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Diversity and OpenStreetMap

The big annual meetup of OpenStreetMap folks was last week and it was full of interesting talks. The diversity of people seemed pretty good relative to a lot of the meetups I end up at (open-source software, experimental music, computer science, you know, that kind of thing), but still, the OSM community needs to work towards being more representative of people in general.

In her keynote on diversity, Alyssa Wright gave a telling example, of how a proposal for a "childcare" tag had been voted down, primarily because the people who voted felt unconvinced that it wasn't already covered by the "kindergarten" tag. Alyssa contrasted this with the slightly bizarre plurality of tags for things that traditionally have male associations (e.g. pub, bar, nightclub, stripclub, brothel, each of which have separate amenity tags).

Now, this is a fairly anecdotal contrast, and Alyssa said so herself. (In other slides she showed some statistics which make the point more numerically.) But it illustrates some of the ways in which diversity issues come into play in open wiki-like projects. Maybe the existence of both "pub" and "bar" tags is a weird historical glitch which no-one particularly agrees with (I certainly don't see the point!). That doesn't detract from the fact that there's always going to be some sort of bias built in to OSM's norms, and people who absorb themselves into OSM will absorb and reproduce the norms, and this can be a self-reinforcing problem unless we pay attention to fixing it.

In this post I'm not going to summarise everything that everyone said about diversity. I'm just going to list some of the take-home messages that I got from this strand of talks:

  • "Diversity" relates to many things of course - gender, age, nationality, etc etc etc. Alyssa acknowledged this but said that fixing gender diversity in a community is the fastest and clearest route to fixing diversity in general in a community. This has a definite ring of truth to me. It'd help to focus efforts.

  • Yuwei Lin recommended that project-based mapping was a good idea - from her research it would be a mode of engagement that would work well for women. She suggested examples: the humanitarian OSM team projects, as well as mapping parties to do specific purposeful things such as zoo mapping, mapping of National Trust sites, etc - all sounds good to me.

  • "Measure excellence by teaching" (said Alyssa). This sounds like good advice, especially in the context of a kind-of-techy community like this one, where discussions about GIS systems or web servers can lead to a tendency to measure excellence by fairly techy measures. Teaching is flipping critical to a project like OpenStreetMap, whose success or failure must lie in how well its dedicated "in-group" helps people from outside to engage.

  • "Bikeshedding is normal" said Frederick Ramm, summarising one tendency in OpenStreetMap's mailing lists. I know bikeshedding is pretty much an inevitable fact of organised discussion, but I do fear that it can put off potential (or existing) community members, and I wonder how to arrange things so that unnecessary bikeshedding is truncated...

  • "Stop talking, start mediating" said Alyssa, in her closing recommendations. Sounds like general good advice. (Relates to bikeshedding? Maybe, dunno.)

  • Yuwei recommended diversity-friendly social events. For example the OSM London meetings are always brief mapping parties followed by pub drinking in the mid-to-late evening. Nothing wrong with it in itself, but it could easily be offputting for people who don't drink (e.g. for religious reasons), or have childcare commitments, etc - probably wise to vary the events a bit? A Saturday afternoon in a tea-room would be nice (I know a good one or two).

  • I did notice in one talk, there was a little bit of a tendency to equate female mappers with newbie mappers. Let's not make that mistake! I don't think anyone was stuck on that point, just thought I'd mention it since I noticed it.

  • Frederick talked about the different OSM mailing lists, and he mentioned all the different country-specific mailing lists, each of which uses their national language. He gave an interesting example in which three different communities each came upon a particular topic, but independently and at different times. This made me wonder if this setup, with a "cluster" of semi-independent communities rather than one big community lumped together on a single universal mailing list, was in fact a good way to promote diversity and reduce the impact of self-reinforcing social loops. I wonder, should we de-emphasise the idea of a "main" mailing list or IRC or whatever? A half-formed thought to finish the list with.

I didn't actually end up chatting to most of the people I've mentioned just above, so I haven't really talked any of this stuff through with them. Lucky that there are good people on the case already, so it seems. OpenStreetMap has a diversity-talk mailing list if you'd like to get involved.

Tuesday 10th September 2013 | openstreetmap | Permalink
Name: Rovastar
Email: rovastar art hotmail dort com
Date: Wednesday 11th September 2013 12:07
Personally I have a problem a perceived emphasis on diversity misalignment.
Firstly I feel that any non-pro-diversity discussion is labelled as bigoted views and no doubt I’ll be labelled that way.
For me there are no barriers to entry to join openstreetmap. By that, I mean everyone and everyone is welcome. I don’t recall anytime where they have not been it is a worldwide project and we recognise all.
There is no need to disclose any gender, race, religion, disability, class, sexual orientation, political preferences, etc to sign up, edit the map, wiki, use mailing lists, sysadmin support or anything OSM.
Complaints about the lack of diversity often inferred that there is discrimination at play, be that active, passive, blatant or institutional discrimination. E.g. the childcare tagging argument. I feel this is never the case and find the implications unhelpful and a little concerning.
For the childcare case it sounded more like sour grapes and worse still then playing the discrimination card. Many things don’t get through the wiki approval process.
I truly hope we don’t get to the stage where SOTM has to be cancelled because of diversity reasons because someone complained there are not x% of female speakers (as happened recently with a leading programming conference (was it python, ruby or something *shrug*) )
Or where someone insists on having a 50-50 male-female split in the OSMF board members where a much smaller fraction “chose” to contribute/edit.
I (sad) fact is most people that edit the map are (in the western world at least) white males. Often this group are more interested in technology, open source, editing wikis, the Internet, etc
Reaching out to likeminded groups is great, create an OSM page/area on Pinterest, etc. I feel diversity talks are not about this enough.
Name: Dan
Date: Wednesday 11th September 2013 12:37
Thanks for the comment. Some responses from me:

