In the last board meeting the OSMF board has revealed specifics of their plans for paying people for software development work. These plans have apparently been in the making for some time - but so far the board had in public been very quiet about the details - it was first publicly mentioned in the June board meeting but just vaguely and without any specifics. That was the same meeting in which the microgrants selection has been approved.
The details were now made available just minutes before the meeting started (deja vue) - the plans amount to about half the volume of the microgrants program - but there are apparently further plans to also get financially involved in iD development - this has been hinted at in the meeting but details of this have not been revealed.
I want to share a few thoughts on the plans that came to light now - both on the procedural/policy side of them based on the perspective of for many years having critically followed OSMF work and also on the practical side and the likely implications this has on volunteer work and volunteer projects in the OpenStreetMap world based on more than five years of volunteer work on one of OpenStreetMap’s core projects - the OSM-Carto map style - and on more than 10 years experience as an entrepeneur in the cartography and geodata world.
On the procedural aspects
My critical view of the OSMF board moving more and more to making and deliberating decisions outside public scrutiny is well known and obviously applies here as well. But even if i accept this as a given and as how the OSMF works these days no matter how sharply this contrasts with OSM community values there is still significant peculiarity in the whole thing. This centers on how the three projects the board has selected now were chosen. There is no substantial communication about this but from context and from what has been communicated i see mainly the following options:
the projects were chosen from the microgrants applications and were invited to submit a new proposal privately to the board based on that. That seems logical for the osm2pgsql and Potlatch projects for which there were microgrant submissions that got not accepted by the commitee. This however cannot explain the inclusion of the Nominatim project (which is financially the biggest of the three). If this is the case that bears the questions (a) if the board was dissatistied with the selection of the committee - to a committee member this would be a logical conclusion and (b) that willingness to apply to the microgrants program was apparently either a prerequisite or at least a strong plus for being chosen to receive this kind of project support from the OSMF board later. Given the specific constraints of the microgrants program that made it certainly unattractive for quite a lot of people in principle in need for financial support for OSM projects that would be an odd choice. In any case this would have huge implication on any future microgrants programs in the OSMF.
the projects were invited based on the board members’ personal selection which projects they consider deserving and/or in need for support like this and/or essential for OSM. That would certainly be the board’s prerogative - it is the OSMF’s money and they are the board of the OSMF. But still it would be remarkable that the considerations of the board based on which this choice was made are completely outside broader scrutiny.
in a similar fashion - and the comments in the June board meeting point in that direction - the selection of these projects might have been meant as a personal stipend/grant to people considered valuable/deserving by the board rather than financing of projects independent of the people involved. This possibility comes with the same issue as the previous one - while the board certainly has the right to do this the lack of public documentation of the criteria and the considerations of selection would be remarkable.
these projects were not actively chosen by the OSMF board but had actually proactively asked for money and were granted this request. Even if that did not involve a selection by the board that would still bear the question what criteria were used to approve these requests (or if you look at it from a different side: would the board just give money to anyone asking for it?).
That leads me to one other central procedural question: Were there any other projects considered or invited to submit proposals and not chosen?
To be clear - these critical considerations do not mean i find the outcome of the process - however it took place - necessarily questionable. I know Sarah and Jochen and think they are doing good work and although i never used Potlatch i have met Richard and find his views and perspectives on things very valuable. My critical questions are on the procedure and if at all i am concerned that questionable procedure and the possibility of inproprieties involved in that might stain Sarah’s, Jochen’s and Richard’s good work. And i think a well defensible outcome does not justify a questionable procedure to get there. In the same way it does not matter how the board might retroactively justify their decision now that it has been made public - what would have been important to know is how the selection and decision process actually took place (another deja vue).
