of what they ask but because of the political narrative they imply and how the candidates deal with that (e.g. if they accept the narrative of the board being a place where decisions are made in the form of negotiating compromises between different competing interests). I already criticized the third of these three questions and the others come with similar problems.

Those candidates who try to document their qualifications for those tasks deemed significant by the questions often point primarily to experiences outside the project w.r.t. those tasks. This is highly problematic because OpenStreetMap due to its egalitarian international and cross cultural scope is very different from other projects where candidates might have gained experience in their own cultural context and transferring these experiences without critical reflection could lead to attempts at colonializing OSM with the culture and values the candidate is more familiar with.

The most reflective and critical answers to this set of questions come from Rory and Guillaume but also Allan provides a pretty convincing answer including both in-project and out-of-project experiences.

Quotes:

Allan: This is the heart of diplomacy, and my 37+ years in three U.S. foreign affairs agencies provided me with a wealth of exactly this experience.
Mikel: I particularly feel lucky to have known and learned from great leaders at Mapbox.

Board diversity

Diversity is and has been – since OpenStreetMap made serious attempts at covering the whole earth – a big topic for the project. The interesting thing about this, however, is that different cultures have different perspectives on diversity and especially the Anglo-American narrative, which is often dominating in the OSMF, frequently takes a very selective and sometimes somewhat superficial view on the topic. The questions in this section focus on one diversity aspect only – gender diversity – and specifically do not extend on other diversity topics. It requests from the candidates an analysis for the underlying reasons of the fairly obvious lack of gender diversity within the OSMF board.

Unfortunately there are some very problematic patterns in several of the answers of the candidates regarding these questions:

  • Deflecting from the specific topic of gender diversity onto other diversity issues more suitable for the candidate’s agenda or even to general political interests of the candidate (like perceived discrimination of corporate mappers).
  • Treating OSM like any other tech project with an Anglo-American cultural dominance (which it is not).
  • Complaining about the state of affairs but mentioning nothing specifically they would want to do to address the problem but instead pointing to the assumed deficits of others who are perceived to be the culprits while they (the usually male candidates) do not consider themselves to be part of the problem.

The answer of Michal is particularly remarkable because it not only features all of the above mentioned points, it also essentially states that hobby mappers are bad for OSM because they prevent engineering a pseudo-diverse mapper community and that the fundamental idea of OSM of focusing on local knowledge is somehow discriminating in itself.

Nuno and Guillaume are the only candidates who identify the lack of representation of the mapper community among the OSMF members as a source for the lack of diversity. But also Rory, Allan and Dietmar provide important contributions to the topic.

Quotes:

Guillaume: The women I asked all gave the same reason for not wanting to run. It wasn’t sexism or a gender issue – and I am sure that it would have come up. “I’d rather have a board of men than alibi women”, one wrote. What they all mentioned was something the Board can’t do much about: a lack of time.
Allan: Recruit more female mappers and then urge some of them to run for the board.
Steve: Diversity needs to be diverse
Eugene: My view is that this reflects the gender diversity issue found in the wider technology communities such as numerous open-source projects and even open-knowledge communities like the Wikimedia movement.
Mikel: To address this means accepting the reality of the issue, identifying what barriers exist, and then support initiatives to make change.
Rory: We live in a society. The society has biases, which we have unconsciously picked up those biases and we repeat them.
Clifford: Highly effective organizations have learned to embrace empowerment, inclusiveness, and respect for for all. It is a goal that OSMF should adopt.
Jinal: Have event and general code of conducts that also addresses this community. This are first few steps towards an inclusive community.
Nuno: Board diversity should first come from the members
Gregory: We all need to make an effort to encourage individuals we know by telling them we think they would be great for certain roles.
Michal: Hobby mapping is a form of participation available mostly to men with spare time who feel safe mapping public spaces, in geographic locations accessible to bicycle or pedestrian mappers. It is not a model universally useful for expansion into new areas, and our significant failures in diversity are a result of failures in welcoming different models of participation.
Dietmar: I will try to invest my energy, that the board members will act respectful together and that politically motivated acitivities will not get a place on board.

Your time

This is a short question about the amount of time candidates will be available to invest. All candidates promise to continue their current participation in WGs (if there is any) if they become a member of the board so no surprises here. I only want to extract a quote from Guillaume‘s reply here which well characterizes the matter:

Being a board member is quite a commitment. I have been critical of current board members who can’t find enough time to participate. Read the answers carefully, and be wary of candidates with no obvious current commitment to the project – if they have no skin in the game, why are they running, how will they know what’s going on and who do they represent?

Quotes:

Gregory: In July I stepped down from the board of the OSM UK local chapter, mainly because there were newer people wanting to stand for the board and I was happy to encourage them.

Transparency: Conflicts of interest

This is in my eyes the most significant complex of questions but in the past CoI questions to the board candidates have often resulted in very disappointing answers and board members often seem to have an amazing lack of awareness and sensitivity to the problem.

Because of the significance of the matter i will in this case give a candidate-by-candidate assessment of their answers:

  • Guillaume: Most reflective of all candidates
  • Allan: Too short for a good assessment but demonstrates a very low probability for practical CoI situations
  • Steve: Demonstrates to be completely unqualified
  • Eugene: Lack of awareness of the problem
  • Mikel: No demonstrated awareness of the problem, continues to reject the existence of CoIs affecting him
  • Rory: Some reflection about possible CoI cases but ultimately rejection of the possibility
  • Clifford: Too short to make a proper assessment
  • Jinal: No demonstrated awareness of the basic problem
  • Nuno: All right answer, shows sensitivity to non-obvious conflicts of interest
  • Gregory: Limited awareness but very careful and considerate
  • Michal: Demonstrates to be completely unqualified
  • Dietmar: Limited awareness

Quotes:

Jinal: I’m the Senior Outreach and Community Manager at Grab, whose work is to build and support communities but does not limit to just OpenStreetMap. Considering a huge part of my role is closely working and supporting local communities and communicating different project across, there are lesser chances of conflict between the two as both, their goals are, to grow, support and collaborate with the local communities.
Michal: My candidacy for the OSMF board has been vetted by communications and legal representatives at Facebook.

We are looking for a new Treasurer

This can be handled very briefly – it asks if the candidates would volunteer for the treasurer position.

Steve, Guillaume and Clifford would do that, the others would not. Guillaume and Clifford would seem to have the necessary qualification and reliability (we are talking about being in charge of managing several hundred thousand Euros here) – Steve as treasurer would be more like putting a fox in charge of the hen house.

Are you willing to attend a Board face to face meeting?

This is again a great question – not because of the formal answer (it is two short yes/no questions) but because it invites a critical reflection on the style of cooperation and the view candidates have of the role of the board within the OSM community.

Unfortunately most of the candidates take the easy route here and answer yes, great idea, of course i will participate. What i would have liked to see from candidates is

  • a critical reflection on the elitist nature of the whole concept of face to face meetings of the board. The problem is OSM is a project of global cooperation so everyone within it – be that mappers, developers or anyone else – has to struggle with the need to communicate and cooperate with others remotely without the benefit of direct face-to-face communication. That is the fundamental nature of a project like OpenStreetMap. Now if the OSMF board not only reserves the privilege for themselves to not be bound by this but also uses community money to finance that privilege they consider themselves clearly to be an elite within the community deserving this kind of privilege and i would expect board candidates to at least have some thought about what warrants this status.
  • a critical reflection on the discriminating aspects of making the participation in a face-to-face meeting at least an informal requirement – for example w.r.t. people with disabilities of phobias or living in countries with practical travel constraints preventing them from participating in such endeavors.
  • a commitment to providing the community with some documentation of measurable benefits and results of these meetings. I have been requesting that for the past two years at least and the current board does not consider the need to justify the expenses of having face-to-face board meetings at the cost of several thousand Euros each time to the members.
  • some level of reflection on the sustainability of having this kind of meeting and the resulting climate gas emission footprint. In a nutshell: How do the candidates think OSM can have a long term future if the coordination of the project requires seven people to jet around the world to meet at least once a year for that?

Of the candidates only Rory, Dietmar and Eugene touch any of these topics, Rory and Eugene mention the discriminating aspects to some extent, Dietmar the sustainability issues. No one discusses the other matters i pointed out – which is disappointing.

Quotes:

Dietmar: I try to absolutely minimize flights, for private and for business purposes.

The Board and Working Groups

These questions are primarily about the candidates’ ideas about the inner structure of the OSMF.

Many of the candidates try to answer this without actually providing a clear assessment of their view of the current situation with some non-substantial bloomy phrases like talking about leadership, a better system to listen to working groups or similar. Michal even has the audacity to mainly rant about a perceived failure of the working groups in doing their jobs instead of answering the questions about what he would do concretely on the board.

