introductory OpenStreetMap politics

None of the following will be of much interest to people already familiar with OSM, except perhaps as an opportunity to take offense. The internet has plenty of those; I encourage you to trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect. I offer this both to satisfy my own commitment to write more and because I’ve recently been thinking that saying things that seem obvious can be important. Sometimes they turn out not to be that obvious after all.

Mike Migurski has a characteristically thoughtful post about OpenStreetMap and how he feels the community must adapt to be more welcoming of automated edits (“robot mappers”) and communities focused on improving the map for emergency response (“crisis mappers”). He characterizes the interests of these communities as being at odds with the original participants in OpenStreetMap, which he names “craft mappers”.

In comments, several OSM doyens object to this characterization even while betraying some of its truth: Frederik Ramm cops to the project’s import as a social mechanism, and Richard Fairhurst (who I hasten to add seems like he might be the most reasonable person ever to use the internet) extolls the project as a vehicle for personal expression and empowerment.

One has to admit that this is a bit of stacked deck. Crisis mapping is enormously important but it’s also a rhetorical atom bomb. Saving lives is always going to be more important than preserving the hobby of a few map obsessives.

So let me complicate Mike’s typology by adding one more constituency: passive users of OpenStreetMap data. Naturally I am thinking of Mapbox customers, but also people using MapQuest and Mapzen and Carto and and countless other businesses. It’s not entirely clear to me how much the earliest mappers of OSM care about their efforts finding use, or whether they are content to build a beautiful scale model of the world. The project’s relative inattention to building consumer-friendly services has always seemed to me an intelligently-chosen strategy of allowing the competitive market to handle distributing the project’s achievements. But I suppose indifference is an equally plausible explanation.

Still, I don’t think there can be any doubt that an enormous number of people benefit from OSM as mediated by commercial entities like Mapbox. Anyone who owns a smartphone can understand the growing importance of geodata. Finding the nearest coffeeshop is a modest benefit compared to being pulled from a collapsed building by rescue workers, but it happens considerably more often. It’s reasonable to be wary of equating profit with good, but commerce generally does indicate that someone is having their needs or wants satisfied. And there’s plenty of money in maps.

This community has no meaningful franchise within OpenStreetMap, and is instead represented by the commercial actors who serve them (:waves:). Those actors command both the resources and resentment you might expect of profiteers in a volunteer community: valued for the contributions of effort, software and money that professionalization affords, but viewed with understandable suspicion as to motives. We can do a lot of things, but people are quick to assume that we are doing them for bad reasons.

It is not a very democratic circumstance, but no one claimed otherwise: OpenStreetMap is often referred to as a “do-ocracy”, implying that those who contribute work have outsize influence. Fair enough, but this means that when the work that must be done includes discussion, conflict that amounts to a veto is the overwhelmingly likely outcome.

And that means that stasis is the order of the day. A slowly growing map, best in places where people have enough time and money to support a particular type of eccentric hobbyist. Across from them, another group of professionals, this one anxious to build the map everywhere, and quickly, before the next earthquake or funding round.

Everyone involved is as earnest and passionate as you might imagine, but there are probably only a few hundred of us bothering to write heartfelt blog posts and send snarky tweets from conference sessions. Oblivious to all of this are the overwhelming majority of the tens of thousands of active mappers; the tens of millions of people using OSM data without knowing it; and the billions of people who could be safer, or richer, or freer if OpenStreetMap or a project like it became the understood commons where we map our shared world.

I think mapping is a great and interesting problem, but it’s my job, not my hobby. Perhaps this makes it too easy for me to follow my utilitarian open data beliefs and say that OSM should be built as quickly and unselfishly as possible. But there it is.

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