OpenStreetMap

Communication channels

Posted by Dzertanoj on 29 December 2017 in English (English)

Being a distributed crowdsourced project, OSM strongly depends on communication channels to bring the desired level of coordination within communities. However, since there is a high level of independence and autonomy in these communities, it might lead to a situation of scattered and fragmented communication. I'm not proposing anything here, but I still want to bring this issue to attention.

Every technology used for communication (mailing lists, forums, messenger channels, IRC) might have a certain advantage over others, but the thing is that it has nothing to do with its popularity. The dominance of a certain channel within a community has historical roots and relies on a habit. An existing choice might have a justification, but that is not a reason for a particular choice. For example, why Russian-speaking community prefers forum over the mailing lists? Just because several people started using it many years ago. It's not because it's easier to search through it or because it has better message formatting features. But there is nothing wrong with it. However, there is one significant bad side.

Commonly used communication channel might get a "fork" just because several people (or even a single person) want to take over it or just because they have different habits. That's exactly what happened in Russian-speaking community starting a Telegram messenger channel. Those who don't want to use Telegram or who prefer non-real-time communication (forum or mailing list) over a real-time chat technology, become deprived of a significant part of a communication process.

Moreover, "forks" like that might be used to make certain decisions look more legitimate. For example, a certain tagging practice or a change of a Wiki page might be discussed in a limited circle of people using a new communication channel. Others, who use a different channel, stay unaware of that. While someone who participated in that discussion could later use an argument that something has been discussed and there was no objection, so let it be this way. This is a practical example of using an existing selection bias to justify something because it is easier to pick a channel of communication where a certain opinion prevails and to get an approval of any idea that correlates with that opinion (also, look up "Gerrymandering" in Wikipedia).

I am perfectly aware of the fact that there is no real approval procedure for any kind of decisions forming a structure of the OSM project. But it doesn't mean that using technicalities like that for "political" matters is something totally acceptable. I hope that someone will, at least, think about it for a minute.

Comment from Sadless74 on 30 December 2017 at 06:16

You may see what happened when osmers ask new modern communication channel https://github.com/openstreetmap/operations/issues/128

That's why each community use own way...

Comment from Verdy_p on 13 January 2018 at 20:47

If every community was correctly communicating, it would document the channels they use on their local wiki page. And would report there also pointers to important transcripts, and talks that happened. Otherwise it's not possible to track all the various channels that are used. And what was an early consensus would probably no logner be the case with current users (also users should know that they are not mapping for them alone, in their own local place, and users will be interested from around the world, and will want to use the data un unexpected ways: this is the goal of OSM to open the data to more people, wherever they are, and whatever language they use). The communication channels are changeable at any time, but no decision made locally in these channels should be considered valid if they are not centralized and summarized in a central place where they can be found... and later contested to create something better and more reusable in more contexts than those initially considered.

Comment from EneaSuper on 14 January 2018 at 10:44

Sono completamente d'accordo con quello che dice Dzertanoj. Ritengo che i canali di comunicazione adoperati dalla comunità internazionale siano troppi, e di conseguenza si vadano a creare situazioni di disorganizzazione e dispersione delle informazioni. Momentaneamente non mi dilungherò troppo sull'argomento, ma se vogliamo prendere d'esempio le mailing list rispetto ai forum è scontato dire che si tratta di un social media troppo vecchio per essere adoperato ancora oggi...

Comment from EneaSuper on 14 January 2018 at 10:46

Excuse me, by mistake I published the text in Italian...

I completely agree with what Dzertanoj says. I believe that the communication channels used by the international community are too many, and consequently we are going to create situations of disorganization and information dispersion. Momentarily I will not elaborate on the subject too much, but if we want to take an example of the mailing list compared to the forums it is obvious to say that it is a social media too old to be used today...

Comment from Verdy_p on 14 January 2018 at 11:57

Email is NOT too old, they are easily manageable and sortable like people want (not the case with forums). They are archivable unlike IRC which is lost: any decision or talk in IRC is immediately lost and IRC should never be used for discussing issues prior to deciding something. Forums are nightmares to navigate and search and their content is deleted/moved without notice. However we also have too many lists and users cannot track all of them and will not want to subscribe all of them. Additionally some miling lists are targetting specific languages and are very geographically centered, meaning that they will not be accessible to many users that can't participate to the decisions. There are different ways to communicate but at least the wiki is the central point to collect the result and inform other people of what is going on in specific communication channels: all important discussions and decisions should be documented and summarized on the wiki even if it is just to include an URL to some publicly readable archive, website, or blog.

