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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.

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