What HOT needs to work on for 2025

Posted by mikelmaron on 17 July 2020 in English.

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team develops on a 5 year cycle. From 2005-2010, HOT was a crazy idea within the crazy idea of OpenStreetMap. From 2010-2015, HOT showed that the use of OSM in humanitarian response was a viable idea, we built an organization and operations and tools, and weathered some chaos as an organization growing out of a community project. At this point in 2015, I recognized the 5 year pattern in my HOT Summit talk An Incomplete History of HOT. That’s where I first met HOT’s Executive Director, Tyler Radford, who from 2015-2020 stabilized and grew HOT in a well structured way. Confidence in this foundation has led to the Audacious grant to expand OSM community centered mapping from 2020-2025. I am very excited and very much want this to succeed wildly.

This is HOT’s most difficult transition. A well structured organization has a lot of momentum, and the intention of the next 5 years looks very different from the previous 5 years. HOT has focused on project work, building up staff, and delivering on specific commitments. All of which is great. But this naturally generates friction with community centered approaches, and I think HOT’s relationship to OSM has suffered because of lack of investment in the community and consistent data quality, and a disregard for the responsibility of HOT to engage in both the good and bad of OSM. It also means working for to contribute the many positive things in HOT’s work and culture to OSM at large. By “investment” I don’t focus on money, but on the time to build relationships, and use, support & develop processes to make OSM better. However, when operating at the scale of HOT, community effort needs to be resourced and part of the plan. I made this point in my HOT Summit 2019 talk Data, Operational Excellence and HOT.

The stated intentions of Audacious are very in line with a revitalization of the “OpenStreetMap” in Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. But it takes much more than an excellent proposal and well thought out plan to be successful. What HOT is looking to do here is very rare in any area of endeavor – use the work of a structured organization to help build a robust, multi-faceted and independent community. I think HOT is up to the task, but let’s realize, this is really hard.

There’s a few things I’m thinking about as important for success.

First, what does success look like for HOT’s Audacious grant? Achieving “one million volunteers to map an area home to one billion people” could be either a success or failure. It entirely depends on what happens in year 6. What do these communities look like in 2025, so they’re in position to continue to flourish and thrive? In other words, we need to define what a successful community looks like. A very good starting point is the work of my wife Erica Hagen on Sustainability in OpenStreetMap. In essence, sustainability requires an ecosystem of different kinds of actors – volunteers, non-profits, educators and students, companies and governments – that collaborate, pick up each other’s slack, sometimes compete in a healthy way, and provide career development pathways.

Second, HOT needs to lean into the discomfort of transparency and public, critical self-reflection and input. The natural defensive tendency of any organization is to polish over problems and present things in the best light. But when working in a community, it’s imperative that the process of reflection and learning is something we all engage in. Don’t over edit. Otherwise learning will suffer. This is difficult because there’s risk and exposure, but HOT is strong enough to do this without undermining its operation.

And third, the right people need to be in place leading and building these programs. HOT has a very strong staff. But many of the staff have had their first exposure to OpenStreetMap through HOT and see it mainly through that lens. The organization needs to internalize the persepctive of OpenStreetMap and the places where it will work. There are currently job openings for a Head of Community and Regional Hub Directors which call for “familiarity with OSM community” and “OSM experience a plus but not required”. Now the pool of candidates who have everything is going to be small, so I understand being flexible on requirements but I believe these roles need more than what’s advertised. If OSM experience is slight, the candidates need to show an obsessive excitement to jump into the deep end of what OSM is all about, warts and all.

Fourth, HOT needs a strong Board that will hold the organization to account. HOT is right now electing new Board Members. My question to the Board candidates and current members is how they will function to ensure that Audacious work is implemented with community as its focus. That could mean holding feet to the fire, and making your excellent ED sweat a bit when he’s talking to you.

Finally, HOT needs to build a strong working relationship with the OSMF. I’m gratified to see a good line of communication developing between the HOT Board and the OSM Foundation Board. We’re on the cusp of sorting out some long standing trademark issues. But this is just the start as both organizations work on issues of governance and upkeep of our core infrastructure.

That’s all for now. I’m very interested to hear how you think about this challenge and where HOT needs to put its focus.


Comment from Ben Abelshausen on 20 July 2020 at 09:13

Hey Mikel, excellent!

I agree with most of your points. Specifically the second and fourth from a board perspective are interesting and there is work to be done. We also need the HOT membership for this. Perhaps by giving them better channels to contribute they would be more inclined to do so. We are meeting on strategy tomorrow!

It may also be a good idea to invest some new resources in the membership and governance part of HOT. I think we are a bit under capacity for the challenges ahead.

