OWG Must Be Destroyed

Posted by Zverik on 11 December 2019 in English (English). Last updated on 12 December 2019.

Note: this post goes too far and may be triggering. I believe OWG does great stuff, but is too powerfull with too few resources.

Thanks to a discussion in OSM Belarus telegram group, I suddenly realized why the new Board would not change anything. We could replace all seven members, and the project will stay the same. We could invite all GlobalLogic employees to run the project, and they wouldn’t harm a node. We are looking the wrong way.

All real work in OpenStreetMap is done by working groups. They decide on license terms, press relations, data policy, and technical stuff. Since we’ve got few volunteers, anybody can join any working group and… start working, I guess. The concept of “working” is what stops people from joining, and many people tried to explain there isn’t that much work.

In his manifesto Steve Coast suggests, besides closing off the Board and the tiles, to drastically increase budget for the Operations Working Group. Which makes sense: they are the only working group to have consistently spent money, which had measurable positive impact on the project. Why wouldn’t we want more servers?

OWG also manages our website. And planet extracts. And our data model. And developer relations. And has a final say over who can and who cannot integrate with our core systems. Which… Is a lot, don’t you think? They must have a vast experience on working in open source, on encouraging developers to join the effort.

Except they are doing exactly the opposite. Despite having 37 tile caching servers, our tiles are slower than ever, with many experienced contributors having moved to alternative tiles. In the past nine years I’ve seen dozens of developers driven off the Rails Port website code. Even active members of the Board were rejected their valuable contributions, like an endpoint to retrieve deleted objects. In their repositories, OWG members are consistently breaking every rule of open communities, by not giving outside people even a bit of control.

And who are the OWG? Strangely enough, in the past eight years OWG has only been shrinking. They are essentially just two people, who’s been in the project since 2006. I have no idea how they’ve managed to keep doing the same thing for 12 years, keeping the servers up 24/7, without any positive feedback.

Individually each of them are awesome, they have lots of experience, they know their job and their devops skills are sky high. They rush to fix our servers in the middle of night. We do not pay them: keeping volunteering to run a million-user project is no small feat. I doubt we can find other people like them. They are irreplaceable — and that is exactly why we need to stop relying on these people.

The Board can rotate on a yearly basis, fight against corporate involvements in matters that don’t matter, and spend five more years introducing microgrants that won’t affect the project in the slightest. Because the project is shut, because the real core group does not share power and shuns away anybody who thinks for a moment they can contribute. And even the hardware part is limited to reactive responses, since two volunteers do not have capacity to plan ahead.

With that, it seems like the only proactive and useful deed the new Board can do is to disband OWG completely.

They cannot go away themselves because of the burden of responsibility — a feeling I have shared myself in the past. Instead we need to plan our budget and hire people to do essential stuff. So they are responsible and humble, and do not have ambitions to run the project — only to make our hardware and devops better.

Managing our website and other core tools should be more open — and the level of OSM Carto is not enough, although it’s something to look up. We need a group of community managers, to attract and keep new developers, to be more bold with changes, to have yearly and quarterly plans for improving the user and corporate interactions. And to finally chart where the project is going.

Comment from Richard on 11 December 2019 at 23:17

Fuck’s sake Ilya, try and be a human being sometimes.

Comment from Zverik on 12 December 2019 at 05:57

I tried.

Comment from Andy Allan on 12 December 2019 at 13:37

I’m not sure that I even want to reply to this, given the (presumably deliberately) outrageous title. Perhaps by responding I’m just encouraging more posts like this in the future? I hope not.

“Destroying” or OWG makes no sense, since it’s there to solve a legitimate purpose. If everyone on it disappeared tomorrow, OSMF would still need those purposes taken care of. The server budgets needs writing. The resource usage (like database disk space) needs forecasting and hardware needs planning. If you really want to “destroy” OWG, then you would need to explain what that stuff is no longer necessary, or suggest which working group should be doing that stuff instead.

You’ve also glossed over whether you want to destroy the sysadmin group, or OWG, or both, but no matter.

So let’s focus on the (slightly) more sensible suggestion, which is to “disband” the group and start again from scratch. Would that really work? Would the incoming people have any idea what needs to be done? Perhaps. Over the last few years we made the hardware site, and wrote a lot of monthly reports, and the chef-repo exists, so perhaps the new people could read all of them and try to get started. But it’s a high-risk strategy to kick everyone off first, instead of adding new people in and keeping those with experience still around to answer questions. I guess the sensible approach wouldn’t generate the dramatic headlines though.

But in any case, diary entries like this can become a damaging self-fulfilling prophecy. What member of the community wants to get involved, if the only public attention you get is posts like this? Why would any sensible person join any working group, if prominent and well-respected former OSMF Board members write posts like this? Try to imagine what being on the receiving end of this would be like. Try to realise what you are doing here, and why there will be even fewer working group members (or even board candidates) in future. You’re creating an environment where even paid contractors won’t want to get involved.

There’s definitely problems in this working group, and they definitely need fixing. But this kind of post does more harm than good.

For anyone who is reading this and wants a more practical set of suggestions from a former OWG member, feel free to read for some ideas, or if you want any other suggestions for improving OWG feel free to ask me any of your questions directly.

Comment from Zverik on 12 December 2019 at 15:13

Andy, thanks for replying. There have been many posts like this over the past six years, only a bit more polite, so the message wasn’t clear enough. I agree I’m being a bit over the top — I’ve rewritten the most offending section. And I have to clarify this could be not about people, if the OWG had any transparency or rotation or policies.

