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The OSMF – last year’s predictions and a look into the future

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Last year i predicted a number of trends i identified in the OSMF that seemed to be likely to further develop during this year. I will here have a look at how this turned out so far. Note many of these predictions were a bit more long term than just a single year so it is a bit early for a final assessment of them. If you have not already done so you might also want to look at the previous post where i analyzed the developments in the OSMF during the past year in general.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Centralization of the OSMF

This year has shown mixed developments in that regard. With the adoption of Attribution Guidelines designed by the board essentially rejecting significant parts of the LWG proposal the board kind of continued the centralization trend. The creation of new committees where the selection of members was done by the board goes in a similar direction. On the other hand the board has – as mentioned in the first part – so far not really made use of the new instrument of board committees with members that are not part of the board. And as i also mentioned in the first part in my analysis already with the behavior regulation plans the board showed a remarkable reluctance to take any influence or even make suggestions on the work so far. But that does not necessarily disprove my prediction of a tendency for more centralization. Obviously if the work of working groups and committees goes to the board’s liking there is no need to impose top-down influence. An interesting test during the coming year will probably be how independent the newly created EWG will be in their work.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Decreasing diversity and brain drain

Last year i predicted that the OSMF would become increasingly a domain of people with economic interests around OSM – either people who volunteer as part of their career or people who get paid for OSMF work. Developments in composition of the working groups seem to confirm this. The newly created EWG seems to consist predominantly of people with an OSM related job and a clear connection between their career/job and the EWG work. The CWG seems now dominated by people with HOT affiliations. And on the newly created Software dispute resolution panel four of five members have OSM related jobs.

Regarding the related trend that the OSMF seems to become culturally more narrow as a result of that – We had in particular a remarkable case in the LWG when the request of Séverin Ménard to join the working group was rejected for fairly questionable reasons which was clearly an act of discrimination because of differences in cultural background and values and personal style and character.

Also matching this trend is the list of candidates for this year’s board election where five out of six candidates have an OSM related job and the sixth (Guillaume) has – through the payment for board work i discussed in the first part – also qualified himself for that category in a way.

This assessment, based on OSM related jobs and OSM related economic interests, is of course only a rough indicator – someone with an OSM related job can in principle decide to volunteer for OSM without that being guided by economic interests. And someone volunteering without an OSM related job might none the less do that to foster their career or to get an OSM related job. But it is still a reasonable rough indicator. And the overall trend that the OSMF is becoming increasingly a domain of people with economic interests around OSM seems to be confirmed quite strongly by it. This is not really that astonishing, given the increased amount of money the OSMF now has and wants to spend. The important thing is that these personal economic interests of people active in the OSMF of course also affect the interests pursued by the organization – more on that below.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Seeking influence on OpenStreetMap

This is the trend where i made the most concrete predictions last year so lets see how these turned out:

Community communication channels:

On the behavior regulation front my prediction was spot on i think. The behavior regulation regime is not in place yet but the intention to roll it out soon is clearly there. My guess is what stalls things at the moment is that it is difficult to find people for the moderation team that (a) look somewhat diverse at least on paper (b) are not too obviously unqualified because they are no active users of the mailing lists in question and (c) are willing to take on such a thankless task.

The other front on which the OSMF worked last year towards more top down control and more centralization of OSM community communication channels was the work towards a new centralized communication platform (using the web based forum software discourse) on which according to the OSMFs vision ultimately all community communication the OSMF facilitates is meant to be unified.

Early comments, warning (a) that all the different communication platforms and channels we have and use in the OSM community have very different communication styles and cultures and serve very different purposes and (b) that it would be counterproductive to attempt unifying those into one platform, were quite clearly ignored in the OSMF. As i mentioned last year there are strong voices in the OSMF calling for culturally homogenizing communication in OSM and more top-down management of community interaction. That this ultimately is very likely to backfire – possibly leading to an emphasis of the OSM community separating into distinct filter bubbles with very little substantial communication between them – as i also already indicated last year.

We will very likely see the rollout of both the new unified communication platform and the new behavior control regime next year. It will be very interesting to observe what happens when the community management and cultural homogenization ideas practically collide with the OSM community in all its diversity.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

The OpenStreetMap website:

So far nothing of substance has happened on that front but the matter has recently been put on the agenda of the board again so it is possible that my prediction was just off by a few months. On the other hand the board would still need to find someone qualified and willing to implement the OSMFs wishes here – which could be quite difficult.

From the board minutes:

the www.osm.org website works well, but there are opportunities for better experience and to grow the community.

That is quite clearly code for we want a more corporate style and less map centered website – hence confirming my prediction from last year. As said there: If that is going to be successful, considering the OpenStreetMap website is traditionally out of scope of the OSMF, is not sure.

Mapping and tagging:

In this point my prediction was clearly wrong or at least much too early (though i mentioned this is a point i was not very sure about). That might be partly because iD development was essentially stalled for the past year so there was no opportunity even for the software dispute resolution panel to make any decisions.

Interesting point on that – the strategic plan outline contains an obscure point called curated tags proposal that might indicate further plans within the OSMF to take influence on mapping and tagging. Can’t be sure about that though.

Because it is unclear where iD development is going in the future i would not want to make a new prediction on this point right now. We will probably see this more clearly in a year or so.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

In my conclusions last year i also indicated two possibilities for the OSMF to develop into a more positive direction.

