OpenStreetMap

woodpeck's diary

Recent diary entries

Sorry / Bad choice of words

Posted by woodpeck on 10 December 2020 in English (English).

Hi,

I’ve recently got some flak about a mailing list post that I wrote opposing a candidate for the OSMF board election. I felt that this candidate and their employer, Facebook, were getting away with too many things that would be inacceptable from anyone else.

Because the candidate and his employer steadfastly claim that the attribution they provide was in accordance with the license, I saw an analogy with Donald Trump claiming stuff that was obviously not true, like “I had the greatest crowd in my inauguration” or so. And getting away with it.

To make this point as drastically as possible, I used a quote from Trump from before the 2016 election, the infamous “Access Hollywood Tape”. I still remember when that - deeply misogynistic - claim of getting away with sexual assault hit the press. I was sure: This man is never going to be elected; it is just not possible. I was proven wrong. That’s why the quote stuck in my head, as the eternal conundrum of why so many people can vote for a politician who says such deplorable things. (There are other examples in history books; but this one I lived through.) When I wrote the mailing list post, I felt that, in terms of the values we have as OSM, claiming that you can simply ignore our attribution requirements and hoping get away with it, was equally impossible.

The echo to my mailing list post has shown me that I should have been more careful in which words I pick up and re-use. It was totally my intention to say “don’t vote for that candidate because they think they can get away with crass violations of what we think is proper”. But I now see that, by choosing these words and not, for example, the quote about Trump being able to shoot a person dead on Fifth Avenue and get away with it, I have dealt a blow to women in OpenStreetMap. Had I spoken about shooting a person, that would have been “any person” of any gender and equally bad for everyone; but my choice of words singled out women and contained a drastic picture of sexual assault, something that far too many women have been subjected to, or at least know someone who has been. By even mentioning it, no matter what the context is and how many quotes or “not”s you put around it, you can already make a female reader feel discouraged - such a serious topic, and it’s being used here for a cheap political takedown.

A couple of women in OSM whom I have known for a while have reached out to me personally to make this point and I appreciate that very much. I now understand that no matter how many people are using the phrase, we should all work towards getting rid of it as soon as possible, rather than using it as if it was everyday language to make points that do not even have anything to do with sexual assault. I will certainly be more careful in the future. I will still be finding clear words when speaking out against things or behaviour that I find problematic, but I will double check not to put anyone in the crossfire by choosing the wrong words or the wrong figures of speech.

If you are a woman and if anything I ever said or wrote in OSM has given you the impression that I am in the least a misogynist, or don’t want women in OSM, or think that they are inferior programmers, or their place is in the home with the kids or any of that last-century shit, please be assured that nothing could be further from the truth. I have worked with many women in OSM and I think we got along well even when we had different opinions. Over the years, I’ve personally introduced more than a hundred women to OSM mapping through introductory courses at the local university and other events. I’m also teaching women to code as part of their GIS studies at the local university, and I think that within the limits of what I can do as a man, I’m doing these jobs well, treating women with the greatest respect, encouraging them, never once being condescending or giving them the impression that their male classmates are “better at tech” (newsflash, they’re not, though they often think they are).

I’m totally on board with the idea that people of any gender should get the same chances in life. That includes taking steps to support underrepresented genders in OSM, and that includes not throwing around phrases about sexual assault in discussions about map attribution. I am sorry for that; it was a bad judgement on my part. If you are a woman in OSM - or a woman interested in OSM - and there’s something I can do to make OSM a nicer place for you, feel free to reach out. OSM needs more women, not less.

Sincerely, Frederik

Why I am mapping trees

Posted by woodpeck on 15 August 2020 in English (English).

In the last year or so I’ve taken an interest in mapping trees. Urban trees, to be more precise; I’d probably not attempt to map a forest that way. I try to record the location, type, and size of each tree. With “type” I mean the species, and “size” I express in height, crown diameter, and circumference of the trunk.

