Building an inclusive map - OSM and gender discussion

Posted by Heather Leson on 8 March 2018 in English. Last updated on 9 March 2018.

Today is International Women’s Day. It is timely that I share notes from our recent OSM and Gender discussion. About 20 women and allies joined to talk about gender issues in OSM. Some of the topics we touched on were: research on gender in OSM, gender experiences, code of conduct and next steps.

Some quotes on why having an OSM and Gender dialogue matters:

“I believe the map represents the world and the contributors to that map should all be representative. “ “Discuss/Learn what to avoid and what to do on regular basis to improve diversity.” “I joined because the tone on the mailing lists is not right.” “I’m part of Geochicas and we work towards having more participation of women in the community. We encourage women to create and be part of mapping projects lead by them.”

Over all, we aim to support a safe and inclusive OSM. This means collaborating with each other and you, the OSM community and the OSM supporters.

What does the data tell us?

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team performed a community survey. Of the 267 people who responded, 27% were women. In addition, HOT microgrants/device grants went to 40-45% women.

The YouthMappers community data - We estimate that about 40% of our 5,000 students are female from annual chapter reports. We also see that 25% of our 113 chapters in 35 countries have more than 50% female participation.

It is complex to give accurate and representative quantity of data on gender balance in OSM. For a community that focuses on tagging information to improve the ‘dataset’, it is very clear that there low focus on the baseline data in the demographic makeup of the contributor community. There is a misunderstanding on the need to achieve gender equality in OSM. In fact, there are some people are offended and challenged by this. The GeoChicas community is trying to obtain gender representation and relations data via a survey. Other research efforts continue to explore this topic. Participants on the call discussed how to get more data on the community to help support change and more equality.

How does the data differ (tagging, pathways by gender) and is it in the taxonomy?

At State of the Map Brussels 2016, there was a great talk about [gender and tagging/mapping] ( in OSM. On the call, we reflected on the progress of this discussion and the need to support efforts to ensure that the data of OSM is more inclusive.

The video of the talk Another good resource on tagging and gender

How the can the community improve on mailing lists - tone, attitudes?

Reflecting on the state of the OSM community, participants cited a sick culture, hostile, not welcoming for women and other genders. There have been frequent examples of this over the years. We cited some personal stories and then moved on to the question about: “how can we improve this?” We agreed that mailing lists need to moderated and that we all need to encourage a healthy experience on any OSM list. Some colleagues suggested that we move discussions to other places where there is moderation and where good etiquette is encouraged and supported. Perhaps we need to encourage moderation training and reminders for each list to support a culture of discussion without attacks. One person suggested that moderators could have a telegram private group in case of not being able to have a private list.

Code of Conduct

OSM has an [etiquette guidance}(, but it is not enforced and sometimes not regarded. Participants of the OSM and Gender dialogue talked about reinforcing this with a Code of Conduct. In our discussion, we highlighted that there have been multiple conversations on the mailing list about this idea both ‘for’ and ‘against’. Colleagues from Public Lab shared their code of conduct as an example. Here is more about Public Lab’s code. There are many examples of community management tactics plus codes across open communities. here is a list of resources

It is very clear that there are ongoing issues in terms of tone and inclusive in OSM. Even though it was not a question posed by the HOT survey, a participant reported back that people cited it as an issue. “some participants mentioned they uncomfortable on mailing lists and OSMF mailing list.”

Another participant mentioned: “There isn’t a baseline of acceptable and non-acceptable speech. All the things that a code of conduct needs to describe.”

Next Steps

  1. Help wanted - can someone help lead an OSM and Gender discussion in a West coast Americas and Asia-friendly timezone? Just contact Heather or Kate to let us know. Or, leave a comment below.
  2. We will keep in touch in various places, including the Diversity-talk mailing list. Join us.
  3. Be an ally and help support positive interactions on all OSM community spaces.
  4. Join working groups and mailing lists. Encourage each other to support a positive OSM.
  5. Encourage all genders to map and consider how women and other genders can be represented by the big and wonderful OSM (the map and the global community).
  6. Help the GeoChicas community survey outreach (Twitter handle: @GeochicasOSM - Telegram Channel @Geochicasosm - Feel free to join, is mostly Spanish speaking women, but you are more than welcome to share your opinions with us!) Gender representation and relations survey: German: Spanish: French: English: Portuguese:

On a final note, Kate and I wrote an article for the Open Organization Workbook about OSM and the community. In the piece, we reflected on some ideas on how OSM could be more inclusive. These OSM and Gender discussions build on this - we can all improve OSM and support each other.

