The Diversity Dilemma

One of the essential characteristics of the OpenStreetMap project I have known and been active in for well over a decade is that it is made and run by volunteers. OSM is not an association of professional geographers, it’s a bunch of hobbyists doing what, in the eyes of professionals and at least initially, “could never work”. Nobody tells our mappers what to do, what priorities they shold apply; whether to map from the perspective of a cyclist, a wheelchair user, or a person with gluten allergy. And because we all do it in our spare time, without being paid, we have the liberty to reject any attempt to direct our activities. By and large, we map what we want, when we want it. We have wrested control of our maps away from government agencies and commerical operators, and we’re now making our own maps. This is great!
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OSMF Board: Give Newbs A Chance

I’ve been a member of the OSMF board of directors for over seven years now (since September, 2012), and my time on the board is coming to an end in four weeks’ time. In theory either my board colleague Kate or I could have stayed on for another year since only one of us (chosen by agreement, or by lot) is required to step down, but we both thought it was time to make room for new people.

I am thankful for the trust the members have placed in me by voting me in three times (and if a little vanity is allowed, in each election where I stood I received the highest number of votes). At the same time I feel that I have let people down a bit because I am more combative in everyday mailing list discussions than I was in my work on the board. Concentrating, at least in the second half of my tenure, on the treasury, I haven’t advanced the cause of the hobby mapper against the steadily tightening grip (or should we say “embrace”?) of corporate interests as much as I would have liked to. You could even say that by inviting corporate membership, the OSMF is now more open to corporate influence than it was when I took office. This influence is not overt but subtle. It’s not that our corporate members tell us “please make these guidelines so that they are in our favour” – it is more that the board feels it needs to act “professionally” and this makes us vulnerable to influence from those who are better at “being professional” than we are.

One of the factors that made me less effective at fighting overbearing commercial involvement in OSM is of course that I am a commercial player myself. My small (5-person) OSM consultancy, Geofabrik, might not play in the “corporate” league and we’ve never touched venture capital with a barge pole but still, people look at me puzzled when I tell them that I think OSM should remain true to its “hobby mapper” roots. And if I rant against the next American giant embracing OSM, people suspect that a competetive business interest might be the real reason.

The OSMF now has assets worth over half a million pounds (mostly that’s cash in the bank), compared to £120k when I joined the board. This is nothing to do with my work – it’s a combination of successful State of the Map conferences, a huge donation from the Pineapple Fund, and a corporate membership scheme that is working well. And being the treasurer of an organisation with full coffers is certainly easier sailing than if you have to scrape together every last pound. At the same time, having money is also risky – you can easily do things that make you depend on a constant influx of more money, and then you might have to bend over to ensure that influx.

I am leaving the board because I think it is time to make room for new people with new ideas and fresh energy instead of reiterating my old points. People who might bring new views, and different priorities. I am in favour of term limits, and the 6-years-in-office limit we are proposing now would certainly apply to me. It is easy for a board member to think they are indispensable – “we need continuity”, “with too many new members who will tell them how things work”, etc. – but I firmly believe this is one’s self-esteem getting the better of oneself. In my opinion, one of the best chairpersons we ever had at the OSMF board was Simon Poole, who was freshly elected to the board and hadn’t ever served on it before.

I don’t know who I’ll be voting for yet, but my top four choices will certainly be people who haven’t ever served on the board before. Give Newbs a chance!


Better Bombing with Machine Learning

If you haven’t noticed that Machine Learning, or Artificial Intelligence depending on your particular project, has come for OpenStreetMap, then you’ve spent the last couple of years under a rock.

Practically every major business wanting to prove their IT engineering salt have come up with some kind of project that uses Machine Learning to process aerial imagery, and OpenStreetMap is an integral part in many of these experiments – at the very least, OpenStreetMap data is used for training the algorithms, but frequently the results are also made available to OpenStreetMap, with the hope that our community will provide valuable feedback that will further improve the machines, or provide some ethical legitimacy (“we’re doing this for good!”).
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Plus Code Frequently Asked Questions

A propos a recent discussion on the talk list.

So what is this plus code stuff anyway?

Plus Codes, or “Open Location Code”, is essentially a coordinate system. A location on the surface of the Earth is converted to a sequence of letters and numbers so that it can be identified. It’s just like using latitude and longitude, or an easting and northing in other coordinate systems. Because it uses letters as well as numbers, it needs fewer characters overall to identify a point to the same precision compared to a lat/lon pair.
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So You Want to be an OSMF Board Member

(I am currently a member of the OSMF board but this is my personal opinion. I have circulated it by my peers on the board to hear if they had objections to me publishing it and they had none, but of course that doesn’t mean they share my ideas.)

Another OSMF general meeting will be coming up in a couple of months, and there will be a few seats on the board of directors looking for people to occupy them. Are you thinking of standing for election? That’s great to hear! New people can bring new ideas, different viewpoints, and above all, fresh energy to the cause.

In order to give you a better picture of what kind of job awaits you once elected, and to avoid some relatively common misunderstandings, let me share a few things about the work on the OSMF board.
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Is this still on?

Just a minute… need to write something quick… can you imagine… someone is WRONG on the INTERNET!


Losing Good People

In my work for the OSMF Data Working Group, I often have to mediate in conflicts between mappers. I’m not a trained psychologist, and sometimes it feels like it would be good to have one to deal with these kinds of situations. The process often leads to unsatisfactory results. Let me sketch a typical interaction.
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1,000 Addresses

You’ve all heard them, the countless laments about how OSM was direly lacking one thing above everything else: addresses. To anyone who complains that OSM was “useless” for something, my standard response is: Then don’t use it – there’s more than enough things for which OSM is tremendously useful, and if our mappers think they’d like to have more addresses then they will surely come.

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Anti Business

I recently found myself confronted with the sentiment that, as far as OSM or the OSMF are concerend, I had an “anti business” attitude. That’s a funny allegation about someone who was among the first people on this planet to run a business based on making OSM data available commercially, or training commercial entities how to work with OSM.

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Transparency and Confidentiality

I’ve been elected to the OSMF board, and within the board been appointed to the position of “secretary”. My first board meeting (telephone conference) and a couple email exchanges on the board mailing list have come and gone and my impression that many things need changing has hardened.

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