OSMF Board elections

Posted by joost schouppe on 29 October 2019 in English (English). Last updated on 5 November 2019.

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 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 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:

Comment from imagico on 30 October 2019 at 17:21

If you’re a perfectionist, you will suffer. If you just want to try your best, please join :)

You don’t need to be “good at winning arguments”, you need to be good at changing your point of view […]

Wow, i am not sure you realize how large a fraction of the OSM community you are explicitly discouraging for running for the board here.

As i read your comments you seem to say running for the board requires people without strong convictions who are able and willing to smoothly adjust the the political necessities of the situation.

My view would be the exact opposite: What we really need on the OSMF board are people with clear values and convictions firmly rooted in the core values of the OpenStreetMap community who are not willing to sacrifice those under political pressure or perceived necessities - specifically in situations like the ones you cited (mass signup, Crimea conflict).

Especially the second quote, communicating the idea that board work is not about a struggle of arguments and reason but about negotiation of political compromises between competing interests, is quite disappointing. If that was indeed the self image of the current board that in my eyes would essentially be a declaration of bankruptcy for an organization within a project like OSM clearly rooted in the values of enlightenment and humanism

Likewise regarding:

That means traveling from wherever you are to wherever the meeting is

I would rather like to see candidates not able or willing to travel internationally than people for whom the chance for free travel opportunities at the OSMF’s expense seems a significant benefit of being an OSMF board member.

What i would actually like to ask you is how you today see what you wrote before the last elections, how you think the plans and goals you stated there have worked out during the past year and what changes in those you see for the coming year. But based on what you have written above with next to no substantial discussion of actual board work during the past year i am not quite sure if you consider that a relevant subject in this context.

Comment from joost schouppe on 30 October 2019 at 19:43

Talking about “strong convictions”. Let me clarify: I usually avoid discussing with people if I know there is no scenario where they might change their minds. I like discussing things with people with whatever set of values, if they are actually willing to change their point of view. And as they explain their point of view, I am willing to reconsider my own. Otherwise, why have a chat at all? That doesn’t mean people often succeed in doing that (nor do I), but I like to think I keep the option open.

If you are to represent a diverse community like OpenStreetMap, I think that this flexibility is needed. At the other extreme, you’d have seven ivory towers disagreeing about everything with all the others. I refuse to see other Board members as “wrong” - their opinions are as ligitimate as mine. I would much prefer to work with people who accept that their vision for the OSM project is just their vision, rather than people who believe their vision is the only correct one. I find it hard to imagine you’d disagree on that, so I’m guessing we’re misinterpreting what the other is saying.

With regards to Crimea: the fundamental decision had been made by the previous Board. We didn’t go back and overrule the previous Board. We did try to pick up the pieces by trying to do a relations reset with the Working Groups, and with each other. We are trying to clarify what we expect from our relations with each other. That’s the fundamental work that needs to be done to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the same way again. With the signups, I think the new Board did do the right thing. Though some really regretable things happened in the process, I felt like within the Board it didn’t take long to get to a common strategy to move forward. Maybe more important than the actual incident, this has set the agenda for much of our work the last year, resulting in the AoA changes that the membership will vote on soon. The discussions within the Board about that were anything but “a struggle of reason”, it was also anything but “a negotiation of a compromise”. It was rather just people working to a common goal, at least in my experience. Because it turns out, some of the core values of the Board are surpringly similar. So far in my term, I haven’t seen much cases where my core values with regards to OpenStreetMap are under attack. We just differ in opinion on how best to get there. Some fundamental disagreements do come to mind, but if you are not willing to work towards a win-win situation, you’ll wind up with a lose-lose situation. And to me, being willing and able to turn lose-lose into win-win is much more important than differences in vision about the project. Maybe it’s also our personal contacts that makes things often less pointed than on the public fora.

Funny you should mention my manifesto. I was afraid to re-read it, since I felt like I wasn’t able to work on any of my personal priorities much at all. Hence the “90% events” thing in my post. But when I re-read it now, it’s not as bad as I thought. I absolutely think that writing about the personal experience and realisations of a Board member are relevant, and it would be a good ask to have all board members do that. Maybe someone else can go first? A year is a bit short though to get much done (yeah, I know). But hopefully soon, Board members will kind of have to do this every other year, since we’re looking to implement term limits.

