Dear OSM, just chill out.


This is kinda a reply to Gary Gale’s “Dear OSM, it’s time to get your finger out“. The more I read that, the less sense it makes to me.


Update 2015-04-30: Read also Richard Fairhurst’s Realpolitik and the OpenStreetMap License and Simon Poole’s Is OSM business unfriendly?

I think of myself as a Linux nerd. I consider myself a hacker. And I’ve spoken so many times about open/libre licensing in conferences the issue became boring.

A couple of years ago, a psychologist asked me a question as part of a job interview: What makes you angry?. And my response was clear: Things not working and logical fallacies. So my brain hurt a little when I read these particular sentences in Gary’s blog post:

There are really only three sources of global mapping […]: NAVTEQ, TeleAtlas , and OpenStreetMap. […]

Surely now is the moment for OpenStreetMap to accelerate adoption, usage and uptake? But why hasn’t this already happened?

See, a tiny part of my brain screams “fallacy“. «OpenStreetMap has things in common with NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas, ergo it has to play in the same field and by the same rules as NAVTEQ and TeleAtlas».

Maybe OSM was given birth by SteveC to cover the lack of affordable datasources, and then a way for him and his VC-fueled CloudMade to compete with them. But for me and a whole lot of nerds, OSM basically was, and still is, a playground where we can run database queries all night long. OSM is a wholly different animal.

In 2010 I argued that Geo businesses and Geo hackers are playing the same game, but with different goals, which makes for an interesting game; a game in which it would be foolish to think that the opponent will play for the same goal as you. You have to play this game to maximize your score, which is not a synonim of decreasing the opponent’s score.

In other words: when I put something into OSM, I don’t frakking care what happens to NAVTEQ or TeleAtlas. The same way when I cook something for friends I don’t care what happens to the local pizza joint.

See, maps are an infrastructure. In Spanish GIS circles, specially those around the Spanish NSDI, cartography is often called “the infrastructure of infrastructures” You need maps to plan roads, power lines, land zoning. You need stupidly accurate maps to collect taxes based on how many centimeters square your house has, or to give out grants based on exactly how many olive trees you own.

During the late 2000’s I heard a lot of criticism about OSM. But most of it didn’t come from data-collecting companies – it came from public servants. “Volunteers use cheap GPS with low accuracy, OSM will never be accurate”, they said. “The OSM data model cannot be loaded into ArcGIS and won’t be of any use”, they said. “OSM data will never be authoritative”, they said. And a few years later, this happened:

That, right there, is the Guardia Civil (who are public servants) in a freakin’ control room using OSM for freakin’ pan-european coastal border patrols. Which means OSM is a freakin’ de facto infrastructure for sovereignty.

Fact is, government agencies play a wholly different game than commercial providers. The goal of a govt’ agency (and specifically those which maintain infrastructures) is to provide a service to citizens, not to make money. As a thought exercise, think about the public servants who place the border milestones, or the ones checking road surface quality, and guess how many fucks they give about NAVTEQ or TeleAtlas.

OSM is about the ownership of infrastructure. It’s about the efficiency of copyright law. It’s all about the digital commons, dammit.

And this is where I kick a wasps’ nest by turning this post into a political one.

A capitalistic liberal will argue that infrastructure is better handled by competing private entities, renting it to citizens for a fee. But remember, I’m a Spaniard, and that means that I’ve seen infrastructures such as power lines, water companies, telcos, motorways, airports and banks privatized under the excuse of theoretically running more efficiently in private hands. We have a nice word for what happened in the real world: “expolio“, which english-speakers might translate as “plunder”.

Thanks but no, thanks. I want infrastructures to be as close to the commons as possible. Maybe it’s because I now live in the land of the dugnad, and my bias makes me see maintaining the commons as beneficial for the society as a whole.

So when you look at OSM (or at the Wikipedia, for that matter) you’re really looking at a digital common good. Which puts OSM in the same basket as other digital common goods, such as programming languages, the radioelectric spectrum, technical RFCs, or state-owned cartography. Now go read the tragedy of the digital commons.

It’s sad to live in a world where the money-making is held above many commons, even at the expense of the commons. Fortunately it’s difficult for a private entity to pollute air, water or the radioelectrical spectrum without going unnoticed, but unfortunately copyright law cares next to nothing about intellectual commons.

<rant>Please, someone explain to me how giving me intellectual ownership of something I thought about until 70 years after my death makes me think about better things; then explain to me how that reverts into the common good. </rant>


TL;DR: Dear OpenStreetMap: just chill out and don’t listen to what they say. Corporations may come and go, but a common infrastructure such as you is here to stay.

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4 thoughts on “Dear OSM, just chill out.

  1. Raf

    Absolutely agree.
    And as a public servant working at a NMA, and contributing to OSM and the geoeeks community, I can tell you I’ve seen both ends of the stick….

  2. Pingback: Dear OSM, just chill out. | Geo-How-To News

  3. DPrats

    Absolutely agree too!
    I heard something similar when Wikipedia arrived to our live ( no quality, not right, no rigour, no… ).

    Fully agree, this is a history about common knowledge and what to do with it.
    Thanks a lot for share your thought.
    The next question to me is ” how the cartography agencies and other geoinformation public services, that spend public taxes can and have to join or fit into OSM ?
    For me that is next lesson.

  4. Alex Barth

    > Corporations may come and go, but a common infrastructure such as you is here to stay.

    +1

    But:

    No idea how share alike is required for this vision at all. It’s this feature that you love if you have it. As useful as an appendix and as rational as religion.

    Even if you’d like to have you some share alike for the taste of it, the practical problems introduced by the ODbL for geocoding – for pete’s sake, *geocoding!* – are comical. So we have these epic hyperbolic convulsions proclaiming doom and redemption and we continue to fail solving the simple problems.

    Go ahead giving no fuck. In the meantime let’s send people back to a legal “clarification” “process” that is just broken and a sign that complicated licenses shouldn’t be used in the absence of an actual entity interpreting the terms – like happening here in the epic thread “clarifying” geocoding: https://lists.openstreetmap.org/pipermail/legal-talk/2014-July/007900.html

    See you next time when we discuss the same tired issues or can we pull ourselves together and actually fix some shit?

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