All past decisions must be motivated with a track of talks and votes that occured (which most of the time involved only a few users, and not the general community at large) and with ways to know who to contact again: all past decisions will need to be reviewed later by others having different opinions or new needs or problems to solve that were ignored in the past decision.

I personnally consider that ANY decision made in a specific communication channel and which was not publicly announced and tracked on the wiki as INVALID, and UNJUSTIFIED: this decision only affects the effective participants of these specific channels (and only at the time they used it: IRC for example is an extremely bad channel for collective decision process because we cannot ask to everyone in the OSM community to be online there 24/24-7-7 to follow what happens).

The same is true about social networks (notably Facebook, Twitter) because they are inundated by floods of unrelated posts or reposts from various pages and it's simply impossible to follow everything that happened there (and notably months or years ago). These are "junk" channels, almost immediately forgotten.

Comment from LivingWithDragons on 15 January 2018 at 12:44

I came here via Weekly OSM, a great source for topics that I might have missed on the communication channels that work best for me. Some communication communities copy or reference the Weekly OSM (you can also sign up to get it e-mailed to you).

Comment from joost schouppe on 17 January 2018 at 07:52

Sadless74 points to a very relavant discussion. The main problem is there is no obvious solution, and "showing leadership" and deciding already has the risk of betting on the wrong horse.

We've used the OSMF Slack for a while with the Belgian community, but since moved on because a) Slack is invite-only unless you set up some sort of self-subscribe server, b) our open source radicals didn't like us to use it. We migrated to Riot (matrix), which is kind of cool. It has a lot of the feautres of Slack (though it is missing a few interesting ones), and it has a smartphone app. Oh, and we just set up a bridge to IRC to cater to that school. Still it is an application that feels a bit weird to people who aren't very "techy", and we are still thinking about another migration. I guess the biggest missing feature is a way to keep the channels united, and still have a manageable flow of conversation.

As Verdy points out, there is a need for summarizing. Places like Slack, Riot and Telegram are very high volume, and allow for fast discussions. However, they can become an echo chamber of the very hard core. Hence some extra work: summarizing and documenting what has been said, and getting wider participation when necessary. The Wiki is a good place to canonize, but for us the place for that wider participation is still the Belgian mailing list. Maybe it's a good development, since it feels like that list has gone a little more quiet and easy to follow since we've moved to chat.

I think it would be interesting to bring all the points of view on the different chat-like channels together at a SotM workshop/birds of a feather, and see if we could come to some kind of common solution.

Comment from Verdy_p on 17 January 2018 at 12:28

No, the "Belgian" mailing list is not the correct place to summarize, just like any one of the many mailing lists that OSM has because no one will ever subscribe to all of them or would have to support many mlessages in a language they can't read or write.

Even the English (only) general OSM mailing list is the bad place : it excludes many users from discussing.

The OSM forum also is not suitable (and in fact it is closed by a few users appying their own local policies they have enforced without any discussion).

Only one place allows summarizing : the wiki, it is really international and allows linking to all relevant places (mailing lists, blogs...) where things are published. And where things can be reviewed later at any time by anyone (without also having to constantly monitor everything as they happen: it can be reached and discovered later, it is archived).

But it does not mean that every thing must be hosted on the wiki, it is just a central repository to post the links and summaries, and inform others when things are occuring somewhere (people need to be informed that a decision is taking place somewhere, but unfortunately most important decisions are taken that have long term impact and on more people than those that were connected to the specific channel, without informing anyone outside, and then it's taken as "decided", even if few people participated. It also excludes any newcomer from having their own view, and does not allow reviewing the past "decisions").

For this reason, the wiki should be mor eprecisely managed and structured. However most people don't care about linking and categorizing what they post there. And many OSMers think it is not important to do that: I disagree, without the wiki the OSM community would not exist at all internationaly, and OSM would not be an international project, and we would not even have the various tools we have now to structure the data and audit its quality. It is the essential part of OSM: documenting what is existing now, what will happen, what may change, problems encountered, solutions proposed, solutions abandonned (yes this happens but too rarely), and policies (where they can be also reviewed later to improve or remove them when needed).

Comment from joost schouppe on 17 January 2018 at 16:13

I didn't mean to disagree, Verdy. It's more like this: - high volume discussion: Riot - wider mapper participation: talk-be mailing list - outreach: www.osm.be - mapper/data-user documentation: wiki pages

I think we do a reasonable job managing the Belgian wiki pages, but I'd be interested to hear if and how you think our use of it differs from what you'd like to see.

Login to leave a comment