You are talking about just one side of OWG: hardware. As I’ve mentioned, they are doing great job at that (not sure if you’re in or out). They help OSMF spending their budget on legitimate tasks. They have produced the awesome chef recipe directory, which helps understand how our servers are run, and simplify the operations work. The downtime has been kept to a minimum, which is an amazing achievement, given the size of the group. I have been following them, as every other working group, since I’ve been in OSM, and I know how hard is their work and how well they are doing it.

You are worried texts like this would drive the members out of OWG and drive other people away from joining OWG. But. Haven’t you noticed nobody active has joined the OWG since at least 2011, paid or unpaid? That the website we have hasn’t changed since 2013? That the only new active contributor to the Rails Port is you, a person active since 2006 from England, like the other members of OWG? Try to imagine what being on the receiving end of Tom’s PR comments would be. I have seen members of OWG drive so many people away from helping with code and with infrastructure, I have completely lost faith in seeing OSM improve besides the data.

I want the Board to reimagine OWG structure. Which I mentioned to them in their survey, but they decided that it’s no priority. That having million-user project that many companies and individuals depend on run by two unpaid volunteers is okay. I attack not the people, but the structure: we have the same team responsible not only for the server uptime, but also for maintaining the code, working with the data, and many other things I mentioned in the post. I would burn out from that and close myself to any innovation, switching into power saving mode, keeping servers up but preventing any innovation that would make my work harder.

How can we stop losing new developers and infrastructure opportunities, if not by restructuring that part of our organization? Does it really feel okay to you? How many years more can we give it, keep OSM with no structural changes because everything has been working so great? Wikipedia is older than OSM, but it managed to change its way several times, while we still cling to having unpaid workforce doing crucial tasks.

I would start with paying Grant and Tom directly, having them as employees with responsibilities and defined area of expertise. And then by filling in the blank spots and fixing issues caused by that change.

Comment from Andy Allan on 12 December 2019 at 16:55

Just to correct a few points - OWG does have policies, including how to join OWG (and the sysadmins group) - see Of course they aren’t perfect or comprehensive but it’s a start. I’m particularly proud of getting agreement for the joining policies because it used to be completely opaque as to what was required.

Also, it’s incorrect to say that nobody has joined OWG since 2011, since Paul Norman joined last year and is active today. I’m not sure if you also meant to exclude Sarah Hoffmann, who was a member of OWG for several years from 2013 to 2017 and is also an active sysadmin today. We also had two probationary members in the last two years, but they didn’t become full voting members.

Sure, I’d rather see 20 other people on the list, and 5 new people every year. But it’s still worth painting an accurate picture.

As for the website and API, developing those aren’t a matter for OWG. Tom does both, but for example I’m no longer on OWG precisely to focus more on the website development. I feel like the development has improved a lot in the last 3 years, but it’s about 5 on a scale of 0 to 100 where 100 is what I’d like to see. And I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of curt PR comments. It’s not a great experience.

You ask me “Does it really feel okay to you” and of course, no, none of this is good. But I want to work with everyone who is interested in making these situations better, and I want to discourage people from expressing their frustration in a manner that makes things worse.

Comment from Zverik on 13 December 2019 at 06:43

Andy, I know you’ve done and you do a great job withing OWG and on the website. I believe every single contributor for OSM is awesome and does the maximum of what they are capble for. Otherwise I wouldn’t make the Awards. I know about the policies and have read them — I even tried to contribute the other day. I would so much like to have many people on OWG with different areas of responsibility, making the OWG look as the first and foremost group to help the project.

What I see instead are few burn-out people. Who do their best and resolve every critical situation that comes our way. But being at their limits, they forget or actively prevent anything that’s not essential (gpx dump, popup menu) or can increase their workload (providers, endpoints). With that they sometimes inadvertently drive people out of the core services, since these people see their contributions are not needed or are actively opposed. Which you’ve experienced, but with you being of the same culture and the same group of people, you’ve overcome, unlike many others. Hence there is no “helping resolve issues” and “demonstrating broad knowledge”, and no new members of OWG. The same people keep being over-burdened.

This circle cannot be broken from inside — I know that because I’ve been in that situation a few times. It only breaks with a bang, or with a careful outside direction, e.g. from the Board. Waiting for it just to fix itself does not work: tasks and discontent just pile up.

Comment from Heather Leson on 16 December 2019 at 06:07

Ilya, We agree on one main point - the working groups for owg /ysadmin need more support. To this point, I mentioned in my last post that OSM and OSMF governance (working group) is run on ‘heros’. Thank you for those folks. This is not, however, sustainable.

Some options which might not please many but that need to be seriously considered: 1. In the context of this post, we need to start paying for Sysadmins (even part time). They could report to OWG and Board. 2. Build an active and productive community plan to better support OWG. This can no longer be passive. It is a dedicated skill to investigate and propose this. A paid skill[1] 3. Consider having a company ‘second’ a staff to be part of OWG to support. There are many ways to help guide, even without touching the devices.

After the server move last year, I remain concerned that we are breaking people who are valiant volunteers. It is unfair to them and to OSM. Yes, the survey highlighted it, but the board is not really in the position to deliver this as a volunteer role.

And, lastly, the board previously said that this gap was the ‘communities’ or the ‘working group’s’ responsibility. So, we are left in a pattern of responsibility, need, and questions. Let’s maybe go to actions.



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