December is election season in the OpenStreetMap Foundation. The Board is planning the next elections already, so now seems like a good time to talk about my first year as a member of the Board.
Why being involved in OSMF matters
OpenStreetMap is a project of many hands. All around the world, people are doing amazing stuff: mapping, building community, inventing new data uses, building tools. Yet most of the visible innovation is happening on the fringes, not the core of the project. That’s normal for a community like OpenStreetMap. For example, new mappers are much more likely to convince someone to start mapping then regular ones. If only because us hard-core mappers have been stalking our friends for ages already. You won’t be getting many new open source routing planning experts on board - they’ve already seen the light. It is the people who are “on the fringes of OSM” that have the best view of where we can grow further.
And yet, OpenStreetMap isn’t run by people from the fringes, but by core volunteers. While people all over the world are developing new “osm welcoming tools”, we haven’t even started talking about integrating such a tool into osm.org. While vector tiles are now the industry standard, we don’t even have a roadmap on how to get there. Time and again, we see people ringing alarm bells about the lack of progress in the core. I believe part of the reason why this is happening, is that from the inside out, all looks like it’s going swell.
But I’m not sure things are swell. OpenStreetMap is not as revolutionary as it used to be. It is relatively easy to copy the idea - and improve it. I’m surprised nobody seems worried by how easy it’s been for Waze to build a community of mappers that is possibly larger than ours, in a fraction of the time. If some money and a decent app is all it takes to build a road network dataset that is as usable as OpenStreetMap roads, then that worries me. This is just one example, but I’m afraid there’s a pattern there. Our best counter-measure is getting back to the forefront. We need to be revolutionary again. We need to keep being unavoidable. I don’t just want the entire world to be mapped as well as Western Europe. I want to be astounded by creative solutions for problems we in Europe didn’t even know existed.
For this to happen, I believe the heart of OpenStreetMap needs fresh young blood. That means you! Even though OpenStreetMap grows at the fringes, central infrastructure and policy is made by a relatively small group of people - less then 2000 people make up the OpenStreetMap Foundation. They vote for the Board, who are the final responsible for the Foundation. And its the foundation that literally owns the project. A much smaller number make up the working groups and sysadmins - most of the practical decisions are made there. Now while the OSMF might not be the easiest environment to get things done, the small numbers do mean this: your joining us might have quite an impact.
It’s really easy to join the OSM Foundation. And while it used to require an international payment, there is a way out of that. We’ve just posted a blog about that, with a call to action to help us translate this info to more languages. And we’re proposing to make it even easier for contributors to join the Foundation.
Why being a candidate matters
The Board of the OSMF are seven volunteers. They come from different backgrounds, but they all love OpenStreetMap in their own different ways. Since we’re such a diverse bunch, it isn’t always easy to work together. Most things only move forward if someone takes the lead, and gets some more folks enthused. That is hard work, and our time is limited. On top of that, as it goes in “politics”: you can spend 10% of your time doing what you planned to do, but you’ll need 90% to deal with events. Those events make for times when your position demands more energy than you can sustain. After such a period, often we need some time to recuperate.
Over the year I’ve been on the board, those “time consuming events” were largely from before the elections: the massive signup of members from a single company, the Crimea boundary conflict. That translates to two areas of ongoing work:
our relationship with the big corporations. We need to be immune to hostile takeover scenarios. We don’t want to -need- corporations for survival. We want the corporations to need us. Meanwhile we still would like them to be -happy- to need us.
our way of organizing ourselves. Both big conflicts relate to how OSMF is run in a practical sense. From an organizational perspective, we have an immense way to go. I’m not a big fan of “procedures” myself. But we’re lacking a shared definition of how we want to work together. This makes people hesitant to take action. Especially since anything you do will be scrutinized in detail by the community. Sometimes we think there is a procedure, but there really isn’t. Sometimes we follow a procedure, but it’s not documented anywhere. And we seem to hardly have thought about “project management” at all. We are losing track of outstanding issues on a daily basis.