The candidates can be largely categorized on this into supporters of moving to a more centralized OSMF with the board having tighter control over the working groups (Steve, Mikel, Michal) and supporters of independent working groups or as Allan nicely puts it: delegation of both responsibility and authority (Gregory, Rory, Allan, Guillaume). The others don’t have a clear position on that.

Guillaume has clearly the most background knowledge and points out some of the most significant issues. In general those candidates who are on one or more working groups have better knowledge of the subject but even among these the level of understanding of the current issues and difficulties is disappointing.

Quotes:

The most remarkable quote from the answers on this comes from Allan: That in fact is the single most important role of the Board, to focus on sustainability of the organization as a whole and in particular on the role of volunteers. My role as a board member would include recruiting not only new mappers but identifying prospective working group members and recruiting them to help out with those working groups, too.
Nuno: Delaying decisions about bad citizens of OSMF that are corporate members, just because they are corporate members is wrong.

The Board and the community: communication

This question, asking about what OSM related communication channels the different candidates follow, is unfortunately not very useful for assessing the candidates. Just because candidates list a lot of channels here that does not necessarily mean they actually follow the discussions there. Unfortunately, none of the candidates writes about any attempts to follow and get insights into communications outside their cultural comfort zones. What we would like to see in a board member is obviously the ability to keep track of matters in the community in a relatively non-biased way. I would also have liked to see some critical reflection on gated community communication channels. None of this can be found in the answers though.

Quotes:

Rory: How to do I keep track? Probably by spending a lot of time on the internet!

The Board and the community: What would you do?

This point covers a whole complex of questions and the candidates are asked to pick one of them and answer it – which makes comparison difficult. I am going to go through the individual questions and quickly point out what candidates have answered on these.

  • multilingual maps – the answers here are mostly disappointing either throwing buzzwords around without background knowledge, throwing money at the problem or indiscriminately intending to support anyone promising to provide that or not even considering the difference between a map layer on osm.org vs a map hosted by the OSMF. In any case, the right answer would of course be that this is none of the board’s business to meddle with – we have clear guidelines for map layers on osm.org.
  • ground-truth based rulings of the Data Working Group – most candidates who commented on this were in defense of the DWG’s decision and critical of the board’s interference. Mikel of course tries to spin his own story of this matter in defense of the decision which he helped to make and then retroactively tried to justify – including the idea that he invented the principle of on-the-ground verifiability. Guillaume explains the situation better than i can in his answer.
  • gender pronouns – almost everyone expresses their support for this without critical thoughts and this is once again fairly disappointing. At least a hint of reflection on the fact that in a multilingual and multicultural community like OSM thinking about use of English language pronouns is a bit besides the point when it comes to OSMF politics. Allan is the only candidate who shows to understand this.
  • attribution by corporations – answers to this question are a pretty good indicator how aware candidates are of the problem of corporate influence on the OSMF and how it can affect actions and policy making of the OSMF board. Of the candidates who address this question Mikel, Gregory and Eugene essentially reject substantially addressing the topic by pushing this to the (corporate dominated) LWG for designing a policy. Michal of course presents the Facebook company line – which is so annoyingly disrespectful that it is hard to even read it. Of the others, only Nuno and Dietmar have a clear stance – with Nuno suggesting bold actions against corporate members doing insufficient attribution and Dietmar focusing more on public pressure. The rest mostly suggest asking nicely but not do anything of substance when corporations ignore that (which is kind of pointless IMO).
  • employees of companies that use OSM data on board and WGs – this is actually a key question w.r.t. how serious a candidate is about regulating and limiting corporate influence on the OSMF. Of the company employees only Rory shows a critical and problem-aware perspective. He – like Guillaume, Clifford, Eugene and to some extent Dietmar – see the need for some clear conflict of interest policy for that. The problem is of course if the design of such a policy is negotiated within a board that already has a number of members with a corporate or organizational background, who would be severely affected by clear CoI regulation.
  • GDPR implementation – this is a good proxy for how much interest the candidates have in the more annoying and less popular aspects of OSMF work. It is also an indicator on how diligent candidates are w.r.t. privacy and dealing with personal data in general. This question is answered by Gregory, Mikel, Rory, Allan, Guillaume, Dietmar, Clifford and Eugene. Only Rory mentions privacy and data protection to be important matters on their own, the others regard this mainly as a compliance problem.
  • iD development controversy – this has been a hot topic recently and i also commented on that. It is of questionable relevance for the board elections though. Still, the individual answers of the candidates paint an interesting picture on what perception they have of current developments in the OSM community and how neutral and culture independent they can be in their assessment.

Quotes:

Guillaume: It’s important that data users can’t regulate themselves and write their own attribution guidelines through their participation in LWG.

OpenStreetMap 2030 Vision

This vision into the future question mainly tells us something about the candidates’ world view around OSM in general and the sophistication and differentiation in their perception.

Here my reading of the different answers:

  • Guillaume touches a lot of important points – most notably the future need for more data maintenance on the mapping side and for more data processing on the data use side.
  • Allan points out the significance of the move from desktop to mobile computing devices.
  • Steve presents how he would like OSM to develop based on his current economic interests.
  • Eugene expresses a strong hope that AI/ML data collection techniques will be more broadly used for data collection in OSM in the future.
  • Mikel presents a very short answer reflecting the desire for OSM stay as it is now in the future.
  • Rory hopes that OSM keeps doing the things that make it cool now and otherwise does not think there is much use in speculation on this time frame.
  • Clifford expresses his hope for more mappers from all parts of the world.
  • Jinal sees OSM developing into a model open source project (with all the disadvantages like Anglo-American cultural dominance and technocratic rule i presume).
  • Nuno sees a need for advance validation and evaluation of edits in the future.
  • Gregory focuses on how public perception of OSM will hopefully widen in the future.
  • Michal presents a short paragraph of a positive writeup of OSM in a corporate PR style without any substantial vision for the future.
  • Dietmar expresses his hope that corporations will not try to add data to OSM at large scale any more without local knowledge and often low reliability.

Quotes:

Eugene: I hope that OSM will function as *the* world’s free and open geodata commons.

The candidates

I am now going to present my analysis on the candidates of this year’s OSMF board election. This is obviously a subjective assessment but it is based on many years of observation of the OSMF, seeing the coming and going of many candidates and board members. I am going to say good and bad things about various candidates but please keep in mind that these refer to the candidates’ qualification for the position of a board member. Just because i consider someone non-qualified as an OSMF board member does not mean i have an overall bad opinion for them as a person.

Guillaume Rischard

Guillaume is overall for me the most convincing of the candidates independent of the alignment of his political positions to mine. He has proven in his community work in the past – on the DWG and MWG – that he has an in depth knowledge of the OSM community and the OSMF and the ability and willingness to work hard in the interest of the community. He has also proven in his community activities that he practices an open work and communication style and i have experienced him to be willing and able to listen to other people and even (which unfortunately is often rare in the OSM community) actively reaching out for feedback and input on his work.

He has clear and solidly based positions on many of the questions asked and often provides the most thoughtful and reflective answers showing a good understanding of the matter. It can be expected that he would – when on the board – be a very productive member quickly being able to analyze matters and to form qualified opinions on topics. He is also one of only three candidates who would be willing to work as treasurer for the OSMF.

Guillaume’s main topic for this year’s election is OSMF’s resilience against attempts from the outside to influence and control it, most notably from large corporate data users. He supports this goal with solid arguments based on his past experience on the MWG.

Overall i think Guillaume this year stands out as the most qualified candidate among all the twelve options we have.

Allan Mustard

Allan has, as it is visible from his answers, only limited knowledge of the OSMF and its inner workings. That he still provides impressively thoughtful, clear and concise answers to many of the question is testimony to his exceptional qualification. Part of this is due to his work experience as a diplomat but a large part i would think is also to a much broader exposure to other cultures.

He makes in his manifesto a clear and strong statement in support of local knowledge and local craft mapping as the basis of the project. He has demonstrated with his mapping activity that this is not just a hollow statement but based on practical experience and first hand recognition of the values of this.

Of all the American candidates of this year’s election Allan clearly is my first choice. I think he would make an excellent addition to the board and with his answers he has amply demonstrated that even without deeper background on many of the more specific OSMF topics he is able to provide useful input and considerations to the discussion.

Steve Coast

The candidacy of Steve can in my opinion best be described as a bad joke. This is not the first time he has launched an OSMF board candidacy after first retiring from the board in 2012. In 2015, when also four seats were open for election he ran a similar ad hoc candidacy and failed fairly narrowly.

He has shown next to no activity in the OSM community during the past years and shows significant gaps in his knowledge and understanding of current OSMF topics. For example one of his stated goals is to introduce term limits for the board but he does not mention that term limits are being decided on in this year’s AGM in a separate vote. He seems very full of himself and not hesitant to inflate his involvement (like “I tend to follow a little bit of all the communication channels.” or “I’ve been attending board meetings on Mumble for some time.”) .