Trees are in many ways an antipole to today’s turbo-charged life. I used to frown when people made a big deal about trees (“OMG they are planning to cut X number of trees for this new railway station”), and I thought what’s the problem, you can just plant some elsewhere. But walking the city with open eyes, I saw many trees that have been where they are for longer than I live, and many that will still be there long after I’m gone. Planting trees is not something for a startup where the venture capitalists demand quick returns. If you plant a tree today, it is the next generation that will be enjoying its shade. And that shade can really make the difference between a livable city and one you’d rather just cross in your air-conditioned automobile.

Why?

In practical terms, if OSM had good data about which streets are lined by really big trees with a dense crown, you could run simulations about city climate with OSM data; you could determine the best routes to walk in the summer, or which pub to go to if you want to enjoy a beer in the shade. (Perhaps I should add an explicit survey date so you can algorithmically extrapolate the tree size.) But going further, if information about trees becomes readily available, people will perhaps appreciate trees more, and think twice before cutting them down to make room for a shopping mall.

But mapping trees also brings me back to the beginnings of OSM. I know nothing about trees.

Just like I knew nothing about surveying when I started contributing to OSM. I wasn’t a trained surveyor then and I’m not a trained botanist now. I bought books and use I apps to help me, and meanwhile I know my Acer pseudoplanaus from my Acer platanoides (though, Tilia platyphyllos vs Tilia cordata still beats me occasionally). Still, I’m light-years away from an expert who can identify a tree without any leaves on by simply looking how the branches are structured. But I’m mapping trees nonetheless. Take that, botanists ;)

Mapping trees requires being on location and surveying. Hence, I am extremely unlikely to encounter competition from the likes of Apple, Amazon, or Facebook who are all using hired labour or artificial intelligence to distil streets or buildings from aerial imagery and stuff that into OSM, leading to many a hobby mapper turning their back on OSM. If you had super detailed aerial imagery then you might be able to recognize the species, and you could guess the height from the size of the shadow… but why would big capital pay people to map trees, there’s no money to be made from knowing about trees.

How?

When mapping trees, I use a standard measuring tape to determine the circumference, and I’ve bought a simple laser range finder for golfers that lets me measure the height of the tree by first aiming at the base of the tree from a distance, then at the top of the crown. It’s a €100 device, not super precise but good enough.

tape and range finder

As for the crown diameter, I make do with estimating that. To determine the species, I use an old fashioned book as well as a couple of apps (e.g. Pl@ntNet, Flora Incognita - both free but sadly not open source) that let me take photos and then suggest what kind of tree it might be, though if there’s one thing I can say, it is never trust the app, only use it as a starting point. It can be quite difficult but if you map trees in one particular city you will soon find that the city’s gardening department tends to have their favourites that you meet everywhere. After a while you learn to cherish the exceptions, or marvel an an exceptionally large example of an otherwise rather boring species.

I’ve made myself a simple Vespucci preset that shows only trees and nothing else, and can give them a pink “validation” border if they’re missing one of the properties I deem important. I’ve also made a simple CartoCSS style that draws green tree symbols when a tree is fully mapped, and red symbols in a couple of different variations that let me see which properties are still missing, and I have used that to print a kind of “walking papers” before going somewhere.

treemap

Mapping the precise location of a tree with GPS is difficult because the signal gets worse the more leaves you have above you! And more often than not the available aerial imagery has been taken while the trees had leaves and if they’re standing close together, it is practically impossible to pinpoint individual trees on the image. A technique that often works in the city is placing trees in relation to houses: “Ok, this tree is on the right hand side of the road just where house #13 ends and house #15 begins”.

Progress is slow, mostly because to do it right you need to view the tree from up close and from a distance - and because of the research you have to do on account of not being a botanist. But it’s a rewarding pastime. I can recommend it.

Stop this Leadership Nonsense

Posted by woodpeck on 17 December 2019 in English (English).

I have tried, in the past, to explain to people that the board of directors of the OpenStreetMap Foundation is not a group that provides, or should be expected to provide, “leadership”.

There are no people to be led in OpenStreetMap, no worker ants who just wait for a missive from central command to start their contributions. Nor does the board of directors allocate vast amounts of funding to projects deemed worthy of support. The whole OSM Foundation, including its board of directors,is there to keep the lights on in OSM’s server room, and perhaps to fend off the occasional trademark or license violation – but not to “lead” anything.

