emacsen's Diary

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The diversity-talk list

Posted by emacsen on 5 December 2014 in English.

I’m sure that some people are aware of the controversy on the diversity-talk list. I have not had the opportunity to give my side, so I will do so here.

I have a long history in the OpenStreetMap project. It may be difficult to understand that from an outside perspective, but going to an OSM event can feel like a family reunion to me. I see the same people that I’ve met before. Some people I speak with nearly daily online, others I rarely get the chance to catch up with. I know people’s significant others, and sometimes their children. These are people I collaborate with on a project where we share a passion and dedication. We’re all working together to make the world a better place.

On December 1st, Alyssa Wright sent an email where she explained that she’d been in an accident and had suffered brain injuries, and that because of this, she was now “neuro-diverse”.

This statement was very triggering for me, but before I go there, I want to explain what I know about brain injuries.

I have a university degree in psychology. At some point in my sophomore year, I was trying to decide if I was going to pursue it as a career or not. One of the factors that pushed me away from psychology as a career was brain injuries.

I’d studied them in several college courses. As our understanding of the brain increases, the line between psychology and neuro-physiology is increasingly thin. Reading about patients who lost their ability to speak, or people whose personalities changed overnight, or people who became unable to recognize their friends and family, or worse, might be stuck reliving the same ten minutes for the rest of their lives- these cases were extremely disturbing to me. I couldn’t stand the thought of that on a person, and I couldn’t bear the idea of inducing these phenomenon on animals. This effectively ended my potential career as a researcher in psychology.

I also have someone in my immediate family who has a brain injury as a result of an accident. I don’t want to discuss this in detail- I bring it up only as point of reference in saying that I’m quite aware of TBI and the potential severity of the conditions it can create.

But the issues associated with TBI and those created by being born with a neurological impairment such a learning disabilities (as I have) or an autism spectrum disorder, are not the same.

That’s because it’s not the physiological underpinnings that are important in understanding the pain/frustration of the neuro-divergent population, but their personal experience.

Betsy Kolmus, in her reply, did an excellent job of summarizing her experience. I strongly recommend reading it here:

My experience wasn’t exactly the same, but it was similar. I was diagnosed early and put in “Special Ed”. I was put in a “special class” with kids who had a variety of different disorders and disabilities. I’m not going to discuss the educational efficacy of this strategy, but the social effect of it was profound.

Growing up, I had five or six neighbors around my age all living on my block. At one time, we used to play with each other in the streets or in each others back yards. But by virtue of me being in a different class, in a different school, I was socially isolated. I was in “the special class”. Because the school I went to was not the same as theirs, I took “the little yellow bus”, a term that in the US is evocative of kids who are mentally disabled or emotionally disturbed.

The effect was not exclusive to the kids- parents also would ostracize me. Knowing I was in special ed, parents would ask their kids not to play with me. Occasionally they did this in front of me.

Academics was a nightmare for me as well. In some areas of the intelligence test, I score very highly, but in the areas where I have learning disabilities, the results are terrible. My reading comprehension and verbal expressiveness is quite good, but it takes me four or five times longer to read a book than it would someone else. I can explain a scientific concept or process easily, but I struggle with even basic algebra. I have an extensive vocabulary, but I’m unable to spell. Without the aid of spell-check, this had a major effect on my grades, and both students and teachers would chide, “If you knew the word, you’d know how to spell it!”

My childhood was largely one of simultaneously being bored at how slow the classes were, and struggling academically. My childhood was also one of desperately wanting to fit in, but being shunned by both other children and their parents.

In one motion, Alyssa’s statement dismissed all of that.

I was hurt. Specifically, I’ve come to understand that the word I’m looking for is “triggered”. Her mail, intentionally or not, was triggering.

And so I replied.

I stated that her mail was offensive to me. In fact, in all my time in OpenStreetMap, her mail was the thing that most effected me in a negative way. I also said she should be ashamed of that.

While I don’t think that Alyssa set out to make an offensive statement, the statement was nonetheless offensive. I could try to make an awkward and imperfect analogy here, but I think that we all understand how even a statement that wasn’t made with the intention of being hurtful can be very hurtful. That’s how her email read to me- as insensitive and dismissive of years of painful experiences.

The response I received from Alyssa, and the diversity-talk list was shocking. Alysss’a response was not to not take back her words, but to congratulate herself on offending me and to call me an asshole.

And several others did so as well.

On a list related to diversity, in a discussion about the importance of sensitivity to issue of neuro-divergence, I was told that I was in the wrong for being triggered by an insensitive statement (whether intentional or not). I find this situation baffling and sad.