This big picture means that when there’s a difference of opinion about something trivial like how to run our e-mail server, it gets lost. It means when there are issues that no-one is really passionate about, it gets lost.
In this context, what I believe the qualities we need on the Board are (as many of the below as possible, in random order):
being passionate about several OSM topics. The Board needs to deal with a wide range of topics, and if one member means one topic, then it is impossible to deal with the wide range of issues we face.
high frustration tolerance. You will have to deal with disagreement, disinterest and confusion. You won’t even get to blame the others for that, because you won’t be able to actively participate in all topics either! If you’re a perfectionist, you will suffer. If you just want to try your best, please join :)
good win-win detection capabilities. Sometimes your proposal might be shot down on first sight, because it seems to conflict with the other’s values. I’ve found that sometimes we think we know what the others think, but closer inspection reveals a lot of common ground. You don’t need to be “good at winning arguments”, you need to be good at changing your point of view while you’re changing someone else’s too.
having organizational skills. As described above, our processes are a mess. We need people who can help devise simple processes to make sure as many issues as possible are addressed as soon as possible. People who know where the limits of “just working harder” are, and where organizing the work differently is what’s needed.
having a strategic view. It would be nice if we have someone who can set up vector tiles. But it’s nicer if we have someone who can help others set up osm.org vector tiles. Or even better to have someone who can work on the root causes of why we still haven’t got them.
be willing to trade a few hours of mapping per week for a few hours of organizational work
You might notice that nothing here says you need to be mapping every day. Or that you should be a developer. Or that you need to have run another organization before. Or that you need to be a GIS-related professional. While all of that might help, I’m not convinced it’s essential. So if you recognize yourself in the list above, but not in this paragraph: I’m looking forward to work with you!
The life of a board member
The life of a Board member is one with ebbs and flows. In times of crises, you might want to make a midnight call, or feel the need to send twenty mails in a day. Some Board members seem to be doing OSM 24/7, sometimes for the board, sometimes in a dozen different roles. Others schedule a block of hours, somewhere during their week. Others have a chaotic pattern of close engagement and then go quiet for a while. While this sometimes makes it complicated, it is also just the nature of things. It will get even more complicated as we gain board members from an even wider set of time zones.
That makes it hard to put a time estimate on total workload. In an ideal world, I would spend a working day every week on OSM-organizational stuff. But that would include OpenStreetMap-Belgium work too. In practice, the time spent is much less, amounting to a few hours weekly, or less.
Apart from that, in my opinion, as much face to face time as possible is absolutely worth the investment. The international State of the Map is an opportunity not to be missed. And I hope we can have the Board face to face meeting as soon as possible after the election. That means traveling from wherever you are to wherever the meeting is. Your travel is funded by the OSMF. It is not often that you get to spend two full days on discussing the challenges of OpenStreetMap. And it is an excellent opportunity to get to know the special people who are on the Board, and Dorothea of course. While we make few concrete decisions there, in practice, this is where the yearly agenda is set. Any decision on this will have to be taken by the new board, but I will try my best to make it as easy as possible to make it happen if the new Board decides to do it.
What’s in it for you? There will be the eternal ~~gratitude~~ scrutiny of the community. And while world fame and endless power is a bit too much to ask, it is something that will add your name to the history of this project. It is something that you can actually put on your resume. Being on the Board will never be easy, so it is OK to care about these things.
Note that the Board is not the vanguard of the OpenStreetMap project. The Foundation is there to support, not control the project. The Board is not generally the place where big projects are defined or executed. Still, there is support for the Board to fill in the gaps left by the community.
If you want to have a chat, with any questions about any of this, just send me an OSM message, or contact any of the Board members. And because “why not?”, I’ve created a public chatroom where you can Ask Me Anything: https://riot.im/app/#/room/#osm-joost:matrix.org