About a year ago was the last time i wrote on this blog about politics of the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) and with the annual general meeting and board elections coming up i think it is time to look back again at the past year and review the predictions i made last year. In this first part i will provide a summary of the most significant developments of the past year from my perspective.
Before i get to specific things that have happened during the past year and their analysis i want to describe my impression of the overall trends. Concerning the board the bottom line is that relatively little has changed compared to the year before (where i saw the changes made quite critically in many aspects as you can read up). That means the three board members elected in the end of 2020 (one re-elected who was on the board before and two new members) did not leave much of a distinct signature so far and seem to be standing mostly in the shadows of the more extrovert and more voiceful members whose seats are up for election this year.
That means overall trends that started last year which i described in my analysis back then mostly continued during this year. The plans of the board to expand their own work capacity by creating board committees with additional committee members not from the board so far did not yield any practical results. The board formally created three board committees but only one of them is documented to some extent beyond that (the personnel committee) and there is no documented activity of that so far either.
That also means public activity of the OSMF in general shifted a bit from the board (which massively dominated the previous year) to working groups and special committees this year. This is paired with a further decline in transparency in some parts of OSMF work also outside the board. Several working groups and committees ceased any form of regular reporting to the larger community (LCCWG, Microgrants committee already in 2020, Diversity and Inclusion Special Committee in 2020 and the SotM working group already in 2019) Of many of their activities we only know through reports to the board made during the board meetings (which fortunately are still minuted). Of two newly created committees (Software dispute resolution panel, Special Committee on Takeover Protection) we don’t know anything about their status. Overall the lack of publicly available information meanwhile means we do not only lack knowledge of what the OSMF is actually doing in many cases, we also don’t know if they are doing something or not in large parts. On the positive side i like to mention the newly formed Engineering Working Group which seems to try to be transparent in their work from the start with meetings open to the OSMF members and minutes published in a timely fashion. It will remain to be seen if that level of transparency will be maintained once it comes to making substantial decisions but the will to start with a culture of openness is quite clearly there.
So let me get to a list of key topics that we know the OSMF dealt with or worked on during the past year. A more complete list can be found on the OSMF wiki. I will try here to discuss the most important points only and their political significance and the potential impact on the future of the OSMF and OpenStreetMap.
After the OSMF has had already serious trouble in 2020 because their long term bank threw them out there were apparently a multitude of new issues this year. It seems the OSMF had moved to a bank with fairly high fees and to mitigate that used non-bank financial service providers for most of their transactions. And since there was no redundancy in that system of banking and financial services the OSMF was in a pretty bad situation for some time after two service providers blocked their accounts.
What i am not sure about and what worries me is if these two big issues in two consecutive years have lead to introducing serious redundancy into the financial management of the OSMF – in other words: If the OSMF could now survive a similar case (any of their banks or financial service providers freezing their accounts or terminating their contract ad hoc) without running into serious operational troubles as a result. There is nothing in public communication of the board indicating that there have been precautions and redundancies introduced for this kind of situation. I don’t want to assume this not being the case but the question arises of course.
The dangerous precedent of paying a board member
In the course of these banking issues the OSMF board made the decision to pay one of them (the treasurer) a rate of EUR 100 per hour for working on the problem. This decision did not gather much attention back then but i consider it highly problematic for a number of reasons:
- Evidently all board members had a conflict of interest with a decision that sets a precedent for paying a board member for board work. Even if the other board members have no interests in getting paid for OSMF work themselves and will never have such interest in the future (which is something only very few of them can convincingly claim) that does not change anything about this. A conflict of interest is the possibility that there is a secondary interest (the personal financial interest of the board member) colliding with the primary interest the board member is to pursue (the interests of the company). That is evidently the case here (all board members could profit from a precedent in paying a board member for board work). Therefore i think anyone would assume that the decision to start paying board members for board work – no matter if in general or only in specific cases – would be one that can only be made by the OSMF members during a general meeting. And even if that is considered not to be an option the obvious alternative (to hire an outside professional for that work) does not seem to have been considered at all.
- The financial impact of this decision on the OSMF will in the future probably far exceed the amount paid (and the board as far as i can see still has not informed the membership how much that is by the way). Because this sets a reference point for any future contractor the OSMF might want to hire. If for work to resolve the current blockage of PayPal and TransferWise accounts for which the treasurer has neither a specific formal training qualifying him nor substantial work experience (beyond the 1.5 years as treasurer) the board considers EUR 100/hour an appropriate fee that will in the future likely be a bottom limit for anyone working for the OSMF as a contractor with any substantial formal qualification or work experience in the domain in question. Just for comparison: The people hired for software development work by the OSMF during the past two years (see here, here, here and here) received EUR 50/EUR 62/USD 66 per hour and all had many years of work experience in the specific fields they were working on (and with software development experience being a qualification in very high demand on the market in general). It is unlikely that the OSMF will in the future be able to contract anyone that cheap if the board itself has essentially set the lower bar for work without substantial qualification at EUR 100/hour.