One of his main agenda items seems to be to roll back the transparency improvements of the past years by making the board meetings (which at the moment are fortunately open to the members on a regular basis) exclusive to the board, so that board members can speak more freely.

And finally Steve fails to mention his current employment status (he seems to be working for TomTom right now) – although this is specifically asked for in the questions, where he vaguely states “I’ve worked in mapping for my entire career, and it’s enhanced by, not limited or conflicted by OSM.”

Overall, i can only strongly recommend against voting for Steve – his presence on the board would be very bad for the OSMF and the OSM community.

Eugene Alvin Villar

Eugene is an active community member from the Philippines. His platform for the board election is strongly based on identity politics for the Asian local communities. One of the things he wants to pursue is for the OSMF to provide support (including financial support) to local communities in Asia and elsewhere on the world – an idea i have repeatedly spoken against because it would make local communities economically dependent of the central OSMF and this way would increase the cultural dominance of the OSMF over local communities rather than improve the global diversity and establish local organized communities as a counterweight to the OSMF.

What distinguishes Eugene from most of the other active community members running in this election is a fairly uncritical attitude towards corporate influences in OSM. He is also in strong support of organized mapping efforts and AI based data production. He lacks a more in depth awareness of the problem of Conflicts of Interests based on his statements.

Eugene is also active in Wikipedia and seems to be in support of disputed additions of non-verifiable external IDs to OSM. While this is not of much relevance for the board (the board has no say on matters like that traditionally) it indicates a fairly flexible relationship to the core values of the project. He also recommends OSM to take Wikipedia and open source development projects as examples for various things without critical reflection on the unique aspects of OSM.

Overall Eugene would not be my first choice as candidate and has significant weaknesses in various fields. But he is a motivated and active community member and demonstrates a willingness to work for the project and a solid background knowledge.

Mikel Maron

Mikel is the only incumbent running in this year’s elections. He essentially has no other choice than to run on a platform of conservativism because every promise to change something of substance would bear the question why he has not done that so far. He has been in total on the board for nine years now and in contrast to the other long term members whose terms end this year and who have decided not to run again despite some people urging them to do (Frederik and Kate), Mikel wants to stay on the board.

Since he is on the board right now looking at his work from the past years is at least as important as looking at his answers to the questions. And Mikel has during the past years been responsible (sometimes with others) for some of the most problematic decisions and actions of the board. His massive attempts at lobbying against regulating organized editing activities are legendary (see my diary entry for that). So is the famous Crimea decision against existing policy and outside the board rules of order. Not to mention the GlobalLogic incident (which Steve just wrote about again).

Mikel presents a lot of vague and non-specific wishlist-like ideas in his answers. One of the few specific things he mentioned is that he wants to impose a regulatory framework (which he calls rules of order) on the working groups. That he in his own WG work on the SotM WG and in his board work is frequently in violation of existing policy (data protection law, FOSS policy, board rules of order) does not appear to speak against that for him.

A large part of Mikel’s political activities happen on closed channels outside of public scrutiny. Steve in the above linked diary confirms this and so do various people who i have talked with who have interacted with Mikel on closed channels, as well as records of such communication i have seen.

He has – outside his OSMF work – hardly been active in open channels of the OSM community for the past years.

Overall, i can only recommend strongly against voting for Mikel. If you want to see a candidate with a relatively conservative agenda on the board there are other choices among this year’s candidates like for example Clifford. If you are worried about continuity and loss of institutional knowledge on the board Guillaume would be a good choice because he is well acquainted with OSMF internals.

Rory McCann

For avoiding confusion – i referred to Rory with the pronoun ‘they’ because they prefer that.

Rory runs their candidacy with two clear goals: The limitation of corporate influence on the OSMF and OSM and the pursuit of diversity in the project. They do so in a relatively down-to-earth way and in my experience tend to respect and substantially listen to those with even fundamentally different views.

They are very active in the OSM community and have a solid and practical understanding of things. This is also visible in the answers to the questions. On the board they would likely be a valuable addition this way. Rory works for Geofabrik so they have a professional connection to OSM but they have in the past not shown their views expressed on community channels to be significantly guided by their job. They are pretty upfront about where their professional interest might influence their opinion – which is much more reflective than from the other candidates with professional OSM connections although i would have liked to see more of a principled position being articulated on the CoI topic.

By combining the goals of a strong support for an OpenStreetMap defined and controlled by craft mappers and the pursuit of diversity Rory might also be able to, in some way, bridge the map between hobby mappers who are worried about defending their cultural identity within the project and activists working for diversifying the global OSM community.

Overall Rory is one of the candidates i find most suitable in this year’s elections.

Clifford Snow

Clifford is one of the most active and most well known American hobby mappers in the global OSM community. He runs in this year’s elections with a relatively moderate agenda. He intends to embrance the corporate interest in the project but also wants to demand compliance to certain standards from corporate actors in return.

One unique point in his agenda is that he wants to limit the OSMF board to a more strategic role. How this is supposed to be implemented exactly is not clear but willingness of board members to give up competencies of the board is positive and the whole idea is intriguing.

Clifford also says he would volunteer for the treasurer’s position on the board and would in my opinion be well qualified for that.

Overall Clifford would be my recommendation for voters with a more conservative attitude who are looking for a candidate with a solid and broad background in the project.

Jinal Foflia

Jinal is a Grab employee and has written by far the largest volume of text in her answers and manifesto among the candidates. Of all the employees of large corporations with OSM connections she has the most down-to-earth attitude. But her ideas sketched in her answers and manifesto are generally fairly vague.

Her main topics are diversity and community communication. But she does not say a lot what specific projects or goals she would like to pursue when on the board.

Like her colleagues from other companies Jinal does not show any meaningful awareness of the problem of conflicts of interest. In my opinion this disqualifies her as employee of a large corporation with OSM connection from a position on the board. Problem awareness of this would IMO be a fundamental requirement for that.

Nuno Caldeira

Nuno already ran for the board last year and does so this year again with focus on the topic of the lack of proper attribution by corporate data users.

He does not provide much on other topics but where he does his ideas are relatively practical and solid, based on practical mapping experience as a craft mapper.

Overall i would recommend adding him to your ballot in the elections, i believe he would be a positive contribution on the board although there are others among this year’s candidates who i consider more qualified.

Gregory Marler

Gregory is a long time active community members from England. He has a relatively vague agenda but ultimately on many points a fairly moderate position. His main topic of interest seems to be improving communication and he has a relatively good track record on that. This could make him a valuable addition though the lack of clear positions on many current matters makes me hesitant to put him higher on my ballot.

Michal Migurski

Michal is a Facebook employee and probably in many ways the most extreme candidate on the ballot this year. In contrast to the other corporate employees running in this election who at least claim to run as private OSM community members who just happen to be employed by a corporation with OSM connections he more or less states that he is running as a Facebook employee. His answer to the conflict of interest question contains nothing of substance, in other words he – like Steve Coast – completely rejects the idea of conflicts of interest.

This alone IMO disqualifies him from a position on the board but beyond that his agenda is distinctly anti-craft-mapper. He repeatedly points to a blog post he has made a few years ago where he declared craft mappers essentially as irrelevant and the future of OSM to be AI bots and organized mapping.

Apart from this blog post he has essentially shown no significant activity of any kind in the OSM community for the last years.

Michal’s agenda for the board essentially sketches the idea of turning OSM into a Facebook mapmaker platform controlled by corporations and replace the current independent and self confident craft mapper community with a mallable and replaceable workforce of actively recruited volunteers and paid mappers.

Overall i would strongly recommend not voting for Michal. His presence on the OSMF board would be most damaging for the OSMF and the project.

Dietmar Seifert

Dietmar was the last candidate to nominate himself and his answers and manifesto look a bit sketchy and incomplete. He is the only German candidate and has been an active member of the German OSM community for many years. He is particularly known in the German community for his QA services like for checking the completeness of addresses and streets in OSM based on lists obtained from public authorities.

The main goals of Dietmar’s candidacy are regulation of corporate involvement, focus on local knowledge in mapping, transparency, clearer policies on software on the OpenStreetMap website and more meaningful involvement of local chapters in OSMF decision making processes. As a unique point he proposes the creation of a tagging working group – which is a bit at odds with the current mission of the OSMF which specifically does not allow the OSMF to interfere with tagging and mapping.

Dietmar is typically very cautious and considerate in his communications and would in my opinion be a valuable addition to the board although with his lack of involvement in the international OSM community he is likely not very well known outside Germany and neighboring countries.

Voting recommendation

So where does this leave us in terms of who to vote for? My summaries and qualification assessments written above are of course based on my subjective views and preferences. Still i think they include a lot of useful neutral observations of value also for those with different preferences than me and could serve as a starting point for your own decision making process.