The responses I’ve received since on the list have been incredibly aggressive. Furthermore, the other list moderator (other than Alyssa) has decided to ban me and not answer my questions to him via email either before or after his decision. Since calling me an asshole, Alyssa has not commented, and her mail has not received any of the same scrutiny.

Put frankly- I’m stunned by the actions of these people and the general reaction of the diversity-talk list. While some folks have stood up for me, and I thank them sincerely, the most vocal response has been vitriolic, and hateful and has included a significant amount of patently false statements made either about me or on by behalf. These responses have been triggering and the personal attacks have been disgraceful.

Several prominent OpenStreetMappers have written me privately with their support, saying that they have silently unsubscribed from the list.

I volunteer for OpenStreetMap in a number of capacities. I am one of the developers of MapRoulette, a popular game used by OSMers. I’m one the organizers of the NYC OpenStreetMap Meetup. I’m a member of the OSM Data Working Group and OSM Communications Working Group. I also created and run the Imports US mailing list. Previously, I helped found MappingDC and the OpenStreetMap US organization and have been involved with organizing events, writing articles about OSM and supporting doing large scale edits and imports.

OpenStreetMap is important to me, and I have worked had and continue to work hard to make OpenStreetMap a welcoming, inviting place for everyone. That is why I run public mapping events, it’s why I try to make mapping more accessible through gamification projects like MapRoulette. Diversity is not just important, it’s key to the continued success of our project.

At this point the nature of the diversity-talk list is the opposite of that. While my response to Alyssa’s comment was strong and may have appeared out of proportion, the response to it has been outrageous and exactly the kind of behavior that a code of conduct should be there to stop, rather than encourage.

It’s become clear through this incident that acts like name calling, slander and threats are acceptable to the most vocal actors on diversity-talk and that there’s no consideration made to the pain people that people feel when someone says something insensitive or triggering. These victims are either attacked or ignored.

As a community, diversity makes us stronger. Despite what has happened on this list, I stand by my convictions around the need for greater diversity. I believe that increasing our diversity is key to growing OpenStreetMap, Free Software and Free Culture in general, but because of this incident, I don’t have confidence that the most vocal actors on the diversity-talk list are the ones who will be able to carry this vital mission forward.

A great deal has been said about the OpenStreetMap Foundation and its issues with effectiveness and interpersonal relationships. In this post, I will outline a proposal which I believe will address both the effectiveness and the interpersonal issues of the board, and result in better results for the Foundation and therefore project as a whole.

One area of commonality in OpenStreetMap is that of favoring doing rather than talking. We’re a project that exists because individuals take on tasks themselves, whether that’s mapping, software development, project management, documentation, etc. Each OSM contributor knows and understand the value in individual contribution.

But this is not how the OSMF governs itself. Instead, the OSMF uses a committee model. This is despite the fact that we know how generally ineffective committees are. We collectively laugh at jokes about committees and meetings, and yet we have asked our Foundation to use the committee model for its decision-making.

The mechanics of why we have the committee model is that the OSMF board members are also its officers. In other words, when selecting a treasurer or secretary, the board must select one of the seven board members. This has two effects.

Firstly, it means that the board’s candidates for who best to fill a given position are limited to a candidate pool of seven, or less, depending on which positions are already filled, or which candidates self-select for a position.

Secondly, it creates a situation within the board that the officer positions are somewhat symbolic. The OSMF Chairman is Chairman, but has no more authority than any other board members.

I propose that we separate the officer positions from the board and instead have the board appoint officer positions such as an Executive Officer and a Financial Officer. These appointed officers would have relative freedom to run the OSMF, and they would report to the OSMF board.

These appointed officers would have a great deal more flexibility than the current officers. The Executive Officer, for example, would be able to lay out his/her qualifications and vision for the organization and let the board elect them, much like is done in many corporations and existing non-profits.

The officers would need to report to the Board any activity, and they would need to be re-elected annually. By having the officer position separate from the board, the Foundation would have the flexibility to either increase the frequency that it changes officers (based on performance), or favor continuity and re-elect the same officer if they’ve done a good job. Special rules could be drafted in case of an emergency need to replace an officer, of course, but generally the officer would be someone that would represent the board’s vision for the Foundation, and the board’s vision would be reflective of the OSMF membership as a whole, as board members would continue to be elected the way they are today.

