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!

Once it became clear that OpenStreetMap was a force to be reckoned with, people started to be skeptical about diversity in the project. As long as it was something made by geeks for geeks, nobody cared much about them, but with major web sites and apps starting to use OpenStreetMap, people were asking: How can a map that is made mainly by white men from wealthy countries cater to the needs and interests of other groups?

Diversity comes in many shapes and sizes. One aspect is that if mappers in a region contribute to OSM, we’d like to see contributions from all parts of that society; we believe that this makes the map better. This is mostly, but not only, a gender issue (just like Wikipedia and many Open Source projects, we have more men contributing than women). Another aspect of diversity is that we think OSM is so great that we’d like to see it used and made everywhere on the planet and not just in regions where rich kids like to play with their shiny new smartphone.

In this post I will dodge the gender issue. At least when we look at white college-educated women from wealthy countries, we know that they have the spare time and IT skills necessary to contribute to OSM; why they choose to apply their time and resources to other pastimes is the subject of much research and speculation, and I can add little to that here.

What I want to look at is countries in which “IT skills” and “spare time” are scarce. In many of the less wealthy countries of what we today call the “Global South”, people have to work hard to put food on the table for their families, or do other things that are essential. If someone should be lucky enough to know a little bit about computers, or even GIS, their family or peer group is going to expect them to monetarise these skills. Imagine that saying “I’ll go out mapping for a while” meant “Sorry little brother, no school books for you this semester” – that would probably put a dent into even the most ardent craft mapper’s motivation.

The knee-jerk reaction to this situation is: Ok, then we have to pay mappers in less wealthy countries – or find someone (an NGO, the world bank, or a business) to pay them. This is a standard approach in many humanitarian projects; if they have volunteers participating then these volunteers will likely be from wealthy countries, and if locals participate then they likely get paid. It sounds like a good enough plan – here’s the western NGO with coffers full of aid money, there’s a group of students in a small town in Mozambique, let’s link them up, teach them how to map, and everyone profits.

But we have to be careful here. If we choose this option, then what people in the receiving country get is not the original, cool, volunteer driven OSM that empowers us and puts mappers in control. What we’re giving people in that country, by paying them to contribute to OSM, is a poor imitation. We give them an OSM where others tell you what to map. We give them a tasking manager and we boss them around. Even worse, we make some of them into “leaders” and train them in bossing around their compatriots. We give them an OSM that is not sustainable, because as soon as the flow of money ebbs, so will the maintenance of the map. The OSM they get might earn them money or be a valuable addition to their CV for a career in GIS, but they’re ultimately serving rich donors, or worse, business investors. There is hardly ever a flow of money that does not go hand in hand with control; whether it is an aid project or a business endeavour, those footing the bill will have benchmarks, milestones, measurements to guard their investment.

The word “colonialism” has been bandied around a lot with regard to OSM lately, and partly by proponents of paying mappers in poorer countries for their contribution. I posit that dangling the liberating, empowering, and cool OSM that we enjoy before communities in less wealthy countries, and then giving them instead the empty husk that remains when you replace volunteer contributions with paid work in OSM, is the ultimate form of colonialism. “Here’s some money, now map for us, you don’t need all this freedom stuff that would normally come with OSM.”

People have requested that marginalised communities be given more control over OSM. The thing is, as a local hobby mapper you already have full control! It’s just if you can’t afford to be a hobbyist, and instead need to take money (and with that, orders) from others, that you relinquish control.

And this is the dilemma: If you do not have the spare time to contribute freely and voluntarily to OSM, then you will not get the real OSM where you are in control. And no amount of money can fix that.

Is it morally ok to want to bring the OSM we see as liberating, empowering, and cool to people in less wealthy countries? And if it is, how can we bring them the real thing instead of some poor copy that depends on external help and establishes a hierarchy of leaders and followers?

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