On the final point, I think we are doing well on that now, let’s keep going! :)

Comment from TylerOSM on 20 July 2020 at 17:56

Hi Mikel,

Thanks for writing this up. With you being core to the founding of HOT, it is useful to get this kind of perspective, and I’ve always liked your concept of HOT’s 5-year cycles (For another look at HOT’s major milestones see this post on the Missing Maps blog.

Well, there’s certainly nervous excitement throughout HOT as we’re about to start on our next cycle. And you make some great points.

Looking at my own performance from a critical lens: In the past 5 years we’ve been laser-focused on execution, aiming to exceed expectations from our project donors (e.g. World Bank, USAID funded projects, etc). The plus side of this: We’ve been able to deliver much-needed data for major humanitarian / development challenges and positively impact many thousands of people. Internally, we’ve been able to build processes and systems (finance, field ops, training, reporting) that will now provide a foundation for us to scale impact to “Audacious” proportions. But this has sometimes come at the expense of supporting OSM communities to grow and flourish in a sustainable way. In certain cases one could argue that HOT contributed to under-development of OSM contributor communities by operating in a country for too long.

I’d argue the project-based model we built up from 2015-20 is both good and bad: Without it, we would absolutely not have been able to demonstrate success and build trust with Audacious donors. Put simply: No Audacious Project award. But, the project-based funding model constrained our own thinking. ~70% of our annual budget was for training and data collection for humanitarian/development partners (get paid a fee, deliver a service). Only around 8% was for investment in the community. Simply put, this mix doesn’t afford staff any time nor headspace to make our fair share of contributions to “make OSM better”. One thing Audacious donors are helping us to do is break free from this cycle of project dependence. And more than double our investment in Community to 20% of our annual budget - see slide 35 in our FAQ. This means more intentional time spent on some of the things you mention.

Last year you suggested something like a Chief Data Officer for HOT. We are now building a team specifically dedicated to responsible creation and use of data. Responsible data includes a focus on high quality of data and we’ll create a Data Quality Lead position for this. I’m happy about this development as well.

Point #4 on the HOT Board: I wholeheartedly agree. One of the most important changes in our governance in the past year has been the Board’s organization into Committees that can dig into detailed issues between Board meetings. One is the Strategy Committee. In my opinion, the single thing this Committee should do is figure out the touchpoints in the Audacious Project plan where particular oversight, community input or advice is needed. Then - work out simple, fun, and engaging ways to help our members contribute their expertise at those critical touchpoints. Board meetings should not be only report-outs from the Committees, either. I’d encourage our Board members to get our biggest challenges onto the agenda (maybe one per meeting?), facilitate discussion around them and hold us all to account. Including holding my feet to the fire. I would appreciate board candidates who want raise this big challenges, but then also pose solutions, and stay involved to see those solutions through to completion.

HOT is very uniquely positioned among INGOs in that we are governed by people who deeply care about, and are directly involved in our mission. We should use that to our advantage to mold HOT into the type of entity that we want over the next 5 years. This is a chance to think big and re-imagine!


Comment from mikelmaron on 20 July 2020 at 18:18

Thanks for you comment @Tyler! And for going into helpful detail on points I only gave a glancing take on.

Comment from Ivan Gayton on 7 August 2020 at 02:11

I’m not persuaded that putting OSM and its community at the center of what we’re doing is the right approach. I love maps, and I love open data, and I have a great deal of respect, even awe, for the Colossus of open data that is OSM. But I’m more interested in the needs, desires, dreams, and capacity of people in humanitarian contexts.

Rather than familiarity and engagement with OSM being a required asset, I would say that familiarity with humanitarian contexts, needs, and action should be required.

HOT is not merely about maps and data. It is about making a concrete difference in people’s lives. Maps and data do not save lives and alleviate suffering. People save lives and alleviate suffering. With luck, they can do so more effectively equipped with good maps and data. An inward-looking focus on OSM may be useful to improve our data quality, but without an engagement with our users and a clear understanding of what is fit for their purposes, the standalone concept of data quality doesn’t have much meaning.

I certainly agree that we should have a better relationship with the OSMF. But bluntly, that should be a means, rather than an end. The OSMF’s goal, rightly, is solely good geographical data. Humanitarian action is only one of many uses for map data. HOT’s goal is the classic triumvirate of humanitarian action: save lives, alleviate suffering, and restore dignity, along with a broader development mandate to provide good data for people to grow with. HOT is not, nor should it be, merely a specialist offshoot of OSM. Some of the data we gather isn’t even necessarily a good fit for OSM, and is more appropriate to other open data repository such as the Humanitarian Data Exchange!

