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OpenStreetMap and collection of local geographic knowledge in 2034

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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.

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