Which doesn’t stop some people from making a huge cult around this idea of “leadership”. Among the questions asked of candidates to this year’s board election was one that went:

Do you have experience of managing a project or a team of people? Do you have any experience of coaching others to lead (i.e. managing managers)? How long have you been doing these things?

While it doesn’t say so explicitly, it is obvious that whoever asked this question believes that these are important qualities in a board member, and that members should consider this in deciding whom to vote for. And candidates dutifully obliged, listing their previous chief-of-something-or-other postings and leadership experience.

One (European, white, male) mapper was not deterred by this and replied:

No, I’m just a grunt. Despite coming from a relatively middle class background, I wasn’t born to lead the plebs. I’m not a manager, nor have I gone on executive training courses.

This mapper is now on the board of directors.

A mapper from the “Global South”, who expressed unhappiness about the (European/American, white, male) composition of the board, was asked on Twitter if he’d consider standing for election next time, and replied:

I’m not able to run next year because I do not have the leadership skills

We must stop intimidating people with this leadership bullshit! Asking for leadership experience for board positions gives you a board of streamlined corporate types (or people who have at least been filtered and sanitised by Western business thinking). But this is a project of hobbyists, makers, and activists, not a project of managers. You don’t need to attend a leadership class (where we control the syllabus) in order to participate.

By demanding such skills, we’re only making it more likely that the next board consists of privileged white males yet again. It is well known that women who are equally qualified to men will, on average, think that they are not as well qualified. It takes a huge amount of self-confidence (a trait the male of the species possess in abundance) to reply to the leadership question with “I wasn’t born to lead… I am not a manager” and still stand for the board. How many women in the same position and with the same qualifications will have read this question and thought “uh, maybe this job is not for me”?

I think that humanitarian organisations bear a large portion of the responsibility for this mindset. They approach the communities they want to get involved in with a “take me to your leader” attitude, and sometimes actively coach people in management and leadership skills so that it is easier to work with them as a group. It is quite common to read reports about successful humanitarian projects in which one of the proudly mentioned results is that they managed to train leaders. A hierarchical organisation with one leader or a small group of leaders is easier to deal with than a hive of individuals where everyone does what they want. And it may well be that this is the right approach if you want to run a humanitarian project. But OpenStreetMap is not that.

To be a mapper, you don’t have to sign up for training with the local chapter of some NGO – you can just do it. You don’t have to submit to anybody’s leadership, and you can be a great mapper and a great representative of our colourful and diverse project without one iota of leadership skill. OpenStreetMap does not have a hierarchy where people at the top tell people at the bottom what to do.

Installing such a hierarchy by making the board of directors a board of “leaders” (of whatever gender or skin colour) would be a terrible step in the wrong direction, away from what OpenStreetMap ought to be. We must stop deterring good people with this leadership nonsense.

Facebook: Hands Off Our Map

Posted by woodpeck on 5 December 2019 in English (English).

Dear Facebook,

you started out as a harmless geek’s wet dream, a site for male college students to rate how sexy they found the women studying with them. You’ve grown up since then, and are now motivated not by adolescent lust but corporate greed. You’ve managed to make headlines as the enabler of genocide[1], the manipulator of elections[2], and posing an unprecedented danger to human rights[3] – among the lesser counts of privacy violation, publishing hate speech, and outright lying to politicians, the press and the public.

Now I cannot know if all this is down to sheer recklessness or just incompetence. For all I know there might be thousands of honest, upright, well-meaning people working for you, all blameless, all just doing their job, and perhaps it is just “the circumstances”, or “a few bad apples”, or “unfortunate events” that lead to all the pain and suffering that Facebook is responsible for.

But I have to judge you as one giant organism. I cannot separate the good from the bad. Facebook is one big black box and it touches things and they turn to ashes.

I don’t want OSM to turn to ashes. So please, Facebook, stop touching OSM. You’ve already done a lot of damage in your bumbling and lying first encounters with us, where you imported tons of computer-generated data and then claimed to know nothing about it. We know you’ve set a couple of untrained college kids to do this[4], given them free rein to disrupt OSM on your payroll. You’ve now switched to using individuals as conduit for your contributions through your “Map with AI” efforts, never giving the wider OSM community a chance to vet this dangerous approach, but nonetheless publicly claiming you were doing this “with OpenStreetMap”. You are not: you are doing this to OpenStreetMap, and you don’t care what it does to our project.

