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

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

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

Communication habits and style

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

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

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

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

Social structure of and diversity within the OSMF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checks and balances within the OSMF, applicability of rules

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

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

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

Economic changes

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

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

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

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

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

Policy changes

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

2 Comments

  1. Hi Chris, just replying to signal that I’ve read the post from start to finish 🙂

    Regarding the negative consequences — I believe they are overlooked because the Board strives for quantity of decisions, not quality. Probably compensating for the Board’s passiveness in the previous years. I don’t think it’s too bad: you’re bound to pass through few extremes before settling on a balance. And the community impact of that decisions would be very low, due to the low interest of the community to the Board.

    I absolutely agree that the Western culture and language bias is a major if not the defining issue with the current Board. Too bad people on the Board don’t see that, and if they do, they don’t communicate it or compensate for it.

    I wish they’ve responded to your posts — but with the animosity, which I believe is mostly led by Allan, who is very productive and knowledgeable, but didn’t work with a community before, I doubt a conversation between the Board and anybody from the community is possible.

    Still, I am very optimistic and consider current issues temporary: just growing pains, nothing that can’t be fixed.

    • Hello Ilya,

      thanks for your comment. I agree that lack of perception of own bias is a major part of the problem, in particular for the board as a group that is culturally fairly homogeneous and does a lot of internal communication further synchronizing views and attitudes.

      Regarding consequences – i would encourage you to read my second part (yes, another long read, sorry for that). I there also encourage everyone who sees a different development upcoming to venture your own prediction so we can compare and discuss. Learning how we look into the future from different perspectives is highly valuable i think.

      W.r.t. animosity from the board – i have to say that in direct communication (both public and non-public) Allan has always been respectful to me. The animosity i perceive from the board, often as subtext in their communication on osmf-talk and elsewhere, seems more a collective one, from the board as a whole whenever there is or could be an articulation of critical views. But again – i am much closer culturally to the board than most of the OSM community.

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