As i have written in the introduction above this year’s elections are significant because they could result in both a significant shift to the better and to the worse. Therefore, this year i will also provide an overall voting recommendation.

OSMF board elections are done with STV so your ballot contains a list of up to twelve names. I would recommend to vote for (in that order):

  • Guillaume
  • Allan
  • Rory
  • Clifford
  • Dietmar
  • Eugene
  • Nuno
  • Gregory

I would not include:

  • Jinal
  • Mikel
  • Steve
  • Michal

Every member should of course decide based on their own personal preferences who to vote for. Even if your values and ideas of what are important qualifications in a board member for the benefit of OpenStreetMap are similar to mine, you might vary the order from my recommendation to reflect your individual preferences. Read my arguments and reasoning above and if you have the time also read the full answers and manifestos and form your own qualified opinion to make a good election choice.

Also keep in mind that as part of the elections this year members are also asked to vote on a resolution regarding the membership fee waiver and normal members in addition on various AoA changes. I encourage you to read my comments and recommendations on those.

November 28, 2019
by chris
0 comments

Some thoughts on the roles and responsibilities of developers and project maintainers in the OpenStreetMap community

OpenStreetMap is often described as a do-ocracy. When it comes to mapping and tagging decisions – the core activities within the project – this description is fairly accurate and for the most part this is working quite well. The approach that those who do the work decide on how it is done is, when paired with the core principle that local knowledge rules, a pretty good insurance against a small number of people with their subjective preferences and cultural background dominating the project and decisions made.

The most serious attack against this principle came with the rise of organized mapping activities. When writing the first English language draft for a regulation of organized mapping in OpenStreetMap i explained this as follows:

OpenStreetMap is an international project where thousands of volunteers together produce open geodata during their free time. As a community OpenStreetMap works through checks and balances that rely on every mapper deciding on what to map and how to map individually and being responsible for her or his activities. Because each mapper can only add or edit a relatively small volume of data every day errors can be recognized and corrected by the community through communication and open processes before larger damage is done to the database. For automated edits and imports this does not work the same way so we have documentation requirements and review processes designed to prevent bigger problems with such activities and to avoid disruptive and time consuming repairs of the data.

Organized mapping activities by groups of people who act under instructions of an organization often come with similar problems. Errors and deficits in the instructions given or in the way they are communicated to the mappers of the group can result in large scale damage to the data and can be disruptive to normal mapping activity. And although we in principle welcome such organized activity we have put up this policy to regulate organized mapping activities in the interest of the individual mappers and a functioning mapping community.

How much the actual regulation of organized activity will prevent the problematic influences of organized activities still remains to be seen.

Apart from organized mapping activities there are other influences and constraints that can endanger the egalitarian and freely cooperative nature of mapping in OpenStreetMap. One of these is the political domain, in particular through regulating activities and policy decisions of the OSMF. The best example here is the Crimea decision of the OSMF board. So far – in particular because the OSMF board depends on volunteers from the community to implement and enforce their decisions – the ability of it to substantially make and enforce political decisions against the values and interests of the local mapper communities world wide is rather limited. And to be fair so far most of the board members at least have the intention to make decisions in the interest of the hobby mappers. This could however change in the future if the balance of power shifts and the OSMF moves to rely more on paid staff for central tasks and this way becomes more independent of the OSM community.

The biggest and also the oldest influence on the mapper community however are the tools used by the community in their mapping work. More recently there has been extensive critique of the developers of iD, the most widely used data editor of OpenStreetMap. What is criticized specifically is that editor developers abuse their power to cater to specific interests by designing the editor’s user interface, tagging presets and validation rules in a way that leads mappers to map things in certain ways.

I wanted to add a few thoughts to this discussion from the perspective of one of the maintainers of the other project that is highly influential on mappers apart from the editors, the map style for the standard map on openstreetmap.org. The influence of the standard style on mappers is not as direct as that of editors and it is therefore not as simple to use for specific purposes but it is pretty significant. And in contrast to editors where the main potential for developers steering the mappers is regarding how to map something mappers have decided to map on their own, the standard map style can incentivize mappers also quite significantly in what they map.

My approach to this matter has been – from the beginning of my contributions to OSM-Carto – to regard the role and task of the project as mapper support without active steering. This in essence means only to render things in the map which are mapped consistently by mappers in a certain way to support them in doing so and give clarity to mappers in what is the correct and established way to map certain things. This on the other hand means not to start rendering something because you – or someone else – thinks it would be a good idea to map things this way, because that kind of thought is inherently influenced by subjective interests and by specific cultural preferences and biases.

I should note these principles are not shared by all of the OSM-Carto maintainers. I am probably the most vocal adherent to this idea of self limitation but quite a few of the other maintainers share the same basic sentiment. Because of that most of the non-constructive rendering decisions in OSM-Carto are the result of either accidental or negligent changes. These resulted either from not giving enough thought on their effects or stemming from the time span from mid 2017 to end 2018 when we had relaxed the consensus principle and changes could be merged without consensus among maintainers.

It should however be clear that if the team of OSM-Carto maintainers was smaller or had relatively uniform common interests (as it is the case with the iD project) the incentive to use the influence we have in support of these interests would be tremendous. In case of the iD developers, who are both employed by corporate OSM data users, the practical influence of such interests is clearly quite significant and it is openly admitted by the developers that their main concern is the usefulness of the OpenStreetMap data for certain applications. At the same time transferring decisions or oversight over decisions into the hands of a number of random mappers would not necessarily work much better. When making decisions in OSM-Carto under the premise of mapper support only the most frequent critique came from mappers who wanted their favorite tagging idea to be supported against competing tags. Hobby mappers are not immune to catering to special interests.

The best and the only solution in my opinion is to have true and fair competition for providing the best tools to mappers. Having a real choice and being able to try and evaluate different options practically will allow mappers to vote with their feet and collectively support the best solutions. It prevents the dominance of a single project due to the lack of other options and thereby reduces the possibility to push for specific interests. I am convinced that both editors and map styles which make decisions based on the principle of restrained mapper support without active steering will in the long term get most appreciation from the world wide mapper community.

Long story short:

  • The option of using your power to cater to specific interests will always be very significant incentive for developers of mapping tools – either due to your own preferences or due to external interests influencing them.
  • Expecting a company employee to make decisions as a project maintainer against the interests of their employer is unrealistic. At the same time the interests of the OSM community and the project are in parts fundamentally different from those of specific current data users.
  • The best way to mitigate the problem is and will always be to have real choice and fair competition between different tools (editors, map styles) for the same task.

October 28, 2019
by chris
0 comments

Satellite image news

The ESA recently made an interesting announcement about extending Sentinel-2B image recordings to lower sun positions in the northern hemisphere winter.

A bit of background on that: For the past years Sentinel-2 image recordings have traditionally been made only with relatively high sun positions compared to Landsat 8. The difference in the routine latitude based recording limit was not huge but it was noticable. This has led in particular to a significant under-use of the Sentinel-2 recording capacity in the northern hemisphere winter, especially since at the same time the Antarctic is only recorded at a lower frequency.

previous Sentinel-2 coverage in late December

Landsat 8 coverage in late December

The change in recording plans announced now is somewhat half-hearted – it only applies to Sentinel-2B and it so far seems to be limited to Europe and Greenland. Here is a low sun position image recorded with this new pattern.

Low sun position Sentinel-2 recording in eastern Greenland

More generally speaking the recording patterns of Sentinel-2 are fairly static based on a fixed and politically decided recording plan while Landsat recordings are based on a priority list and typically they try to record as many images as possible given the operational capacity available. Or in other words: Sentinel-2 could probably be recoding significantly more imagery, in particular on the southern hemisphere and of low latitude islands during the northern hemisphere winter, if the option to record these when capacity is available was worked into the acquisition plan. But that would of course require the political decision to do so.

The real question is of course why the sun position based recording limit for Sentinel-3 OLCI data is even tighter than for Sentinel-2 – here the northern recording limit on the same date as the above Sentinel-2 sample – which is several hundred kilometers to the south.

Sentinel-3 OLCI recording limit in eastern Greenland on October 25

Although Sentinel-3 records an earlier time slot than Sentinel-2 (10:00 vs. 10:30) and due to the wider field of view includes lower sun positions on the western side the sensible recording strategy would be to record everything that meets whatever sun position requirement is considered reasonable even if that practically means also recording positions with a lower sun position while in reality it seems no OLCI data is recorded where at the western end of the recording strip the sun position would be less than five degree above the horizon and this way you loose quite a lot of potentially useful data further to the east. In this case at the eastern end the recording starts at a sun position of about 11 degrees above the horizon.