Speaking of community: the OSMF board elected in 2019 is composed exclusively of white Northern males. With all due respect, this is not a model for HOT, and not a community vision we should strive to emulate (I recognize that this does not reflect the full diversity of the OSM community, nevertheless I reiterate that this is utterly inappropriate for a humanitarian agency—HOT— working primarily in contexts that are not majority white.) Any discussion of community building, and a closer engagement with the OSMF, must acknowledge this.

Let’s keep working together on this!

Comment from mikelmaron on 7 August 2020 at 03:00

@Ivan Gayton, did I write something you didn’t like about HOT? Find your comments strangely combative and refusing reflection. This kind of divisiveness and distancing doesn’t serve HOT well.

I didn’t put OSM at the center right now, the Audacious grant did. And it’s long overdue. OSM isn’t only about maps and data, that’s a bad misconception on your part — it’s about people and community as well. You must admit the humanitarian sector does not broadly hold a strong community based vision and does not excel at building self reliance, so we should not look to it for a model. This is exactly why I started HOT 15 years ago — joining the values of OSM and for humanitarianIsm makes the entire endeavor more human and stronger.

Unfortunately I think HOT has become somewhat too enmeshed in the humanitarian system, reproducing dynamics like yes northern white men in long term leadership positions in places like Tanzania. Yes the HOT board is diverse, but compared to the staffed operation it has not been in the forefront of the organization for the past 5 years. I think that should change, as I said in my post.

And yes the OSMF Board has recognized the problems in its diversity and our community. The vision is one where people everywhere are empowered to make the map and use to improve their lives. But a statement or a vision is only a start, there is a lot of work to do.

So yes back to work.

Comment from Ivan Gayton on 7 August 2020 at 03:21

Hi Mikel,

No, you didn’t write anything that I didn’t like! And I did not intend to be compatible at all! Thus the “let’s get to work on this together” at the end.

I don’t agree with everything you’ve suggested, and my intention in replying was to challenge your vision, but this is not The same as not liking what you wrote, or thinking that you’re not coming from a sincere and constructive place.

To be clear, I think your post is absolutely sincere and well-intentioned, and that your vision is valuable. I do feel like you’re missing some important considerations. I’m trying to express—in a constructive way—some other considerations. I echo your suggestion that we need to be critically self-reflective, and it was very much in that spirit that I wanted to reply in a challenging_but not aggressive or combative—way! Like you, I have tremendous hopes and aspirations for HOT and the wider humanitarian Data movement.

If I came off as combative, or if my reply won’t stimulate a useful and constructive discussion, I apologize, and furthermore I will remove the reply (just let me know if I should do so).

Comment from IvanGayton on 7 August 2020 at 03:24

  • combative not compatible in that first paragraph (strange autocorrect artifact).

Comment from IvanGayton on 7 August 2020 at 03:30

And I certainly agree that the humanitarian sector leave much to be desired in terms of community values and local empowerment. The other movement I’m involved in (MSF) is currently in the midst of a huge and urgent moment of self-reflection on this, which undoubtedly colors my responses here.

And yes, I was parachuted into Tanzania as a White man from the West to lead the team. And I see the problem with that (and I think was moderately successful at working myself out of a job; my former position is now occupied by a Tanzanian).

Just as the OSM movement is more than maps and data, the humanitarian movement is more than White Saviors. Becoming “enmeshed in the humanitarian system” is not just about sending expats and getting UN funding, it’s about supporting people who are doing important work for themselves and others.

Comment from mikelmaron on 7 August 2020 at 11:49

Hey Ivan, no need to remove comments, it’s of course fine to disagree, and if we misunderstand each other for a moment that’s ok. HOT is strong enough for some heated exchanges now and then.

Not to dwell on it, but to explain, some parts (“not a community vision we should strive to emulate”, “utterly inappropriate”) read like, let’s say, pretty strong push back. And phrases like “inward looking focus” and “specialist offshoot” are twisting my perspective. Felt compelled to push back too, unnecessarily (and btw, I’ve done plenty of parachuting myself). But let’s move on.

For sure, OSM has A LOT of issues. By working and contributing, HOT can help and make OSM stronger, which benefits very much what HOT wants to do.

What’s most interesting to hear is what HOT should be doing to prepare for the effort of Audacious.

One specific thing I read here about HOT is that you think the hub roles should require humanitarian experience but not OSM experience. It’s hard to imagine someone in this role who hasn’t had both experience in the international system, as well as technical and data worlds. Thinking about it now, critical will be a track record of “community values and local empowerment”. Tall order all together, and I’m excited meet these unicorns!

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