Comment from imagico on 30 October 2019 at 21:08

I don’t think i substantially misunderstood your position here. This is not about having a static, immutable position on certain practical questions or not, this is about what leads you to change your position. I would want board members to do this based on arguments and reasoning after being convinced by the better arguments and logic in a (preferably public) discussion. For you this seems to be more a matter of negotiation to achieve political majorities under the base assumption of there being no right and wrong. Accordingly the struggle for decisions seems to be a lot about winning and loosing (and optimization in the way of making sure the number of people who win is maximized while the number of people who loose is minimized). Hence also the idea that arguments are mostly about ‘winning an argument’ rather than struggling for the best solution. To me ‘loosing an argument’ on the merits or being argued with under the hypothesis that i am wrong in discourse is not in any way demeaning, it is an honor and a sign of a healthy and productive exchange.

Now i perfectly understand that in the current political constellation on the board your approach might be the only way to actually come to substantial decisions in the short term. But this does not necessarily mean it is a useful strategy in the long term. I firmly believe that board members with strong values and convictions rooted in the shared base values of the project are the best basis for ensuring the OSMF stays relevant within the OpenStreetMap project in the long term - even if that in the short terms might mean more struggle to actually come to substantial decisions on the board because some board members firmly reject the argumentative discourse as a basis of making decisions.

The Crimea decision is a good example here, the decision made was - according to the board’s own statement - designed to minimize strife while refusing to even discuss the long term consequences of making a decision against the fundamental core values of the project. The board might have mended relationship with the working groups as a result of this but it has not done so with the OSM community as a whole and it seems to me the standing of the OSMF board in possible moderation of future disputes within the OSM community is permanently damaged because of that.

Coming back to my original thought - no matter if you agree here or not what you should notice i think that by rejecting the participation of people who want to work based on clear values and convictions (of which there are certainly quite a few among active community members) you would alienate a significant fraction of the workforce that would have the qualification to do valuable volunteer work within the OSMF.

Reading reflection of board members on their views now in comparison to a year ago or when they were elected would definitely be of a lot of interest. And this specifically includes those board members who will leave the board in December.

Comment from SomeoneElse on 31 October 2019 at 13:43

(adding some comments from the context of a working group member, in my case the Data Working Group)

We did try to pick up the pieces by trying to do a relations reset with the Working Groups, and with each other. We are trying to clarify what we expect from our relations with each other.

Firstly, thanks to Joost for picking this up in a way that simply hadn’t been done before. The responsiveness of the previous board on the Crimea issue was dreadful (strictly speaking, the DWG and the wider OSM community are still waiting for a “final decision” message on this from the previous board, but the time for that has long gone now). The DWG sent a reply to Joost’s initial “relations reset” discussion email back in July; we look forward to the board’s response.

That’s the fundamental work that needs to be done to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the same way again.

Fully agreed, because one thing that can be guaranteed is that issues like this will happen again. I can think of a couple of current issues that I’m dealing with at the moment that have the capacity to escalate in the same way, and one is entirely sea, which makes checking the “on the ground rule” there difficult.

While making location-specific exceptions to policies isn’t particularly scalable, allowing people to easily create maps for themselves and their communities from OSM data is - they can even include their own “alternative facts” that may actually needed for legal compliance within their country(1), something that’s also in the disputed territories policy, with less perjorative wording than mine of course .

(1) India and China are often mentioned here, but other countries also pass “laws about how they should be displayed on maps” that may look just as silly to outsiders.

Comment from Wynndale on 31 October 2019 at 19:09

Every so often a community takes massive exception to what an online service does, in the last few months this has happened at Wikipedia (English), Stack Exchange, Blizzard and Gitlab. Often there has been a history of complants that wells up until the community hits breaking point.

Comment from joost schouppe on 5 November 2019 at 09:31

Imagico, What I was trying to say, is that I think it’s important to listen to the exact position of other people. I see a lot of discussion based on assumptions: this person says X, and we think that means X’, because we believe them to believe in core value Z. Or where we do logical extension of what someone is saying beyond what was actually meant: this person says X, but that also implies X’ and I firmly disagree with X’, so therefor X is bad. While I believe it’s more productive to try and understand where X is coming from. This will then help you find how there might be an option for an X’’ which doesn’t conflict with the core values of both people. Since people aren’t perfectly logical creatures, some of this conversation will be based on arguments and reason. And some of it will be more subtle.