Thanks to all the participants in the discussion. And, to all the allies in this ongoing conversation. Happy International Women’s Day.

Heather and Kate

Location: Kilimani Estate, Kilimani sublocation, Kilimani location, Nairobi, Kilimani division, Westlands, Nairobi County, Nairobi, Kenya


Comment from philippec on 8 March 2018 at 08:53

When there is one woman at a serious science gathering the male men flock around her to help. When there are two women, these women book a room to discuss gender equality.

Comment from -karlos- on 8 March 2018 at 09:36

As an OSM-user, -mapper and -coder, I never had a feeling about gender problems - as a male! I didn’t expect it, not for women, regions, colour, regions or what so ever.

Mostly, you even don’t know this attributes about the one you communicate with. Well, OSM is a big community and will have its black sheeps. Yes, males have this instinct about women, more offensive than the other way around. This shall be so on a dancefloor but not in OSM. So if something un-inclusive happens, we shouldn’t be silent.

Of course I would like to see a balance of mapper. Women may tag other things than man. Is it evil to use “shop” as an example? I want to consider gender neutrality, always but not as a main dogma. So if I fail, be patient and communicate, constructive.

According to my experience i don’t feel a need to get active in this topic. A (small?) stream of bad examples may change my mind.

Comment from Richard on 8 March 2018 at 10:05

Heather and Kate -

As board members, a really good first step you could take is shutting down the osmf-talk@ mailing list.

When people accuse the lists of being “toxic”, this is invariably the one they mean - indeed, for the novice OSM contributor who joins OSMF in good faith, it’s probably the only one they see.

The other lists have generally become fairly inoffensive, inane even, in the last few years, a very far cry from the combative days of the licence change. talk@ is a pussycat these days.

But osmf-talk@ is a disaster area, full of wild accusations, bikeshedding and off-the-planet wibbling. Force-subscribing new members to it might have made sense when OSMF had twelve members who all knew each other, but those days are long gone. Can you imagine any other membership organisation - say, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, or examples from your own country - force-subscribing all new members to a policy discussion list? It’s a recipe for trouble and, unsurprisingly, trouble ensues.

My suggestion would be to close osmf-talk@; use either CiviCRM or a no-public-posting osmf-announce@ account to tell people about important foundation news like board elections; and set up a foundation-discuss@ list that people can optionally subscribe to, tell members about it, but don’t subscribe anyone by force. If you could reboot CWG so that members are kept informed of OSMF doings no matter their choice of communication channel, so much the better. But that’s a nice-to-have. Closing osmf-talk@ will solve 90% of the mailing list “tone” problem and you could do it tomorrow.


Comment from mcld on 8 March 2018 at 10:09

Philippe, that’s lame. How about trying to be part of the solution?

Heather, thanks for these detailed notes.

Comment from Harry Wood on 8 March 2018 at 11:09

Shutting down the osmf-talk@ mailing list? hmmm. interesting idea. “When people accuse the lists of being ‘toxic’, this is invariably the one they mean.” That’s true recently, but angry flamewars have erupted on other discussion channels in the past. The talk@ list hasn’t always been a pussy cat. Isn’t it the case that angry discussions will occasionally happen wherever discussions happen? Perhaps more so for election related discussions. It could be a good symbolic move, to show that the issue of toxic mailing lists is being taken seriously.

I agree about the force-subscribing being an issue. I think that decision was taken too rapidly by somebody a few years ago. Fresh-faced foundation members should not find themselves bombarded by angry discussion emails. Seems to me it was always a bad idea.

That’s a change we can make. Perhaps we could also go back to people who were force-subscribed recently and say “We’re not doing this for new members any more, and we’ll understand if you want to drop off this discussion list too. It’s not a requirement”. Or of course if we were shutting down osmf-talk, then we wouldn’t need to do that.