Autum colors near Irkutsk, Russia in September 2019 recorded by Sentinel-2

GCOM-C SGLI images

Not exactly news but i wanted to mention that images from the Japanese GCOM-C satellite’s SGLI sensor are available now (and have been for quite some time apparently) on the JAXA data portal. GCOM-C is a satellite system somewhat similar to Sentinel-3 in scope but offers some interesting additional features like polarized light sensors and an ultraviolet spectral band. The data is available under a liberal open data policy.

Here is a sample image of southeastern Europe:

GCOM-C SGLI recording example

October 25, 2019
by chris
0 comments

State of the Map 2019 – visitor statistics

When writing my report on the State of the Map conference in Heidelberg this year i complained not having any data on the visitors yet. We now have some numbers and i would like to add the missing illustration and commentary on those.

SotM 2019 visitors – where they came from

Might be a bit difficult to read – i grouped the numbers by continent – Europe in yellow/orange, America in blue, Asia/Pacific in green and Africa/Middle East in red. I was a bit surpried by the large number of visitors from Germany – but if you keep in mind that this includes all the local helpers it might not be so surprising after all.

I prepared a second illustration with estimates for the carbon dioxide emissions generated from travel to and from the conference alone. This is a very conservative rough estimate. So don’t give too much on the exact numbers, neither individually nor in sum. I am pretty sure the actual emissions are not lower but they could definitely be much higher.

SotM 2019 estimated CO2 emissions due to travel (in metric tons)

Why am i showing this? First of all to show that a conference like SotM is a resource intensive endeavor. Second: To show that to reduce the environmental footprint of an event like this it is very beneficial to hold it close to where the majority of event visitors come from. Europeans this year have accounted for more than 2/3 of the conference visitors – yet they have probably contributed less than ten percent of the total CO2 emissions due to travel of the whole conference. On a per person level this conference – with an estimated < 600kg CO2 per visitor for travel - probably fares pretty well. And third: To illustrate that for the OSM community to be sustainable in the long term we will have to put a lot more effort into improving our ability to communicate and cooperate globally without the need to necessarily meet in person. We need to put a lot more energy into ensuring that we come to a point where physical presence at an OSM conference becomes truly optional and where you can productively contribute to such events - both actively and passively - at the distance.

October 9, 2019
by chris
10 Comments

State of the Map 2019 Heidelberg impressions and thoughts

It has been more than two weeks since SotM in Heidelberg and some are probably already wondering about my commentary. Part of the delay is due to me being busy with other things, part is due to some information i would like to have had not being available so far (i will get to that later).

The venue

Overall it was a pleasant experience for me. We had mostly luck with the weather so the choice of time of year was not too bad. I mentioned already last year that Heidelberg is conveniently close for me with only a two hours train ride to get there. Heidelberg – of all possible locations you could have chosen in Germany – is more near the upper end in terms of accomodation costs. But since a public transport ticket was included in the conference ticket for the duration of the conference for the whole regional transport area you were not limited to stay in Heidelberg actually so there was a pretty broad range of cheap options to stay – although probably not that easy to find for visitors from abroad. The information on budget accomodations on the SotM website could have been better – but that is a problem we essentially already had in previous years. Side note: I find it kind of annoying that the website has removed much of the pre-conference information after the conference – this is IMO not good style – maintaining previous information for future reference is important. Update: This has meanwhile been fixed – see comment below.

The venue itself was pretty well suited for the conference i think. All the main rooms for the talks were very close together – the rooms for the BoF sessions were a bit further away but quickly reachable as well. The most serious issue was IMO the acoustics in the large lecure hall (Großer Hörsaal) where – as you can see in the videos – the speakers frequently had trouble understanding questions from the audience. This is obviously hard to get right in such a large room and lecture halls like this are of course not really designed for dialogue between the speaker and the audience.

Conference size

Though we have no numbers and statistics so far for the conference visitors it was quite clearly the largest SotM conference so far. When the original planned number of tickets was sold the conference organizers increased the capacity beyond the original planning to allow more people interested to visit. And all of this together showed at various places during the event. Most obviously at the social event on Saturday where the catering turned out to be under-dimensioned – both in terms of amount of food and distribution capacity. Thanks to the good weather and the possibility to go outside the venue for the social event itself was fine – though a bit short in sitting opportunities outside the main room intended for eating, which turned out to be a bit stuffy and very loud – the whole venue was a former industrial building which in terms of acoustics was obviously not designed for a large number of people.

The poster session on Sunday evening was also a bit sub-optimal because the poster display and catering were separate on different levels so there was not really a natural looking at and talking about the posters while eating and drinking. This was also owed to the limited space mostly – even as it was the area where to drink and eat was crowded and there would have been no way to also appropriately display the posters directly there.

At the conference itself i did not see any problems with overcrowding or overfull lecture halls – at lunchtime at least during the first day the lines were long but there was plenty of space so it was not an issue.

In total my conclusion is that this kind of conference size exceeds the limits of what can be reliably managed the way SotM conferences have traditionally been operated. Specifically

  • organization at this scale IMO either requires a well-established team with multiple years of experience with a presence on-site during most of the planning phase or help from a professional event organizer with experience with this kind of event.
  • any location for a conference of this size with sufficient capacity – no matter if the main conference venue or for a social event – is going to be hard to find and organize so for a conference of this size the confirmed availability of all needed locations would usually need to be a pre-requisite for selecting a location for the conference – something that for SotM has so far not usually been a criterion (applications usually mentioned possibilities but rarely came with a full set of places with confirmed availability).

All of this is not meant to say the organizers did not do a good job – the opposite is the case IMO: Given the number of visitors it really went quite well.

The talks

I have not yet watched all the videos of the talks i did not see at the conference so here only a few select comments on the talks i recommended before the conference and others i went to.

  • Introduction to OSM: How it’s made and how it’s used (video) – although i have not seen this live at the conference based on the video this really worked out fine. This is definitely a format that could be built on in the future, potentially also for more specialized topics.
  • Communication and Knowledge Transfer in OSM (video) – as i hoped for this gave you a fairly broad look at the different communication methods used by the OSM community and their advantages and disadvantages. Really recommended for anyone who wants to take a look over the limits of their horizon of what channels and platform they are famiiliar with.
  • Mapathon, mapathon, mapathon! (video) – This offered an important critical view on common practices in remote humanitarian mapping efforts and their historic development. In my pre-conference post i likewise mentioned the followup talk (video) which focused more on organizational aspects of local communities in countries outside Europe and North America – which i can also recommend.
  • I specifically also want to mentioned a later event organized also by Nicolas and Severin – the Bilingual Breakout Session – Community building and empowerment in South: French-speaking countries in Africa+Haiti (video). I think this could nicely serve as a blueprint for future cross language communication formats at OSM related conferences. Language barriers are one of the main limitations for cross cultural communication within the OSM community and this format shows how this can be overcome with limited effort and lead to much improved communication between people speaking different languages.
  • Is the OSM data model creaking? (video) – this was a pretty solid analysis of the various practical problems when working with the current data in OSM for roads and paths for navigation purposes. Unfortunately in the end the considerations on how to address these problems were primarily data user centered and not mapper centered – in other words they wondered what might be the most convenient way to represent things in data form for the data user rather than for the mapper.
  • New processes to agree on tagging suggestions and their interaction with the editing software available on openstreetmap.org – considering the controvertial nature of the subject the discussion was actually pretty civil and meaningful. Roland already posted a summary of the results of the discussions and i really hope people will follow up on the ideas that have been discussed there.
  • OSM Vector Tiles in custom coordinate systems (video) – this was a very disappointing talk. The only thing they actually showed was maps in equirectangular projection – which, coming from Mercator, is kind of inverse evolution. No substantial discussion of any of the actual problems and challenges when creating digital maps in projections other than Mercator.
  • Board + Working Groups meeting (video) – this was rather interesting regarding the dynamics within the OSMF though ultimately not really that productive, which is how it was probably kind of expected by everyone. The format worked out quite well, there was a lot of commentary and discussion happening. There was quite a bit of what i would call essentially the OSMF circling around itself without much connection with the OSM community outside the OSMF but there were also plenty of interesting and valuable comments by various people i would encourage everyone interested in the OSMF to look up in the video (and if you were there – maybe re-contemplate them again).

Audience

I would have really liked to look at the number of visitors at the conference from different parts of the world here as i did last year but so far unfortunately no such information has been made publicly available.

My impression was that the audience composition was similar to last year in Milano with two main differences:

  1. there was obviously a significantly larger fraction of visitors from Germany.
  2. it seemed also that due to the HOT summit having taken place directly before SotM in Heidelberg there was a larger fraction of visitors with a HOT background.

