The OpenStreetMap Foundation board has published a summary of the survey they did leading up to their face-to-face meeting in May. This contains a lot of interesting insights but also a number of rather questionable ideas and tendencies. Here i am gathering a few of my thoughts on the subject of surveying the views of the OSM community and the larger field of communication and social dynamics in the project.
The diversity of OpenStreetMap
Quite a lot of people view OpenStreetMap as yet another garden variety crowd sourced internet project – with the main difference to most of the thousands of other similar projects that exist being that it has become significantly larger than most of them. This is a misconception though.
What makes OpenStreetMap stand out compared to other internet communities is not its size but its diversity. And with diversity i don’t mean the individual lifestyle choice and personal freedom of expression diversity but fundamental cultural diversity. While mapping in OpenStreetMap is dominated in numbers by people from urban Western Europe and North America mappers there are strong local communities in particular in Russia, Latin America and Japan – communities with their own cultural identity who are not just integrating into and adjusting to the cultural values of the Europeans and North Americans but who locally and independently define their own cultural style of mapping while still seamlessly integrating into the global project.
This is what makes OpenStreetMap special and unique compared to other internet communities. And the amazing thing about this is that it happened without this being planned and engineered by some central authority. The idea to record and share your knowledge of the local geography where you live with others through an open database is something that resonates in many cultures all over the world.
This is very important to keep in mind when talking about communication and social mechanisms in the OSM community to not fall into the trap of taking cues from other projects on how to manage things and trying to shape OSM in their image without critical reflection on if such ideas are actually suitable for OSM.
Due to the cultural diversity of the OSM community surveying the views of this community in a representative form is practically impossible. The survey the OSMF board made does not actually try to do this but despite the fact that this is acknowledged when interpreting the results certain ideas about using the concept of surveys as a political instrument shine through that are highly questionable.
With the survey being non-representative and therefore without meaningful quantitative results it inevitably produces contradicting answers. In this case there seem to have been for example answers calling for making imports easier as well as calls for a more meaningful regulation of imports. Without further information this can be used to justify just about any political initiative w.r.t. imports in OSM.
The best way to regard this kind of survey results (at least in the summarized, aggregated form they are presented here) is to consider them to be the results of a highly selective brainstorming session for subjects that might be of interest. If this helps the board members recognize matters they were previously unaware of that is very useful. But using the results to pat yourself on the back because you can see the subjects you find important are also considered important by at least some people who have participated in the survey is not a good idea. This you would not need a survey for.
To me the survey results as presented are not really that astonishing. They more or less confirm the image i had of the views and priorities of the more articulated parts of the English speaking parts of the international OSM community (and with English speaking i here include also those who speak English regularly as a foreign language). The only thing i kind of missed is the organized editing matter (which might be considered part of the commercial influence topic). This might be however due to prioritization since the survey specifically only asked for the most important topics.
Surveying as a substitute for open discourse
The more problematic aspect about the board’s report on the survey however is the idea of making community surveys a regular part of the OSMF board’s communication with the OSM community. I am quoting here the beginning of the third paragraph – which is fairly difficult to read but i would urge everyone to read this carefully because it ultimately is very explicit in outlining a certain idea for how communication between the OSM community and the OSMF board is to happen:
OpenStreetMap is made up of everyone who takes part in it, and hearing each other’s voices in a coordinated way, on a regular basis, will help prioritize where work is needed and what actions to pursue. It ensures a standard way to engage. Surveying can help set up mechanisms to route issues to the right place, share pathways for OpenStreetMap members to contribute and address problems, and identify where the project as a whole needs more help to come up with answers.
This could have been directly copied from a corporate handbook on PR or human resources management – where surveys are immensely popular as well since the institutional hierarchy is valued and direct communication between higher management and customers or individual employees is usually frowned upon.
What the OSMF board seems to say with the paragraph cited above (though i am not really sure if all the board members were aware of what they are actually saying here – it is fairly convoluted language) and what also got reiterated by a board member in the June 19 board meeting in similar form is that they want to adopt a similar principle in the OSM community where the input of the individual community members to the management is to happen “in a coordinated way” and not through open discourse.
What you have to keep in mind (and what is also frequently forgotten in the corporate world sometimes leading to drastic failures in management) is that a survey always exclusively transports wants and desires, it can by design never serve as an instrument of arguments and reasoning. Reducing communication to a survey cuts you off from arguments and reasoning and prevents you from understanding the underlying motives for people’s desires. Reducing people to their basic wants and desires is also ultimately quite demeaning.
The role of the OSMF board
The motivation for this kind of approach is quite clear. In a growing OSM community it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify in the cacophony of opinions articulated where there are actually real needs for things to work on. But in my opinion to a large part this problem arises from the OSMF board engaging on matters that should not be their concern. The task of the OSMF board is not to govern OpenStreetMap, it is to provide a framework in which the community can govern itself. And the design of this framework should not be based on the momentaneous wants and desires of a non-representative part of the OSM community as gauged by a survey but should derive from the long term values of the project (which i have written about frequently in the past – see the links above).
Now i don’t want to sweepingly reject the idea of doing surveys of the OSM community. As a supplement and to provide input to an open discourse these can be of value. And with published free form answers surveys designed and initiated from the community could even become an integral part of an open discussion. But ultimately discourse on matters in an open and diverse community like OpenStreetMap will happen across many different channels in many different languages and styles of expression – inevitably inconvenient for any centralized management attempts. Any attempt to channelize and control such discourse from a central authority is bound to fail in one form or the other.