The first one (reorganizing the OSMF into a more federated organizational structure with checks and balances and meaningful subsidiarity rules as part of a move outside the UK) is still an option. The board seems to be looking into moving the OSMF. Changing the organizational structure as part of such a move however does not seem to be on the agenda and my reminder that this would be highly desirable did not produce any resonance.

The second one (turning the OSMF into a neutral infrastructure provider for the OSM community under the premise of neutrality and non-discrimination) – given the developments during the past year this seems to have become increasingly less likely – in particular because the OSMF has meanwhile attracted quite significant interests that build on the non-neutral directed money spending under the people whose work we know and enjoy paradigm that is pursued right now. So in short: Sadly that ship has probably sailed.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

Corporate takeover

There has been some discussion about my blog post from last year and the claim that the corporate takeover has already happened. The problem with my claim of that was that i defined it as the inability of the OSMF to make decisions that are against the interests of its corporate financiers. And proving that inability would amount to proving a negative – which is hard. But, as i discussed in the first part of this post, the strategic plan outline the board has approved this year essentially codifies the alignment to business interests in substance – or in other words: The intention not to make decisions that are against the interests of the OSMFs corporate financiers. And i think a clearly articulated intention makes proving the inability superfluous.

The strategic plan outline has now documented clearly that the OSMF has shifted in their direction from supporting OpenStreetMap as the social endeavor that it is to re-shaping it to the ideal that business interests around OSM in large parts would like it to be – a project with the primary goal being a collection of useful geodata and all social aspects of the project being subordinate to that material goal. It can of course be questioned if this can be classified as a corporate takeover. But the result is similar, the OSMF has over the course of several years mostly adjusted to and adopted the goals and interests of corporations as their own.

And to be clear – this shift in focus is not exclusively for the benefit of large corporations or against the articulated interests of most people around OpenStreetMap. Many people view this shift to be an attractive opportunity for their career or business interests or a chance for a job or some paid work related to OpenStreetMap. And they are not wrong about this. But make no mistake – such small scale interests are just along for the ride. The key influence comes from where the money to satisfy all these smaller interests ultimately comes from.

The long term developments resulting from this shift in direction of the OSMF are hard to predict because they depend mostly on how resilient the OSM community will be against an OSMF increasingly pursuing external economic interests. In the past – essentially for the last ten years from the time when OSM started to become an international cross-cultural social project until today – the OSM community has shown a fairly solid ability to cope with a changing and in parts hostile environment. But that does not necessarily mean much for the future.

The spectrum of possible futures ranges from a quick collapse into what i described elsewhere as a new edition of the International World Map in the digital age using crowdsourcing to scenarios where the core ideas and social mechanisms of OSM essentially continue to work and thrive unaffected by an OSMF in concert with business interests trying to re-invent OSM in their filter bubble. That scenario is essentially based on what HOT has been doing rather successfully for many years. They have made a business out of selling OSM as a platform to perform centrally organized crowd sourced mapping projects and with free maintenance of that data afterwards to aid organizations of various types. The OSMF could try to do a similar thing for the data user market – trying to sell their ideal of OpenStreetMap as a mere collection of useful geodata while the OSM community underneath continues to work under a very different paradigm. It is somewhat doubtful that such a constellation would be stable in the long term but i would not rule it out.

As i have written more than two years ago – no matter how this will turn out, the idea to collect and share local geographic knowledge through egalitarian self-determined cooperation of individuals will survive in the long term because it is something that resonates very strongly with people of very different cultural backgrounds all over the world. The question is only if it will survive within the project that is called OpenStreetMap or outside of it. And maybe a more materialist, more centrally organized and managed OpenStreetMap is what is needed as a counterpoint for this idea to elsewhere continue to thrive and to develop to the next level. In a similar way as the self centered monopolist mapping agencies of the UK and Europe, serving specialized interests but not those of the people, were the necessary trigger for the original idea of OpenStreetMap to form and gain support.

I have during the past year strongly reduced my commentary of the OSMFs day-to-day activities. Main reason is that with an OSMF increasingly acting like a business and serving economic interests providing such commentary increasingly feels like providing free consulting services – which is not what i like doing (i commented more on this mechanism in the past). I will probably continue to observe and analyze the publicly visible activities of the OSMF (for their influence on OpenStreetMap and out of intellectual curiosity regarding the social dynamics within the organization) but i will likely write less spontaneous comments and limit myself mostly to long term afterwards analysis like this.

What i really would like to see in the future is more people from the OSM community coming together and working on projects decidedly outside the sphere of influence of the OSMF. JOSM some time ago made the remarkable decision to reject the offer from the OSMF for financial support and this way making a clear statement that they want to stay independent of such influence. It would be nice to see that kind of becoming a role model for other projects.

As for the OSMFs future – in principle the organization still has the potential to change quite dynamically and to take a more positive direction in the future. With that i mean in particular more enlightened decisions, more based on arguments and reasoning and with a tradition of regular public discourse discussing those, and less based on negotiations of interests as it is done right now. That is most certainly not going to happen next year, given the candidate portfolio in this year’s board election. And with every year of course the influence of external interests in the OSMF gets more strongly solidified, making such a change less likely overall.

Autumn impressions near Freiburg

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