One thing i noticed though is that although Germany has a very large local hobby mapper community – possibly the largest one world wide – there were relatively few pure hobby mappers at the conference. There is a huge overlap between the German visitors of this year’s SotM and the regular visitors of the FOSSGIS conference with an OSM background. Keep in mind though that FOSSGIS is not purely an OSM conference and FOSSGIS visitors with an OSM background are only a small subset of the German OSM community – despite FOSSGIS having free admission for active community members. There was some IMO quite understandable critique from the German mapper community that even the early bird community ticket price is kind of steep for a hobbyist. Given the conference was sold out quite early this understandably felt a bit like this financial barrier served at least partly to give professional visitors priority over local hobby mappers.

And i think everyone should be able to relate to a hobby mapper who has invested possibly thousands of hours into mapping their local area over the past decade and who therefore does not feel right about the need to pay EUR 75 for being able to visit a conference where others who largely have invested much less get their travel expenses paid in full.

Scholarships

Which brings me to the SotM scholarship program. I wrote about this before the conference but back then had only very limited data on just 10 scholars. Now we have a bit more information – both on the scholars and the selection process.

Some might wonder why i make so much fuzz about the scholarship program. The reason is that this is about quite a lot of money – in 2018 this was more than 20k GBP and given the larger number of scholars this is probably even more this year. While this is perfectly affordable for the OSMF that does not mean it is all right to spend all this money without proper accountability and consideration – money that could obviously also be spend for other things where it might do more good for the OpenStreetMap project.

Where OSMF SotM scholars 2017-2019 came from

Here is the updated map of where the scholars come from – this year as well as in the previous years. My analysis of this has not changed much – there are additional scholars from North America, Europe and (partly French speaking) West Africa. But the complete gap in Northern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia is still there.

What we now have is – for the first time – numbers on the regional distribution of applications. These i tried to illustrate in the following maps. The first is for the total number of applications and the second is after filtering out formally incomplete applications.

Total number of applications per country

After filtering based on formal criteria of completeness of applications

I get two main observations from these:

  • the bias towards English speaking countries and former British and US colonies is even larger in the applications. More generally speaking much of the bias observed in where scholars came from in the last three years seem to be already pre-defined in the applications. This however does not mean the scholarship program can’t do anything about it. If the call for applications selectively speaks to people from some countries but not from others there is a reason for that.
  • there seem to have been essentially mass applications from a number of countries (Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana and Kenya with each more the 35 applications) and from none of these countries there was ultimately a scholar selected.

What we also have is more detailed documentation of the selection process – most of which however seemed to have not worked out as planned. A number of observations on the selection:

  • We have a list of people involved with scoring – however the documentation also said the plans for scoring “did not work out as initially planned”. We have no information on the scoring itself (like for example the anonymized scoring data in comparison to the final selection) See addition below.
  • There is a list of suggested criteria for scoring – however these are fairly vague and in parts also somewhat questionable. In particular the “unique story or experience to share” is highly prone to depend on cultural commonalities between the applicant and the reviewer.
  • The list of people involved in scoring lists 13 people – 8 of which have been scholars in 2018/2017. While i mentioned in last year’s comments that involving previous scholars in application evaluation could be helpful i also mentioned that disqualifying them permanently for applying for scholarships in the future would be absolutely essential for this to work. Otherwise you’d have a high probability of a ‘revolving door’ system evolving with people switching roles from scholar to reviewer and back every year. When you look at where the former scholars who scored applications came from (Kenya, Lesotho, Philippines, Germany, Russia, Uganda, Niger, Nepal) there is no clear pattern – while scholars were accepted from the Lesotho, Philippines and Nepal there were none accepted from Kenya and Uganda despite a large number of applications. So i don’t see indications for any actual impropriety in the process here but none the less in this form the system runs a very high risk of favouritism.
  • There seems to be no formal conflict of interest management of any kind. Given that quite a few of both the people involved in scoring as well as the accepted scholars have a job with some OSM connection or a formal position in an organization with OSM connections (like being HOT voting members) this is a reason for concern.
  • As i analyzed before the ultimate selection of scholars seems to be based on ensemble optimization rather than independent rating of the individual application and selection of “the top 20”. And as i read the documentation this final selection was done without any oversight by a single person who essentially decided where more than 20k GBP will go. If i was an OSMF financial auditor (and i am really glad i am not) this would be something i could not accept.

Note the obvious derivation between the social structure of the OSM community and the selection of scholars has a high likeliness of becoming a self reproducing system – even without former scholars being involved in the selection. Given the de facto preference for people with a job somehow connected to OSM or a formal position in some organization local hobby mappers from all over the world without such connections will realize that their chances for actually getting a scholarship are very small and will depend on them presenting themselves as being alike and compatible to the professional OSM environment. Introverts or people from cultures with predominantly different communication styles will have almost no chances because they do not match the established ideal for a SotM-Scholar.

Overall i think independent of the future of SotM the OSMF board needs to pull the plug on the scholarship program in its current form. Even if for the moment i give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt and assume that they all tried their best to accomplish a just and unbiased selection this is just a disaster waiting to happen – either through deliberate favoritism and corruption or just through plain incompetence. For neither scenario there seem to be mechanisms in place that would prevent this.

Any kind of scholarship or financial support program (and i specifically also have in mind ideas like microgrants here – which unfortunately might be destined to be managed in a similar fashion) would in my opinion need to be managed by and with broad support from the hobby mapper community. The fact that hardly anyone from the community seems to be currently interested in helping with that should tell the OSMF board and the SotM-WG that there is something seriously wrong with how it is run at the moment. Even if (or more precisely especially if) you feel scholarships are important to have you should work towards giving it a fresh start with a proper mandate and a solid ethical and procedural framework. This would give potential volunteers the confidence that they can be comfortable in contributing to something beneficial for the project. The more detailed documentation we have this year about how the selection process actually took place is much appreciated but to me this mostly better illustrates the lack of and the serious need for a proper framework of binding rules and control mechanisms.

Addition: There was more data and information added after i started writing this post. Everyone is encouraged to have a look at this.

The future of SotM

Coming to the last part and a renewed critical view of the idea of the SotM conference in total. I have expressed my concerns about this before, in particular about the illusion of SotM being a conference for the whole OSM community. Next year’s conference is now planned to take place in Capetown, South Africa. This makes it relatively easy for me since there is very little chance i would want to go there – at least not on my own expenses. Roughly estimated for the cost of visiting SotM in Capetown i could probably visit most of the local OSM conferences in Europe during that year which would allow me to meet more people and it seems overall more attractive than a single visit in South Africa.

When i originally suggested to stop having a dedicated international SotM conference and instead having the OSMF every year give special support to a regional OSM conference most reactions i got were negative. This year talking to people at SotM about the future of the conference i heard a lot more people essentially agreeing with that idea. Overall i would say there are two potential futures for SotM:

  • giving up the idea of an international SotM and instead giving rotating support to local/regional conferences fully managed and organized by the local mapper communities. The goal could for example be for the OSMF to provide financial support (through either OSMF funds or by organizing sponsorships) that allows the conference to offer free entry to local community members and thereby ensuring broad accessibility for local mappers. In addition the OSMF could organize video recording and live transmission of the events at the conference and this way facilitate broader reach and participation without the need for expensive and resource intensive travel.
  • giving up the pretense of SotM actually being a community conference and concentrating it on what it mainly is right now: A meeting of professionals with OSM connection and the international OSM jet set in addition inviting some locals of the OSM community from the place they meet at.

In the discussing for next year’s place for SotM (the decision was made last minute during the conference this year) the selection was between two applications – Rapperswil and Capetown – which even without the travel costs of getting there are both on the expensive side. The documented criteria for selection essentially already make it abundantly clear that this is not a community conference but primarily targeted at the interests of business visitors and wealthy cosmopolitan hobbyists. Affordability of a visit is nowhere to be found on the list. So in a way we are already pretty far into the second option. But broader realization within the community that this is the case – and next year’s decision for Capetown further underlines that – could also create more support for the first variant.

And just in case anyone wonders – this comment probably would have been more or less the same if the decision had been made for Rapperswil. My personal travel costs for a visit to Rapperswil would obviously be less than for Capetown but that is only because of the costs of the flight. The local costs would probably be even higher in Rapperswil. For most people from outside Europe the difference would probably be fairly low.

October 9, 2019
by chris
0 comments

How to not do Geo-Visualization

There has been a fairly impressive fail in geo-visualization in discussion on digital channels in Germany during the last days i wanted to comment on here.

It is the new banner image of the Twitter account of the conservative party in Germany – the CDU:

Politically it is just a fairly awkward attempt at siphoning support for Fridays for Future and climate change concerns for their own conservative agenda. But the more interesting part is the background image which in several aspects is in blatant conflict with the physical reality.