One thing left behind by that, is the loss of any “push mechanism” (email) for important news about the foundation. The osmf-announce read-only email list is a thing, but it hasn’t been used since 2014. Perhaps for good reason. Solving this is more CWG’s realm. We’re less actively involved in solving mailing list moderation issues, and while I think we could regard CWG as a final arbiter on mailing list issues, I would happily punt that job off to a new “Discussions working group” or something. But what we are involved in is trying put out news and announcements on foundation matters. We currently do this via the blog and social media. That’s not pushing emails though. Perhaps if we could send blog content to osmf-members by email somehow, that would fill that gap. Note: I’m mostly thinking about what the default new member experience should be. Obviously any email mechanism would allow opt-out.

Comment from cray33 on 8 March 2018 at 14:05

So, we need to sign around each user his skin color, his gender, his sexual preferences.

Comment from mcld on 8 March 2018 at 14:09

No, cray, but thanks for the thought :) Taking the thought seriously for a moment, that would work against minorities not in favour of them. Instead, let’s help with the Next Steps that Heather listed - especially number 3 :)

Comment from cray33 on 8 March 2018 at 14:12

That was sarcasm. :) How can cartography be related to gender and sexual preferences?

Comment from mcld on 8 March 2018 at 14:14

Thanks, yes - my reply implicitly acknowledged the sarcasm. Try following some of the links in Heather’s diary to find answers to your question!

Comment from Severak on 8 March 2018 at 15:46

Can I ask about that survey.

I have problem to understand this question:

In general, in the communities where you participate (OpenStreetMap local, national, regional, etc., or other open data communities), how is the participation of women and men?

  • The participation of female VS males is high
  • The participation of female VS men is balanced
  • The participation of female VS males is low
  • No participation at all

Which choice means “there is a lot of active women in community”?

Comment from wonderchook on 8 March 2018 at 17:39

philippec: maybe if the men didn’t flock around and treat women like a unicorn that wouldn’t happen…

Richard, We (the board) are planning to get the osmf-announce back to being used. That way nobody is forced subscribed to OSMF-talk.

Comment from mikelmaron on 8 March 2018 at 17:46

@Harry Wood @Richard – on the Board, I’m actually in the process of restarting OSMF announce (or messages from CiviCRM – the channel is tbd). Stopping auto subscribe to osmf-talk is not something I thought about, but worth considering too.

And thank you @Heather for this diary post. Great summation of the discussion so far, and positive directions we can take.

Comment from Vincent de Phily on 9 March 2018 at 10:19

Don’t conflate the sometimes-problematic tone of OSM discussion with the issue of gender and minorities inclusion. They are both real problems but they are orthogonal (men can also be put off by a toxic discussion and women are also able to make a discussion toxic). Try to solve both problems as one and you risk solving only one of the problems.

Comment from Heather Leson on 13 March 2018 at 16:18

Vincent de Phily - I agree that this is an OSM-wide issue. This call focused on OSM and Gender - a safe and inclusive conversation. I agree that there are many allies to work on this together. Looking forward to collaborating.

Severak - I will ask the GeoChicas team again.

Thank you again for the conversation


Comment from highflyer74 on 18 March 2018 at 15:10

Hello all!

To be honest I did probably not follow every single thread in all the mailing lists and / or forums, so bear with me if my view on this issue might look a little naive.

I have the same feeling as Vincent de Phily that two different issues are thrown into one pot and instead need to be differentiated.

My personal view on things is by far not as “alarming” as this blog post:

When it comes to the tone in which discussions are held on internet forums or mailing lists in general, I have come across far worse places than OSM. Most posts in the OSM world tend to be focused on solving an actual issue or passing information, whereas in many other places outside of OSM they drift off, with people insulting each other after a couple of posts.

Being rude to each other has nothing to do with gender. Some people are simply not able discuss things in a friendly way, especially online, as written information is different from meeting someone in person. Written information is prone to misunderstandings and of course the threshold is lower, when it comes to drifting off towards a bad tone.

Discussing issues and working in a team, even if it is a large online “team” like OSM, needs training. Everyone can work on his / her own behaviour by challenging his or her actions. Changing perspectives from time to time also helps in understanding the other person.

A Code of Conduct is no solution for the given problem.

