Thea Clay made the killer point in Chris Osborne‘s “What’s wrong with OpenStreetMap” session (video here). It was even better than Mikel Maron‘s observation that people should agree with founder Steve Coast just a little bit less!
Foundation Board member Henk Hoff (a very nice-sounding chap) was describing the classic technocratic argument that in a “do-ocracy”, those who get on with doing things make decisions by default. Steve must have loved it, you just get on with useful stuff and avoid getting bogged down in pointless debates. Right?
Thea pointed out that in a community of tens of thousands, only a few hundred can “do” stuff like making amazing tools and creating useful maps from the tags they’ve invented. I’m in the bigger mass of people who want to contribute data, see lots of good uses and ways in which OpenStreetMap can improve, but lack the skills to “just get on and do” much that I’d like to with the data. I’ve been at it for five years.
I spend a lot of time involved in local groups trying to improve their town centre, grow food on their housing estate, represent tenants or establish a community-owned renewable energy company. They’ve come up with some great ideas for using OpenStreetMap, but none of us have the skills or money to “just do it”. I’ve tried, for two years, to get others to help with this with very little success. So is OpenStreetMap just not for us? Do I leave them to use Google Maps and miss out on the potential of such an amazing open platform?
Henk’s suggestion that the decisions of the “do-ers” are generally accepted is also just plain wrong. Nobody has ever been able to agree on the appropriate difference between marking a feature as a footway or a path, after years of debate. The same goes for wood/forest and countless other features.
That’s a pretty sad inditement as it makes for even more confusing map detail (the map key is absurdly long, and why should the average map user care if it’s a footway or a path?) that also makes applications like routing needlessly complicated.
Anarchy gives OpenStreetMap real energy and the space for innovation by the do-ocracy elite. But it leads to very inconsistent data and the exclusion of all but a technically hyper-literate few.
Most mappers come from countries run by democratic governance; they use software created by communities with clear and functional democratic structures like this, this and this; there’s a great study on Debian that drives the point home. Many mappers have engaged with the pseudo-democratic process of voting on new tagging proposals. I suspect that most mappers – if you canvassed beyond the extremely vocal elite – would support a more democratic approach to basic decisions about core tags, use of funding, etc.
That won’t stop people “just doing” what they want to do, but it will make the data more useful and the project more accessible for the vast majority of people outside of the technical elite.
Finally, just as we let people who prove their technical skill loose on the technology, why not let people with proven organisational and political skills loose on these problems? An audience member suggested OpenStreetMap was going through puberty. Well as much as teenagers hate to admit it, sometimes authority borne of experience and training is worth listening to.
For these reasons and more we need to hear much more from the likes of Thea and Mikel, and a lot less from techno-junkies like Steve.