- On a meta-level (and i realize that many readers probably consider this a too abstract possibility) this decision could in principle incentivize board members in the future to work towards leading the company into precarious situations similar to this one by not creating redundancies and safeguards where that would be prudent and then – if the problem becomes acute – offer to solve it when getting paid. To be clear – i am not saying this specific problem could or should have been foreseen and prevented. But the decision to pay a board member in exceptional circumstances creates an incentive for board members to work towards similarly exceptional circumstances in the future.
This was not the only case by the way of the board giving money to a board member last year. The other case was when the board granted a request by Amanda to finance a Mastodon server she runs. Now you could argue of course this is nothing more than reimbursement for expenses. But it seems quite clear that this request was handled differently than it would have been if Amanda had not been a board member. If not in any other way then at least because someone else asking the board for money for something like that could not have created a circular like Amanda did.
The most visible policy decision during the past year and in particular the one most widely recognized in the OSM community was the adoption of new Attribution Guidelines. I wrote last year that this could be a significant test case for the amount of influence corporate interests have on the OSMF. The board here managed to adopt guidelines that clearly go against the wishes of large corporate data users. I have discussed this in more detail and as written there the board in return gave the corporations a pacifying gift by essentially declaring an exception of the ODbL for use of OSM data in data driven algorithms (a.k.a. training of machine learning models). Independent of that so far the Attribution Guidelines are just a piece of paper. If the OSMF does not act on data users, in particular the large financiers of the OSMF, not complying with those guidelines the decision to adopt them in this form will not be that meaningful. So the board has done a step towards pushing back against the hand that feeds them so to speak. But without more concrete actions this is not that substantial. You could also say the board has essentially delayed the decision if to initiate an open conflict with either the corporate financiers or the craft mapper community.
Change in strategic direction of the OSMF
Something that went more below the radar during the past year was the adoption of a so called Strategic Plan Outline. This at the first glance looks like a fairly vague, harmless and non-controversial collection of matters the OSMF has and should have on their radar. But at a closer look it is not, it is essentially a political program outlining a fundamental change in strategic orientation and core values of the OpenStreetMap project and how the OSMF can try to pursue such re-orientation while maintaining the lip service to support but not control OpenStreetMap.
The key to understanding this text lies in the Preamble – which essentially outlines a vision of OpenStreetMap the board has during the past two years increasingly communicated in their statements and policy documents (first noted this in the discussion of the so called diversity statement and further discussed here and here for example) – that OpenStreetMap is viewed primarily as a project to collect useful geodata and no more as a social endeavor and that all social aspects and all other things traditionally considered core principles of OpenStreetMap are subordinate to that goal.
The rest of the document is then essentially just a sketch of a strategy how the OSMF can support OSM turning into a project that follows this vision. That hollows out the support but not steer paradigm at its core because the vision of OpenStreetMap as a materialist project aiming primarily to collect useful geodata through crowdsourced labor goes completely against the core of what OpenStreetMap traditionally stands for and what made the project successful. And the Preamble goes even further – it puts the volunteer mappers contributing highly specific local knowledge on the same level as large corporations contributing satellite imagery and artificial intelligence tools.
So far this text has received no substantial critical reception and discussion in the OSM community.
Conflicts of Interest – unwillingness to address obvious problems and impose more substantial regulation
After last year’s events around the Microgrants program have demonstrated clearly that existing Conflict of Interest rules in the OSMF (which rely on people universally being able and willing to recognize their own Conflicts of Interest) are grossly insufficient, an attempt to make the rules more strict at least in some minor ways from within the board has been non-successful. The comments on the circular indicate a continued fundamental lack of awareness of there being a problem at all. This continued also otherwise during this year – the decision discussed above about paying a board member for board work being just one example. The board is currently discussing a second round of the Microgrants program and despite even the committee from the first round (who did not see the need for public oversight on their work in the first round and who decided to ignore the requirement to do all work openly) suggesting in their final report that clearer rules on that are needed, the board in their discussion so far has shown no indication that they see the need for changes from their side or that they even see there is a significant problem at all.
I have written about the whole topic of corruption risks and Conflicts of Interest in the past.
Behavior regulation on OSMF channels
One other topic that was fairly prominent during the past year and that i predicted to be a key trend this year was the attempt to impose behavior regulation on communication channels of the OSM community operated by the OSMF. I commented on that quite a bit already.
The interesting thing about this project is that in contrast to other OSMF topics (like the Attribution Guidelines) where the board saw no problem with taking the initiative and requesting changes to document drafts and ultimately writing their own document or the Microgrants program where the board afterwards hand picked several projects not selected by the committee for separate funding this way overruling the committee, the board here seems to very clearly shy away from taking any influence and for the most part from even commenting in substance on the plans and drafts of the self appointed group that developed these.