This capability in no way conflicts with having strong convictions. In fact, this discussion style makes it easier to spot the underlying differences in fundamental beliefs. Which in turn make it easier to understand how something you find important might be implemented in a way acceptable to them. Or to find out which facts you need to find to change the belief. What I am trying to say, is that I think it’s a good thing if you’re willing to have facts change your mind on things.

As for Crimea: my article was speaking about my experience on the current board and my wishes for the future. It was not speaking about decisions made by the past Board. You are right that there is still some permanent damage there. Maybe you’re even right that there was a lack of rational, public discussion about this from the Board. But from what I understand how things went down, I think most of the root cause of the issue is the messy relationship between working groups and the Board. Hence why I think it’s important to have people on the Board who like to think about this organisational work. Now if we clear out how these kinds of decisions should be made in the future, we can then have a proper debate on how to handle this and future conflicts.

Comment from joost schouppe on 5 November 2019 at 09:37

Hi SomeoneElse, Thanks for your feedback, and the subtle kick in the behind. We need that, as it’s easy to let things slide with the limited amount of time and energy us volunteers on the Board have. I have some action items for this, but I guess more fundamental work will be for after the elections. I wouldn’t mind having a chat about this with you.

While currently the Board-WG project lacks a specific focus, I think it might be good to start working on a clear policy on how to deal with disputed territories. I think it would be good to have a subgroup of Board and DWG members work on this specific issue.

Comment from imagico on 5 November 2019 at 11:43

I think you are putting too much trust in an inherent justness and balance of verbal communication. What you call conversation ‘more subtle’ than arguments and reasoning i consider very prone to manipulation and lobbying for specific interests.

As said already i perfectly understand that a communication style devoid of arguments and reasoning can appear to be capable of solving problems you can’t solve based on reason and logic. You can pursue X without pursuing X’ despite fundamental logic telling that X implies X’ for example. But that only works within a perceptual filter bubble or a dogmatic belief system that does not depend on being compatible with logic. And in that case the ‘more subtle’ conversation style would mainly aim to get people to adopt the belief system and reject logic.

I am all for having facts change my mind on things - but as said based on arguments and reasoning and not based on some superficial rhetoric aiming to circumvent reason.

But i am getting carried away a bit of course here. Getting back to the subject of board work: One of my main principles i try to follow when looking at the board’s work is the English saying “The proof of the pudding is the eating”. If the board comes to good decisions with conversation styles more subtle than arguments and reasoning i try not to fuzz about it and accept the good results. But if the board is criticized for their decisions based on fundamental arguments although you say it seemed a good compromise between different views and interests at the time you made it (and there are a lot of decisions where exactly this is the case) it might be useful to consider that the reason for this is a lack of a solid critical discussion based on arguments and reasoning in the process leading up to the decision. If you ignore that you might end up in a kind of filter bubble increasingly encapsulated from the basic reality of individual people in the OSM community. I don’t think that is the case right now but there are definitely significant risks in that direction.

Comment from SimonPoole on 10 November 2019 at 15:40

Just to nitpick: Waze is essentially the same age as OSM and was mostly successful due to a completely different focus. Naturally people tend to lump everything loosely associated with “maps” in to the same pile, but no, there is no reason to consider Waze as a role model for OSM.

Comment from SimonPoole on 10 November 2019 at 15:54

On more fundamental issue: there is no roadmap for vector tiles because there is no clear strategy on what services the OSMF should be providing and for which audience and how these should be differentiated (or not) from commercial offerings.

Once that is laid down, -then- it makes sense to determine how technically we can provide such services if they are a required by the overall strategy.

This is no different for vector tiles that it is for say, geocoding.

Unluckily the board has refused for the larger part of a decade to even acknowledge that the question exists.

Comment from joost schouppe on 11 November 2019 at 14:27

I wouldn’t say Waze is a role model (Jezus :)). Why I mention it is that a lot of their volunteers might as well have been OSM volunteers and that they are able to harness a huge amount of non-technical contributors.

On more fundamental issue: there is no roadmap for vector tiles because there is no clear strategy on what services the OSMF should be providing and for which audience and how these should be differentiated (or not) from commercial offerings.

Agreed, so even one step deeper than what I wrote. The problem is that this is hot potato. Addressing issues like this brings about such fundamental differences in how we see OSM and OSMF that it’s easier to just ignore them. And anyway, there are always more pressing matters to address. I hope we’ll get some people on board who want to work on this kind of stuff. It’s work that is high investment, slow impact and with low chance of succes…

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