On top of all this, now you’re sending us one of your employees to stand for election to the OSMF board, and he doesn’t even pretend to separate OSMF’s from Facebook’s goals, saying: “A candidate working in a company like FB and not specifically trying to disconnect OSM involvement from their day job is a potentially weird new thing”[5] – sadly neither blatant power grabs nor an absolute blindness to conflict of interest are weird, or new.

You do not understand OpenStreetMap, and your goals as an organisation are fundamentally different from those of OpenStreetMap. You will destroy it, and all the good people that might be working for you will sheepishly say “but we did have good intentions”. They will say that they couldn’t possibly know OSM would turn to ashes under Facebook’s touch, just as they couldn’t possibly know Facebook would be aiding genocide, manipulate elections, or threaten human rights.

You can have the data, but if you really want this project to have a healthy future, stay out of how we make the data.

Sincerely,
a person without a Facebook account.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/15/technology/myanmar-facebook-genocide.html
[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/04/i-worked-political-ads-facebook-they-profit-by-manipulating-us/
[3] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/11/google-facebook-surveillance-privacy/
[4] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17856687
[5] https://lists.openstreetmap.org/pipermail/talk/2019-December/083598.html

iD editor: It is time for us to end this abusive relationship

Posted by woodpeck on 9 November 2019 in English (English).

It all started out nice enough, the Knight Foundation paying for a team of professional developers at Mapbox to develop a new, user-friendly website editor to replace the ageing, Flash-based Potlatch. This brought us the iD editor which for roughly six years now has been the default editor we present to new users, and the user friendliness of this endeavour is certainly unparalleled in OSM.

To new users, this editor represents our project and our community. If this editor tells them that they should do something this way or that, they will assume that “OpenStreetMap wants me to do this”. The iD editor is the only editor endorsed by the OSM Foundation in this way, and with great power comes great responsibility.

A responsibility that the iD team is increasingly unable to shoulder.

There wasn’t much to complain during the early years except perhaps the lack of support for one thing or another, cases where everyone including the developers agreed that improvements need to be made. But now that the basic functionality is there, iD developers are starting to believe they have a mandate for more. Rather than just giving users a tool to contribute to OSM, they are directing users to contribute in certain, very specific ways - preferring one tag over another, using one channel of communication with the community instead of another, “upgrading” the work of other users according to rules set out by the editor developers alone, striking deals with commercial validation platforms, loading auxiliary data from Facebook without the user’s consent or any previous discussion, and so on.

Pushback from the community against these unilateral decisions is met with abject arrogance. Issues opened on the project issue tracker are closed as “too heated”. Benign suggestions to discuss the problem are batted away; the attitude of the iD team seems to be either that they know better what is good for us, or that we’re free to go if we don’t like what they do. Even community members who are otherwise full of praise for corporate involvement seem to despair at the presumptuous attitude and lack of community consultation of the iD project.

We are not that desperate for love that we need to continue this abusive relationship. Let us stop using that “official” version of iD today, and switch to the community version of iD maintained by Frédéric Rodrigo (see also his tweet). With his experience from a decade of working with our community and respecting community consensus in Osmose and other projects, Frédéric knows how to run a project like that without everyone burning out because of “too heated” discussions.

Will this cut us off from new developments made by the main iD developers? Absolutely. But I think an editor that respects our community consensus is more important than having a nice auto-complete that ensures the correct spelling of an American fast-food franchise outlet.

PS: I’ve not been naming names on purpose. If you have contributed to iD development and managed to refrain from showering anyone who asked for a change with condescension, good for you; sadly it doesn’t change the fact that decision-making in iD has become unstuck from what the community expects of software they imbue with the privilege of being “the official editior”. And the community is not the five people going to lunch with the developer.

You have been <script>alert("0wned");</script>

Posted by woodpeck on 15 January 2008 in English (English).

You have been