This is remarkable in my eyes because as i indicated in the above linked text already what i find noteworthy about this project is how uncritically people in the OSMF seem to embrace the totalitarian and culture imperialist tendencies that can be observed around this. My impression is that different people project very different hopes and visions into this endeavor – some see it as a beachhead to ultimately turn all of OpenStreetMap into a managed community where everyone adjusts to certain behavior standards in everything they do and adopts certain cultural values while others view this as a fig-leaf to pacify certain loud voices without changing anything of substance. The bottom line is: No matter how this will further develop quite a lot of people (possibly all) will be miserable.
Further Transparency rollbacks
I have already mentioned several more cases during the past year of decline of transparency in the work of the OSMF above (adding to the general trend in pointed out last year already). But there were further examples of transparency rollbacks. As i linked to above it has been established tradition for the OSMF to publish contracts for paid work. This is very important both for oversight over decisions with potentially high impact on the OSMF’s finances but also for fairness between different contractors (equal terms and pay for equal work) and for making sure the OSMF lives up to their social responsibilities towards people working for them. Not to mention that the latent conflicts between volunteer work and paid work are significantly reduced if the contractual terms and payment for paid work are known to everyone.
Now with the hiring of a new iD developer the board seems to intend to break with that tradition and keep the contract secret. Not only that – they seem to have signed the contract without a formal board decision (which likewise would be a first in OSMF history).
What is not on the list
In addition to the list of matters the OSMF worked on what is also important to look at are the matters that are missing on that list. During the last general meeting there were three resolutions approved by the members that have not been implemented by the board yet. One was the investigation of paid votes in elections – which the board delegated to a committee in July but where there are no results yet. The other two were related to the membership system – one meaning to allow active contributor members (who don’t have to pay the membership fee because they have contributed to OSM significantly during the past year) to become regular members rather than just associate members. The other to work on membership prerequisites. None of these has been addressed so far. Given the board members are volunteers and there has been significant unforeseen work during the past year as described above it is not advisable to assign too much blame for that to the board. One could of course question the board’s priorities here, especially since they clearly have put items on their own agenda above the tasks they have been given by the membership.
Anyway – the board seems clearly a bit embarrassed by having forgotten about these points and intends to schedule an additional general meeting within the next half year to then decide about a proposal from the board (to be developed until then) on the last point.
While i think more frequent active involvement of the membership in OSMF politics is a good idea, planning to ask the members for approving a resolution on a membership related matter while the previous resolution the members have approved in this regard has not been implemented yet is kind of weird and does not inspire a lot of confidence.
Very successful active contributor membership program
To end with a clearly positive point – the active contributor membership program that has been started last year has turned out to be very successful with more than one third of the members now having made use of it. In what ways exactly this changes the membership structure still remains to be seen – the geographic distribution in terms of country of residence does only provide limited information on that. But it has the potential to lead to significant positive effects in the long term.
That was my – certainly rather subjective – summary of what happened in the OSMF during the past year.
While last year i had the impression of the board’s actions and decisions being rather erratic, this year – with there not being that many new projects of the board and the OSMF more consolidating its direction – i also have a much clearer view now of the direction in which the OSMF seems to be aiming.
In a nutshell – what the current boards seems to try to do is to re-invent OpenStreetMap in a way that avoids the OSMF having to decide between its financiers, the hands that feed them (the large corporate OSM data users) and the interests of the project. And from a perspective from within the OSMF this makes total sense. Making OpenStreetMap more business compatible by giving it a business like material goal (collection of useful geodata) avoids a conflict that in the long term would have the potential to destroy the OSMF.
I have explained in the past on multiple occasions that i consider the key for OpenStreetMap’s success in connecting people from all over the world across language and culture barriers to be the egalitarian cooperation between individuals sharing their local knowledge. And i think that cannot be substituted with the goal of producing a collection of useful geodata without loosing the social cohesion of the project and the basis of its success. But of course i cannot prove that, i can only describe how my understanding of OpenStreetMap has led me to that conclusion and how – over the years – many further observations of the social mechanisms in OpenStreetMap (in particular regarding how the OSM community tends to deal with conflicts and cultural differences) have confirmed this hypothesis repeatedly so i offer this as an explanation to understand how OpenStreetMap works and why it is successful as a social endeavor.
When the board however believes the opposite to be true, that the core principles of OpenStreetMap can be substituted with or subordinated under the common goal of collecting useful geodata without adverse effects on the social cohesion across language and culture barriers and they act upon this belief to re-invent OpenStreetMap along these lines they essentially put the whole project on the line based merely on their belief regarding the social mechanisms of how OpenStreetMap works – a belief for which they have no corroborating evidence.
But enough for today. In a follow-up post i plan to look back at my predictions from last year and to what extent they came to pass and see if i can make some predictions for the future again.