If you look at the image – use the link to see a larger version – you can find a number of typical beginners’ mistakes when doing whole Earth or large area geo-visualization:

  • The atmosphere is completely unrealistic in thickness and density profile. The actual earth atmosphere is relatively thick (meaning optically thick) in its lower part and thins out rapidly in the upper parts. The thick lower part at the full size image would be no more than 3-4 pixels in size at the edge of the earth disk – it would not be the fluffy kind of halo around it as shown in the above image.
  • The mountains are so excessively exaggerated in height that the whole thing becomes a caricature of the actual earth shape. This means the whole illustration completely lacks a sense of scale for Earth and the viewer gets the impression of Earth being a kind of toy model of maybe a few dozen kilometers in size.
  • The lighting is absolutely ridiculous – sun direction is kind of an early summer morning situation – though probably from a bit further north than physically possible. But this is combined with a nighttime visualization of the earth surface on the right (eastern) side – where the sun seems to come from.

So overall what does it communicate? That the CDU is making politics for an imagined toy planet that renounces the laws of physics.

September 12, 2019
by chris
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Clearer mountain views

I have been working during the past few months on a number of technical improvements for better quality in 3d views. These i want to introduce here together with a number of images from the Kashmir/Karakoram/Pamir region which is well suitable to demonstrate these enhancements.

Removing shading

All satellite images as taken feature the specific illumination due to the position of the sun at the time the image is taken. If you visualize the satellite image directly the shading due to the directed lighting is essential for reading the image. The flexibility in choosing a specific illumination in most cases is limited to selecting between different times of the year although in certain situations you have more freedom as i have written on several occasions here in the past.

Most people who produce 3d visualizations based on satellite images use this inherent illumination as recorded as the basis of their visualizations. This leads to a complete lack of flexibility with regards to illumination and also to subtle inconsistencies because the shading visible does usually not accurately match the 3d geometry shown and even subtle differences here lead to a lack of realism being perceived by the viewer and distracts from the actual content of the visualization.

Therefore my 3d views feature a precisely calculated simulation of the illumination individually selected for the view that is independent of the illumination when the image data used was recorded. Many of my views for example show an evening lighting although the satellite images used are recorded in the morning. For this to work well i of course have to remove the shading effect from the image data. I have been doing that for more than ten years now. The process for this has been refined significantly over the years and the most recent improvements in particular led to better accuracy and more robust dealing with difficult situations. Here an example.

 

Original L1C image

Atmosphere and shading compensated

As you can see the shading compensated version looks annoyingly flat and structure-less – but this is exactly what it is meant to look since the actual impression of the earth surface topography is to come from the specific simulated shading calculated on top of this in the 3d rendering. And while you can’t see the relief structure any more looking at the image the actual differences in surface coloring are better visible after the shading is removed.

Clearer geometry

The other improvement i have introduced here is a new processing of the geometry data to reduce noise while preserving acuity. I made use of the ALOS AW3D30 relief data – which offers fairly good coverage in the region in question. This data – like all other similar data sets – features a significant level of uncorrelated noise which is well visible when you use it in rendering directly. Reducing this noise while preserving the actual relief features leads to a clearer and better readable rendering. The technique used is related to the methods i use for producing generalized shaded relief rendering in 2d.

Original elevation data with noise


With noise reduced and generalized relief data

Examples

Here are various examples from the larger Kashmir/Karakoram/Pamir region rendered using the techniques described. All of these and more can be found in the catalog.

First for comparison the iconic K2 view i show on the main page on services.imagico.de in its old and new version.

K2 view from 2006


K2 view from 2019

And here a selection of further images of this region.






August 16, 2019
by chris
3 Comments

SotM 2019 Heidelberg program remarks

In a bit more than a month the State of the Map conference 2019 in Heidelberg will start and since the program is available now – including abstracts – here a bit of analysis of what we can look forward to.

I looked over the talks and workshops in there and made a rough categorization. This is not meant to be exact science of course – there are obviously borderline cases. Lightning talks are not included in this analysis.

  • There are about 25 program items from commercial organizations of some kind. Roughly half of these are big, international corporations. Most corporation have only one talk in the program.
  • There are about 24 program items from non-commercial organizations of some kind – from universities and public institutions to non-profits and organized community projects. About five of these are from the OSMF (who runs the conference). Apart from the OSMF no single organization seems to account for more than two talks.
  • There are about 22 program items i would classify as from individual community members or non-organized community projects.

As usual without being able to look at what spectrum of submissions these were chosen from it is hard to say much about this selection but it seems clear that care was taken to achieve a balance of different types of talks on many different levels. The most obvious bias is for English language – which i would be very much in favor of relaxing as a requirement. But that is just my opinion. Further thoughts on the general concept of SotM you can find in my post from last year.

Recommended talks

From a quick look over the program here a few recommendations on what to me seem to be very promising program points. This is not meant to dismiss any of the other talks as less valuable or interesting – it should be understood as a list of program points that stand out in my eyes, maybe as a suggestion what to visit if you can only see a handful of talks and have no more specific thematic interests.

  • Introduction to OSM: How it’s made and how it’s used – while probably not offering a lot of new insights for experienced visitors the concept of this program item promises to be fun and certainly worth visiting.
  • Communication and Knowledge Transfer in OSM – although i fear during a 20 minutes time slot this will hardly do more than quickly touch the subject this is a topic of high importance and central to the future success of the project. Hanna will probably provide both a solid summary of the status quo and a valuable perspective on where the deficits and problems are that need to be worked on.
  • Mapathon, mapathon, mapathon! – the title could certainly be improved, the main topic here is a critical look at established practices in collective community mapping endeavours (a.k.a. mapathons). Séverin and Nicolas have extensive experience in cross cultural cooperation on mapping in OpenStreetMap and the talk promises to bring this cross cultural dialogue into the conference with participants from different countries contributing their thoughts and experiences directly. This talk is the starting point to a number of program items following up on similar subjects – a second talk directly afterwards and a bilingual discussion session later.
  • Is the OSM data model creaking? – critical reflections on the fundamentals of the data model are rare both in OpenStreetMap and in the GIS world. This talk promises something along these lines – a subject of high importance in my eyes. Since the focus of the talk is on a fairly specific use case (cycling maps and routing) there is a chance that it will end up talking about relatively cheap workarounds specific to this use case but it might also take a more fundamental look which would be particularly interesting.
  • New processes to agree on tagging suggestions and their interaction with the editing software available on openstreetmap.org – this might serve as a more specific followup to the Communication and Knowledge Transfer talk mentioned above. Roland always provides a sober analytic perspective on things. He also takes the innovative approach here to specifically invite contributions from people who are not at the conference. This way the session seems designed more as a followup to a process of collecting ideas on the subjects via digital channels. Independent of the subject – which is of high interest in itself – this is an interesting and innovative approach for having a discussion, developing and exchanging ideas and connecting remote digital communication with an in-person workshop.
  • OSM Vector Tiles in custom coordinate systems – Coordinate system agnostic map rendering is a matter almost completely ignored by the cartographic mainstream in OpenStreetMap. Like with the OSM data model talk this might also turn out to be relatively superficial but there are so many interesting problems related to this topic most of which most map producers are unaware of that this could very likely be interesting for people producing or who want to produce maps in other projections than Mercator.

Scholarships

One other very interesting program item is Scholar Lightning Talks which provides the first publicly available piece of information on the otherwise extremely intransparent SotM scholarship program after the call for application. The list of talks does not necessarily include all OSMF scholars at the conference – there might be others who have a regular talk or give no talk at all. But it lists 10 scholars which is plausible to be the full set or at least nearly the full set of people that receives a scholarship.

So where do the scholars come from? We have:

  • Philippines (x2)
  • Nepal
  • Lesotho
  • India
  • Nicaragua
  • Netherlands
  • Gambia
  • Tanzania
  • Colombia

For comparison – last year we had:

  • Germany (x2)
  • Portugal
  • UK
  • Russia
  • Mexico
  • Colombia
  • Uganda
  • Kenya
  • Lesotho
  • Mozambique
  • Philippines
  • Nepal
  • Bangladesh
  • Indonesia
  • China

And 2017:

  • Bangladesh
  • Albania (x2)
  • Lithuania
  • Cyprus/USA
  • India
  • Argentina
  • Italy (x2)
  • Senegal
  • Niger
  • Nicaragua/Costa Rica
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sierra Leone
  • Colombia

Notice something? Well – first of all obviously SotM 2020 is most likely going to take place on the Philippines since the previous two SotMs took place in countries where the previous year there were two scholars from. For more patterns look at the following map showing the distribution of scholars from the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 (in blue the home of the scholars, magenta the conference locations).

Where OSMF SotM scholars 2017-2019 came from

As explained previously there is a clear geographic bias in where SotM scholars come from. This can well be illustrated in terms of statistical likelihood to become a scholar. Note this is an overall bias in the whole process – from being attracted and motivated to apply for a scholarship until actual selection. Due to the lack of any public information on where the applicants for scholarships come from (this has been kept secret by the OSMF despite inquiries) there is no way to determine if this bias primarily lies in the selection or already before.