The second point which is being discussed here is gender and inclusion. Personally, I do not care at all if the person I am dealing with on OSM is male, female or regards his- / herself in a state somewhere in between. Especially when looking at OSM member profiles, most of them don’t even give a hint on the possible gender.

I am aware that in many countries and societies gender equality is far from being reality. Even in Germany, where I live, there is not always equal pay and theory differs from the actual situation in many places. But that is a problem of the society someone is living in and how people are socialized in that society. It is not a problem of OSM which needs higher attention than other problems.

Currently the above two issues are being “pushed up” in priority in a way that in my eyes does not resemble reality for most of the OSM world. Keep in mind: repeating information over and over does not make it more true. That applies to every information.

A little excursion to what I have experienced when trying to interest people of non-male gender in editing for OSM: most find the project interesting, but are either not willing to invest time or are simply not interested in technical things. The latter is the case with many jobs as well. There are no gender specific hurdles (at least in Germany) when it comes to choosing a technical profession. Still, the percentage of women in many classical male dominated jobs is lower. I am not saying that this is all caused by women not being interested in technical jobs, but it certainly contributes to it and OSM is facing the same dynamics. That way we end up being an almost all male OSM group in my city. I took my wife to one of our monthly meetings and asked her how she found it. She’s not interested in taking part in OSM but confirmed a nice atmosphere afterwards. I invite all new mappers in the area without even knowing their gender to show up at the monthly meetings, in order to learn more about OSM and meet some people, but it is all males showing up. Just my 2 cents…

Comment from Heather Leson on 18 March 2018 at 16:35

Thanks for your comments. The call was about OSM and Gender, thus the topics we talked about related to our experiences, perspectives, and feelings about collaborating in OSM. Indeed, we discussed a few topics. The key is that we all want OSM to grow and be more inclusive. The question of why women are not more engaged in this project remains. We aim to keep thinking about this.

I agree that some of the topics are not limited to genders. Actually, I am very thankful you are bringing up this larger topic. We all have to work on this to improve OSM.

Thank you


Comment from scruss on 18 March 2018 at 17:35

Thanks, Heather! The mailing lists get extra-special fighty and aren’t a great way of finding a welcoming community.

MeFi weighed in on why Cartography is democratizing but not equitable.

Comment from alexkemp on 19 March 2018 at 15:58

Reflecting on the state of the OSM community, participants cited a sick culture, hostile, not welcoming for women and other genders.

You do realise that the phrase “women and other genders” explicitly includes both sexes, and therefore causes the sentence meaning to not be clear? In addition, at no point have you specified your own sex nor gender, and it is therefore difficult to pick out your point of view in your post with any certainty. That leads each reader to make assumptions which may well be erroneous.

code of conduct

Having read posts by Nakaner and Severin & others it seems that one of your constant refrains is the desire, encouragement or actual action to enforce restraint or punishment upon other people for breaking codes of conduct that you perceive to be reasonable. That is an unfortunate characteristic in any person, and dangerously so in anyone — such as yourself — that has gained power over others.

You obviously do not like mapping (337 changesets to map 409 buildings across 7 years? Are you trying to have a laugh?). That, together with the above, suggests that your sole interest in HOT or OSMF or OSM may be as a power-trip, using OSM as a stepping stone to future successes. Let’s hope that you do not leave HOT, OSM or OSMF as grave-stones in your wake.

Comment from mikelmaron on 19 March 2018 at 16:58

hey @alexkemp, check yourself. You’re wildly misrepresenting Heather’s viewpoints, and repeating baseless attacks on her character. You are being way out of line – this kind of hostile, and frankly unhinged, communication has no place in a reasonable discussion in our community.

“other genders” here refers to people who do not identify definitively male or female.

Comment from philippec on 19 March 2018 at 18:06

Alexkemp has a point. Nowadays only the retired dare tell their thoughts.

Comment from Harry Wood on 20 March 2018 at 00:55

Oh geez. I just followed that link to Severin’s diary entry. What a load of hogwash. He’s still working so hard to damage HOT after all this time. And I guess we can take Alex’s comment as indication that people read this stuff and believe it. Part of me is tempted to go to work on setting the record straight, but a bigger part of me has no energy left for fighting that fight.

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