State of the Map 2013

the OpenStreetMap event: 6-8 September 2013

Changing the Ratio: OpenStreetMap Community Diversity at SotM 2013

Posted by  robjn  Sep 30, 2013

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Martin Dittus,
ICRI Cities, UCL.

The following is a guest post by Martin Dittus. As a Doctoral Student at ICRI Cities, University College London, Martin is currently researching data-gathering communities including OpenStreetMap. He describes his research on his LinkedIn profile:

Analysing the outcomes of urban data-gathering practices, exploring the social interactions that surround them. Building tools for data gatherers, data analyses, visualisations. Current research focus is on OpenStreetMap: annotation data history, solitary/collaborative/discursive editing patterns, and more.

Previous to his research at UCL, Martin was a software developer at Last.fm.


Maps have a peculiar ability to act as a stage for shared concerns, as catalysts and connectors for a wide range of interests. This became particularly clear when looking at the range of activities that were presented at State of the Map 2013 in Birmingham: community mapping with local and national governments, cycle maps, accessibility concerns in mapping and route planning, mapping games, OSM as building block for commercial services, mapping in the context of humanitarian aid, ... As Steve Coast once suggested, "OpenStreetMap can be seen as the sum of the personal interests of all participants who want to see them recorded on the map." A map that incorporates such a multiplicity of perspectives may sometimes be reminiscent of patchwork, but it also holds a quality and level of detail that is often unprecedented.

Maybe as a result of this wealth of activities the topic of "diversity" was one of the recurring themes in the talks and hallway conversations of this year's global State of the Map conference in Birmingham. These discussions often focused on questions of gender balance, but equally on the challenges of integrating new or underrepresented social groups that wanted to contribute to OSM. In recent years several studies have shown that there is a surprisingly small number of women among OSM contributors (the now oft-quoted "3% female mappers"), and at SotM 2013 it became evident that there is clear motivation in the community to change this. Alyssa Wright, Yuwei Lin, Manuela Schmidt and many others have become key narrators in this debate. In Birmingham they offered observations and statistics, but also means of understanding the issue, starting points for discussion, and some clues about how to make change.

It is not Enough That 'Anyone' can Contribute

Alyssa Wright's keynote "Changing the Ratio of OpenStreetMap" in particular was well-received. Slides are already online, and the recording of the talk will be well worth your time once a video has been published. Alyssa presented a reflection of the diversity discussion in a playful and inquisitive manner, but also provided some hard data to support her observations.

It is now clear that women are strongly under-represented in technical domains, especially within free software culture, and particularly in OpenStreetMap. Such a demographic bias may be surprising: these sharing cultures often pride themselves in their meritocratic ethos, in their openness towards new contributors who provide high-quality work. However, as Alyssa and others highlight, technical communities of high demographic homogeneity can share unspoken assumptions and attitudes about acceptable behaviour, which in turn can result in invisible barriers of entry that are unrelated to plain merit. "It it not enough that 'anyone' can contribute": an open invitation to all is often not enough, and merely favours the bold. In this Alyssa paraphrased an argument put forth by Joseph Reagle earlier this year: few restrictions on how people treat each other can foster a wealth of interactions, but also create permission for exclusion, and sometimes discrimination.

In her talk "Those 3% female mappers..." Yuwei Lin presented findings from a recent study of the experiences of female OSM contributors. Why are so few women participating in OSM? What interventions can we devise to effectively extend the knowledge pool of contributors? The study involved workshops with new contributors, interviews with existing community members, and an online survey with hundreds of participants.

To many study participants, social interactions and incentives were often key factors in their decision to contribute to OSM. Both outdoor mapping and armchair mapping can reveal new aspects of familiar places, they can provide great social experiences, and it can be very gratifying to contribute your own knowledge to a map and then see other people benefit from it. However there are some barriers that can make it hard to contribute: many tools assume a certain degree of technical expertise, and there are few good basic introductions to the complex world of mapping, its concepts and terminology. There may not always be clear visual feedback for one's contributions, or good feedback when introducing mistakes. Additionally it is often not clear what kind of contributions are in demand in particular places. (Refer to the slides for some details.)

A key suggestion that came out of the study was to put a greater emphasis on the social experience of mapping, for example by introducing more opportunities to interact with other contributors on the website. This could for include an ability to discuss changesets, an ability to form interest groups, and others. A further recurring theme was the importance of catering to particular niches: to go beyond map-making as a self-sufficient practice, and instead provide more focused channels of participation for specific needs and interests. Prominent examples of such niches on OSM are cycling and transport mapping, accessibility mapping, childcare, humanitarian mapping, ecological mapping, ...

Expanding the OpenStreetMap Universe

Is OSM at a cultural turning point? It appears there is now a general acknowledgement that the OSM community is not as diverse as it would like to be, and that there is great willingness to change this. For a long time technical concerns have been a driving motivation behind OSM community work, however as our technology matures the community focus is now broadening, and there is an increased focus on the social implications of our work. It is not a coincidence that at this year's AGM Kate Chapman was elected a board member of the OSMF, she is a key driver behind the Humanitarian OSM Team and has a keen interest in fostering community diversity.

Few technology communities are ever faced with such a shift in perspective. OSM is now a large and rich data source, and there is infrastructure for very different needs and practices, which invites more and more mapping work by non-technologists. OSM as a geographic information source already has a unique ability to reflect the needs and interests of a wide range of social groups in unprecedented detail. The resulting gradual cultural shift may come at a surprise to some old-timers, and it may introduce new social challenges. A growing number of newcomers may struggle with technical matters that to some of you may seem basic. Don't mistake this for ineptness, and instead take some time to help them out: a newcomer to OSM is an expert in something else. They will appreciate your kindness, and in turn you may learn something new as well.

The people I met at SotM in Birmingham were highly skilled OSM contributors, often long-time community members, many coming from technical backgrounds, many of them male. These were the OSM "elite". Yet throughout my interactions I found most of them to be humble, kind, sociable, approachable, and very curious about other perspectives. I learned quite a few new things that weekend, but maybe the key insight for me was the realisation that OSM is well-prepared to embrace many new perspectives. I'm looking forward to see its universe expand over the coming years, in its mapping data as well as in its community culture. In this respect, as in many others, the OSM community can consider itself pioneering.

Author: Martin Dittus.

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