The elephant in the room of this discussion is whether or not these officer positions would be paid. I think that is a question of vision, left up to the OSMF Board. If the Board believes that the Foundation should move in that direction, then it should have the flexibility to pay an officer and or allow an officer to pay for services. On the other hand, it could remain the same. But by separating out the officers from the board itself, we remove the issue of whether or not the board itself should be paid. The board would remain volunteers, thereby reducing or eliminating conflicts of interest.

In summary, separating the officer positions from the board would lead to:

  • Greater Flexibility
  • Greater Transparency
  • Less Bureaucracy
  • More Accountability

And generally a more nimble and agile OpenStreetMap Foundation.

I would like to see this turned into an official proposal by the board.

Days like today...

Posted by emacsen on 28 April 2014 in English.

Today has been an incredibly frustrating day in OSM for me.

I started off the morning dealing with DWG stuff. There’s so much negativity in some people, but when communicating on behalf of the DWG, one must try to rise above the petty insults and most past it. Then I had to deal with some domestic mapping issues before they rose to the level of DWG intervention.

Then I ran a mapping party, where for the second time in a row, only one other OSM NYC member showed up, despite us getting 6-7 RSVPs. I spent a lot of time prepping for the meeting, finding the right place to have it, finding the right place to meet, etc., and when people don’t show up, it’s very disheartening.

Then I find that NYC has had dozens, maybe hundreds of POIs messed up by an automated edit, by a user who was clearly told to stop his automated edits.

And then I get an email complaining about bot-mode’s TIGER expansion project, a project which I spent months working on.

Then, finally, MapRoulette had a new contributor submit a patch, a very long patch, which clearly took them a long time to write, but I had to reject it because it didn’t fit in with the bug that it was supposed to solve, nor did it fit generally in with our programming style/the way we organize the code in the project. It just would not have fit. I tried my best to give honest, supportive feedback, but I know that rejection always stings, no matter how it’s presented.

Days like today put me in a bit of an OSM funk

Last night I was working on the statistics display system for MapRoulette and realized that I don’t know what to display.

In the rewrite of MapRoulette, we knew that me trics would play a large role in the project, so we added in lots of statistic capturing capability, as well as piwik support for even more metrics.

We could track what challenge a user has worked on, where those challenge are, where specific tasks are, how difficult the challenges are, how a user classifies tasks, how long they spend on maproulette, even how long they spend (generally) on each task.

Similarly, we could collect a ton of metrics for challenges. How many users work on it, are there a few “super-users” or is it widely distributed? Are people saying the tasks are fixed, skipped or false positive, etc. We can even find out how long users spend in aggregate on the challenge, or even drill down to the tasks and find out when people walk away from them.

But amongst all the possibilities- what do MapRoulette users really want to see? What intouerests them? Stats about themselves? Stats about other users? Stats about challenges?

Tell me what kind of stats (if any) you’d like to see in MapRoulette?

Motivation for Contributing to OSM

Posted by emacsen on 6 December 2013 in English.

The issue of motivation of mappers has come up a lot lately in different contexts, be it commercial interests and imports, adding specific POIs because they share a common payment form, adding notes that advertise a business, etc.

Ideally, we wouldn’t care about why someone is motivated to contribute to OSM- if the data is good, we accept it, and if the data is not good, we don’t. Unfortunately the reality is more nuanced than this. The reason that someone wants to add data to OSM can significantly influence the way that they enter the data.

Let’s take the extreme example first about notes that are meant to advertise a product, this note here:

That note simply says:

We are proud to present our new Search engine

Now, I don’t think the motivation of this person is very good, and in the meantime the account has been deleted for spam.

But we have more subtle examples of adding businesses to OSM, as shown by our discussion about addresses of offices vs mailboxes.

In regards to imports, there have been concerns that importers may be responding to commercial pressure to get a certain dataset into OSM. So far those concerns have not been validated by facts, but the concerns are real.

I think this question of motivation is at the heart of many of the recent disagreements. Two mappers may have a disupute and that’s acceptable. It’s also acceptable for a new mapper to come in and make mistakes (I certainly made plenty in my first few months in OSM). But where our community is less tolerant of error is where they feel the motivation of the mapper is poor.

The other reason this is important is that poorly motivated efforts shift the work back to the community. The community is build on improving others work, but when the work is done without caring about the end result, the burden on the OSM community is shifted and the community has to “take up the slack”, which moves us from being contributors to cleaning up others’ messes.

What can be done about bad user motivation? Or is there anything that can be done? Do we need to raise the bar on new user contributions, or is this just a cost of being a successful project?