(1) "For me there are no barriers to entry to join openstreetmap" - I'd agree there are no barriers, but biasing factors. e.g. my example of OSM London meetups all being pub nights. It's not a "barrier" since no-one needs to go to those things, but if we're not careful it has a self-reinforcing biasing effect on the kind of person who gets involved. And that will tend to shrink the pool, limit the diversity, reduce OSM's relevance to the world.

(2) Re the childcare case - yes, many things don't get approved, and it's only an anecdote. I said so, and so did Alyssa. I think it's illustrative rather than proof.

(3) "cancelled because someone complained there are not x% of female speakers (as happened recently with a leading programming conference)" - this isn't quite what happened. That (non-leading) conference was cancelled because the organisers responded really badly to public criticism (they dug themselves rather badly into a hole) and their sponsors pulled out. No-one is going to cancel SOTM because diversity doesn't hit x%. However, someone might cancel SOTM if one day something happens which makes the sponsors embarrassed to be seen with us. That's the way it goes if you rely on sponsorship for an event I'm afraid.

As I said, I don't think the OSM community is doing too badly in terms of diversity, especially compared to other techy things. It's worth paying attention since it's not yet ideal, but I don't think we're going to get all weird about the issue :)
Name: Rovastar
Date: Wednesday 11th September 2013 14:35
I think too much focus can be put on OSM meetups. I have been mapping for years and only recently meet any OSMers (at the last 2 London meets). These are a *tiny* fraction and OSM contributors and probably reflective of the average user/editor base in the London. 95+% white males. So it makes sense that it will be in a location where the majority of people feel comfortable. If they were in a strip bar I would agree not suitable.

I think the fact that the childcare issues comes up at all - let alone comes up again at SOTM - just goes to show the throwing spanners in the works perceived mentality.

Don't mention it even anecdotally, it is not discrimination but it is brought up as such. And comparing and contrasting it to very easily identifiable place like strip bars doesn't help.

Finding problems where none exists. The OSM community is biased, etc.

True it might not have been a leading conference and I too know it was handled badly however someone kicked up a stink when there was really no smell. This started the ball rolling and really for no reason it got cancelled. I have no idea how good/bad a female speaker who wanted to speak was or if there indeed was underlying discrimination. But implying that there need to be x% speaking is wrong. Base that purely on ability.

Maybe one of the problems of positive discrimination that I am highlighting.

What *if* someone did that at an SOTM is all I am saying.
Kicked up a stink and word got out and it led to sponsors pulling out, etc.

And to finish I am not sure what you mean by 'not yet ideal'. I don't think anything is wrong and don't want to force square pegs in round holes.
Name: Dan
Date: Wednesday 11th September 2013 15:04
OK. If you think nothing's wrong that's fine by me.

We might not be using our terminology the same way here, but it seems odd to me that you seem to reject the idea that the OSM community is biased while also saying it's predominantly white males (in one area at least). When I use the term "bias" I don't mean to imply anything about people's individual attitudes - I mean that the makeup of the OSM community doesn't reflect the makeup of the wider population, and that there are factors that probably tend to entrench this, which we need to be aware of. This bias affects the data we get, in just the same way that having not many Chinese mappers affects the quality of the map of China.

You mention positive discrimination and "implying that there need to be x% speaking" - neither I nor the SOTM speakers ever suggested any such criteria. One of the things I liked about the points I took away from their talks, was that they're all fairly straightforward, practical, inclusive recommendations that will probably benefit OSM generally, not narrow quota-driven ideas.
Name: rovastar
Date: Wednesday 11th September 2013 18:12
Aha terminology is part of the confusion here.
I was using and reading bias as per the dictionary definition where there is prejudice and unfairness.
And this is something we needed to addressed so osm becomes fair.
My point is that there is no need tip even the numbers up to be fair.
however I am all for more women, gays, blacks, etc joining lets get more action on this. However if at the same time a greater percentage than currently of white males join there would be less diversity and a therefore seen as a problem.
whereas I would see this as good as more people are joining osm.

Only if there problems/omissions with the data due to lack of diversity that others cannot/don't solve should it be an issue.
and on that note diversity in interests could even be classed as more important to osm. e.g. Although the average UK mapper is straight,white male they are a group that statically would say have less interest in football than other straight, white males. Therefore less football stadiums are mapped in decent detail.
What features are less well mapped because of lack of diversity have been identified that have led it to being perceived as a problem?

I have tried too addressed certain things myself like trying to get religious symbols for all the world's religions on the osm rendered tiles via cartocss. And mapping the UKs football grounds. ;-)

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