  • If you are from Africa your chances to become a SotM scholar is much higher if you are from south of the Sahara (10 of 10 are from there) and significantly higher if you are from a former British colony (7 of 10).
  • If you are from the New World your chances are much higher if you are from the larger Central America region between Mexico and Colombia (6 of 7).
  • If you are from Asia your chances are much higher if you are from a former Britisch or US colony (10 of 12).
  • If you are from Northern Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia your chances are very small (none of a total of 41 scholars comes from one of these Regions).
  • Individual countries with a strong preference are: Colombia (3x), Philippines (3x), Albania (2x), Germany (2x), Italy (2x), Nicaragua (2x), Lesotho (2x), India (2x), Nepal (2x), Bangladesh (2x).

August 10, 2019
by chris
2 Comments

OpenStreetMap and collection of local geographic knowledge in 2034

Today we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the OpenStreetMap project. The date is somewhat arbitrary but i none the less want to take the opportunity to think a bit about what the next 15 years might bring and how things might look like when the 30th anniversary comes in 2034.

Most scenarios for the future of OpenStreetMap that have been presented in the past concentrate on practical aspects, how the project can scale as it grows, what effect technological developments have and what challenges this brings.

What i want to look at here instead is more the social dimension of the project as a whole. And for this i want to split what OpenStreetMap is today into two separate things:

  • The specific project with the name OpenStreetMap.
  • The general idea behind OpenStreetMap to collect and share local geographic knowledge people have of their own environment into an open data set through egalitarian self-determined cooperation of these people.

I can of course not reliably predict what will happen over the course of the next 15 years but looking at trends both in OSM and in the world in general over the past few years it seems likely that

  1. both these things will still exist in 15 years
  2. they will however separate and develop into different directions

What do i have in mind when i talk about separation here? The idea is that the OpenStreetMap project will probably move away from the focus on local geographic knowledge gathered and managed by local mappers. This has already been a trend over the past few years with the fraction of data in the OSM database that has never been substantially reviewed by a mapper with local knowledge massively increasing. Some might argue that we already had large volume imports much earlier but in contrast to early imports 5-10 years ago which were made at least with the intention that the data will be adopted by local mappers and integrated with their local knowledge – today, while there is still some superficial pretense in that direction communicated, this is not something that is widely believed any more when data imports and organized remote mapping projects take place. The fraction of data not grounded in human local knowledge varies a lot depending on where on earth you look and globally it might still be less than 30 percent but it is growing fast.

It is a pretty safe bet that this trend will continue for the coming years. What is less sure however is the future of cooperative collection of local geographic knowledge. We can only speak of separation if there is actually a notable community outside of OpenStreetMap engaging in such data collection. I don’t really see a likely practical scenario how this might happen so far. Many will probably consider this unlikely to happen at least as long as OpenStreetMap exists in some form because of the high hurdle in building a new community with OpenStreetMap as competition. Some might think of Wikipedia/Wikidata serving for this role but that seems unlikely considering the different fundamental premises of this project. I none the less think separation is likely to happen because the trends in OpenStreetMap described above will mean there will be much less room for the kind of egalitarian cooperation described. If the focus shifts away from local geographic knowledge gathered and managed by local mappers this will automatically lead to an increased social and cultural stratification within the project because there is no natural local ownership and control of the map data legitimized by local knowledge any more. And how do you motivate someone to manage and supervise mapping in a certain area and give them authority for doing that without this local ownership and control? By paying them and giving them social privileges is the obvious answer and we already had people calling for paid ‘community managers’ and we certainly will see initiatives in the OSMF in the coming years to hire or pay people for various management tasks. And even at the actual work level – like mapping and software development – we see an increasing social stratification fueled by some people being paid full time by external stakeholders to work on the project while the majority of local mappers forms kind of a working class with no substantial voice in decisions that matter – not even locally in their area.

This probably sounds fairly dark – it likely would not feel this way if things actually develop as predicted. Clear leadership within the project is something that is quite appealing to many participants. While i find the cross cultural egalitarian cooperation of people from all over the world openly sharing their local knowledge the most significant aspect of OpenStreetMap and the core of the success story of the past 15 years i know that many mappers don’t really care much about this and essentially just want a smoothly running platform where they can contribute stuff and do mapping work they enjoy. And there is nothing inherently less valuable and justified in these preferences than in mine.

As said i am quite unsure how the future of cooperative collection of local geographic knowledge will look like. It is quite possible that this will take the form of smaller regional projects, potentially with a strictly limited thematic scope. Right now any initiatives in that direction are essentially absorbed by OpenStreetMap in most cases and it is hard to predict what would happen if this was no more the case. It is also possible that the time scale of such developments exceeds the 15 year horizon i have looked at here.

Is there a possibility that this separation does not happen and OpenStreetMap is still or even more than today and in the past 15 years be a place for collecting local geographic knowledge through egalitarian, self-determined cooperation of individuals in 15 years? Of course. It would require a lot of commitment from local mappers all over the world to defend this vision of cooperation – even against strong interests incompatible to that. I would like to see that happen but as explained trends at the moment point into a different direction.

August 2, 2019
by chris
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Europe views based on Landsat color data

Some time ago i introduced a new technique for producing accurate color mosaics from Landsat and Sentinel-2 data using pixel statistics methods. Here now some larger area 3d views of Europe produced using this imagery allowing for a more accurate and more balanced color reproduction than previous renderings of the same area produced using MODIS data.

   

July 30, 2019
by chris
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Green Marble based globe views

I have a bit of a backlog of 3d views i have not yet introduced here on the blog and which i am trying to work through in the next few posts.

The first is a set of globe views based on the Green Marble mosaic. Whole Earth views possibly seem at first glance a relatively boring variant of 3d Earth views because of the lack of variability in composition. But the options in perspective are more diverse than you might think at first.

Here a sequence of views with the same lighting centered on the same point but with different distances from the Earth center and to create matching sizes of the planet in view different camera angles. As you can see although the appearance of the planet as a whole is always circular the overall impression varies quite a lot.

400000 km distance

40000 km distance

20000 km distance

10000 km distance

This is the combined effect of the inherent distortion of a wide angle camera at shorter distance and the curved shape of the Earth surface. It allows for significant variability in composition of a whole earth view even when looking at the same point on the earth surface.

Here the set of views i want to introduce – which i had produced quite some time ago but which i added to the catalog just now:


     

Of course custom views are possible as well – just drop me a note if you are in need of one.

July 15, 2019
by chris
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The Arctic is burning – or not

Someone at some point in the last few weeks seemed to have managed to put the idea into the mind of journalists that there are wildfires burning in the Arctic and this being a exceptionally newsworthy story somehow. These reports are so full of lack of background knowledge and made up nonsense and exaggeration that they are a feeding frenzy for all the climate change deniers out there so i thought it would be a good idea to clear things up a bit. Here a few factual points on the matter.

The Arctic is commonly defined as the area north of the climatic tree line. Roughly that is the area from some short distance south of the Arctic ocean coast northwards in Siberia, Alaska and Canada plus Greenland, the Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands and Hudson Bay. You can see this approximately illustrated here. The Arctic Circle is sometimes considered an approximate geometric limit for the Arctic with the actual tree growth limit being somewhat further south in parts of North America and somewhat further north in Siberia. There are only few wildfires burning at this time of year (June to early July) – both this year and in previous years – in the Arctic. In June to early July snow melt is either in progress or has just finished in most of the Arctic, the ground is still wet even at the surface therefore and fires are rare.

Forest Fires Siberia 2019-07-04

The fires the current fuzz is about are forest fires in the boreal forest. Such forest fires happen every year in significant numbers and are in principle a natural occurrence. This year they have started relatively early due to widespread warm and dry weather in June in particular in Alaska and parts of Siberia.

Forest Fires Canada 2018-08-15

Forest Fires Siberia 2018-07-03

But generally speaking there is no clear indication that there is something exceptional about the boreal forest fires this year in their overall extent compared to previous years. In particular last year there were very extensive forest fires in Canada and we also had significant fire activity in early July already. Ultimately this can of course only be assessed after the end of summer.

If there is a general increase in forest fire activity during the last decades due to climate change is a question that surely deserves a closer look. But this is nothing you can determine from observations of one or two years. Also trying to count individual fires through remote sensing is not a suitable instrument here. And if there is a long term increase the real question regarding climate would ultimately be if and how this affects the carbon balance of the boreal forest as a whole. That is not a trivial question.

The most likely explanation for the fuzz in the media is that there is a larger number of researchers trying to push sensationalist messages about extraordinary observations to generate publicity for their work. And they find willing allies in journalists desperately looking for clickbait material. This is not very responsible. The lack of thoroughness in analysis of the observations and leaving out the broader context plays directly into the hands of those who want to discredit climate research as flawed and non-credible.