On the practical effects of financing select projects in the OSM community
What the board has publicly communicated in the meetings is that - independent on the procedural questions discussed above - the justification for supporting these three project is their significance for OpenStreetMap. I think this could have pretty far reaching consequences for volunteer work and the social dynamics around it in the OSM community in the future and this is what i want to discuss in the second part of this post. I try to keep this compact and not go deeply into the overall dynamics of the interaction between paid and unpaid, economically and not economically motivated work in the OSM community. So the following will necessarily be somewhat sketchy.
As i already hinted above when mentioning my own volunteer background in OSM-Carto there are a lot of volunteers involved in projects in the OSM community that were not selected (and probably not even considered) by the OSMF board for receiving financial support and they will all take note of that. For OSM-Carto i can say while i would not have applied for receiving money from the OSMF for OSM-Carto development even when invited to do so there might have been others who might have. The same applies probably for a lot of other projects - think of JOSM or many smaller under-the hood software projects that are not very prominent in public awareness but that none the less play key roles and are often severely underdeveloped.
In projects like OSM-Carto or JOSM of course the problem for the OSMF in financing specific design or development work would have been that they could not be sure that it would actually be accepted by the project maintainers. That is not a problem for the projects that are now supported by the OSMF where decisions are made by the same people who receive the support. Naturally for a centralized organization like the OSMF projects with more centralized control and decision making are more compatible. But that just as a side note.
What will be visible to any voluteers in projects in the OSM community - and to be clear: I am not only talking about software development here - is that the OSMF board now expresses how they value certain activities for the OpenStreetMap project by giving money to them. Many volunteers in the OSM community of course could not care less if their work is valued by the OSMF board but still it is a statement and the OSMF is sitting on quite a lot of money to make this statement with a lot of emphasis - both in where they give money to and where they don’t. Where i think we can already see this clearly foreshadowing is volunteer work directly in the OSMF - the working groups are desperately looking for people to contribute but people naturally will think if they don’t volunteer someone might be able to earn some money for doing the same work. And if not - well, then that work probably was not that valuable after all. No one wants to volunteer for something that is ultimately considered superfluous. That is the situation for hobby contributors - of course for corporate employees that is a bit different since they are not practically eligible for receiving financial support from the OSMF anyway. At the same time volunteering and the potential influence this might result in could be encouraged by their employer. And of course some professional contributors might consider working for the OSMF as a possible alternative to their current job and start viewing their volunteer work as something like an unpaid internship and a possible lead-up to paid employment. All of this massively changes the social dynamics between volunteers in the projects.
Self employed people like me are somewhere in the middle here. I tend to separate my volunteer work on OSM from my professional work quite strictly. And hence as i said i would not be very interested in receiving money from the OSMF for my OSM-Carto work. Like many hobby contributors in OSM i value that in contrast to my day job in my OSM-Carto work i don’t have to make decisions based on economic needs and the wishes of my employer/client. And even if i was willing to make an exception i would not give a discount to the OSMF like Jochen and Sarah do. Because that would mean communicating to my other customers that they are coming up for the balance. Not that the current OSMF board would be willing to give me any money at all even if their life depended on it. ;-)
But if i’d look at it from the entrepreneurial perspective the logical reaction to the board’s decision to start financing projects they deem significant for OSM would be to see the OSMF as a potential customer - which means not providing work for free unless it promises a clear chance for a timely return of investment. And i am not a software developer and the board’s choice to support three software development projects indicates clear priorities here. And of course that would also mean i’d focus my energy on work where i can make myself indispensable and to put emphasis on controlling key parts of projects. Getting down to the nitty-gritty details and working on those in a cooperative fashion, discussing decisions to achieve consensus - all the stuff that traditionally earns you respect and influence in volunteer projects - are of little benefit if your goal is to as an entrepreneur get the OSMF to pay you for OSM related work.
A large number of people will start viewing the OSMF more as a commercial actor with commercial interests now and less as an organization representing the interests of OSM as a social project and acting primarily out of social responsibility. This has the potential to massively change the social mechanisms of volunteerism in the OSM community. Since we don’t know any details about the considerations behind the decision it is hard to tell how much the board is aware of that and how much conscious strategy is behind this.