OpenStreetMap is the largest collection of open geographic data in the world. Its worldwide coverage and thematic scope is unmatched. Even more importantly and singularly, a vibrant global community has gathered together to collect and use the data.
OpenStreetMap (OSM) is distinct from Open Source projects in many ways. We unite contributors with very different interests and positions: individuals, companies, and organizations from the private and public sectors. Our contributor community is quite diverse in their cultural backgrounds. OSM also differs from other crowd-sourced projects like Wikipedia in that it does not directly publish a user facing product. OSM data is the base on which others build their applications, products and projects. OSM provides an essential, foundational infrastructure in an increasingly digitized world.
The project and its community have applied both a quantitative and a qualitative approach, with human mappers at the center of an increasingly sophisticated process. Just as critical as the the detailed geographic coverage of OSM is data quality driven by human knowledge. This focus on quality did not go unnoticed and so growth has found the project. Demand for OSM data increases year on year, and a steady flow of contributions results in an annual growth of 10 percent of available data. With its wide distribution it is more important than ever that this data source will remain free of charge and free to use to anyone anywhere.
The OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF) is the legal entity that officially owns the assets of the project. It is responsible for ensuring that the project has what is necessary not only to survive but to thrive well into the future. It supports but does not control the project. For many years it was possible to achieve these goals with a limited activity within OSMF. However, growth has strained the project’s volunteer workforce, its hardware and software platform, and it threatens its long-term viability. This places OpenStreetMap in general and the Foundation in particular in the position of needing a strategy for addressing ever growing demand.
The main focus of the OSMF must be to ensure that the infrastructure is available. Without it, the data cannot be collected and distributed. Just as important to the project is the existence and growth of the community. For OSM to remain a project that is driven by its volunteers, we need to be careful to not overstrain them. The OSMF can help through financial and operational support.
Achieving the strategy of course depends on finding resources, prioritizing deployment of resources and developing as an institution. There are items indicated in this plan that are more urgent and ready for action than others.
There are four major fields where the OSMF needs to advance in the next years:
- Technical infrastructure for OpenStreetMap
- Community development
- Institutional development of OSMF
- Financial governance
This strategic plan is a living document. The current version reflects the state of OSM and OSMF and its environment at the time when the document was revised. Circumstances change and with it the strategic alignment of the OSMF. The OSMF board will therefore regularly review this document and adapt it over time.
The rest of the document list in detail the most important goals and actions for each field. It leaves out explicit deadlines because the implementation of these goals always depends on the availability of funding and of time from our volunteers.
The technical infrastructure for OpenStreetMap
There are two major areas of the technical infrastructure: the hardware infrastructure that runs the project itself and its operational management on the one side, and the development and maintenance of software for OpenStreetMap on the other.
Improve reliability of hardware infrastructure
The OSMF is responsible for running the core database as well as some accompanying services that provide essential infrastructure for mappers. Without this hardware infrastructure the project ceases to exist. Over the last few years, the OSMF has slowly moved the hardware infrastructure from donated hardware and hosting locations to professional data centers and standardized server hardware. Next, we need to further consolidate the existing hardware to ensure redundancy, and improve our backup strategies.
Responsible: Operations Working Group (OWG)
Ensure high availability of operations team
The OSM infrastructure is being maintained by very few volunteers. While they have a very good track record for keeping the systems available, there is a high risk for the OSMF if part of the administration crew becomes unavailable. It also means that the system is only maintained on a best effort base and important tasks for improving the reliability of the infrastructure are de-prioritized in favour of daily administration tasks. The system administration teams need to be enlarged to mitigate these risks.
Responsible: Operations Working Group (OWG)
Increase paid system administration staff
Full-time system monitoring to ensure availability can only be achieved through paid staff. 24/7 support would need at least 6 administrators, which is currently out of scope for the OSMF's organisational size. Initially, we plan to hire at least one additional sysadmin, to complement our existing Site Reliability Engineer. In addition, we will build the structures to manage a larger sysadmin team.
Increase number of volunteer administrators
The OSMF runs a number of secondary and complementary services which could be managed by volunteers. This does not happen in practise because on-boarding is difficult. There is no documentation or means to learn outside the production system. We'd want to attract more volunteers to strengthen community engagement and distribute knowledge about our infrastructure over more people.
Responsible: Operations Working Group (OWG) + paid admin staff
Strengthen maintenance and feature development of core software
The core software for the OSM database and data distribution is something that has developed by the community from scratch and is almost exclusively used by OSM itself. This means that the OSMF is the main entity responsible for its maintenance and development. The core software is also at the heart of any further development of the technical side of the OSM project. Improvements to the data model or formats can only be realised when there is an active developer community. At the moment the pieces of the core software are maintained by 3-4 developers which is not sufficient to make significant changes to the software. We need to extend the developer base and stimulate more contributions by the community. Given that volunteer work has not proven to be sufficient in the past, support through paid development is necessary.
Ensure availability of editors
Without software to enter data, OSM cannot exist. It is therefore the mission of the OSMF to ensure that at least one editor is readily available and actively developed, through paid work when necessary. Therefore OSMF has focused support on iD. The OSMF may also support additional editors, including on mobile platforms.
Support the OSM software ecosystem
There is a rich ecosystem of open-source software around OSM data, both for the support of mappers and processing of data. It is not the mission of the OSMF to be directly involved in the development of these software. The OSMF can however strategically provide financial support to ensure that this ecosystem continues to exist and remains open. The microgrants scheme of 2020 has proven to be useful, and might serve as a blueprint.
Responsible: Engineering Working Group (EWG)
OSM’s strength and comparative advantage lies in its voluntary community. Local knowledge makes the data more accurate and their dedication ensures that the data remains up-to-date. A healthy community is as essential to the project as the availability of its technical infrastructure. The health of the community can be defined in three dimensions: the number of contributors and how much they contribute, the diversity of the community, and the well-being of community members, measured by how well interactions work within the community.
The OSM community is unusually heterogeneous with different cultural backgrounds and motivations. Individual contributors from all over the world bring in their local knowledge. Organised contributors from companies and humanitarian or public organisations complement this data. Finally, there are the data users, which shape the database through their usage. The OSMF as the global organisation behind the project is ideally suited to coordinate between the different players and ensure that there is a balance maintained between the interest of everybody.
The OSMF will not engage in the mapping process itself by telling the community what and how to map. However, the OSMF can support community health in a supportive role.
Maintain and Grow the Community
For many years, OSM has seen a steady influx of new contributors. Now that the novelty of the project has waned, and the focus of the project shifts from creating a map to updating and improving it, contributor growth has slowed markedly. As OSM data establishes itself as a part of the foundational infrastructure, new contributors are also more likely to be found in the average every-day user of the data. To attract those users, the project needs to increase its visibility. On a local level, this has traditionally been done by the local chapters. On a more global level, the OSMF will need to engage itself more with external partners and public institutions.
Strengthening local communities
Local communities have done a tremendous job in promoting OSM on a local level. They share cultural values of individual mappers and speak their language, making them a much more approachable first point of contact for local contributors and data users. The Local Chapter program has proven an effective way to formally recognize these communities. However, members are still very unevenly distributed over the world. Ideally, the OSMF will have a Local Chapter representation in every country at some point. To make this possible, the local chapter programme needs to be reviewed for barriers in its participation criteria and the OSMF needs to look into the possibility to give financial or legal support for newly emerging communities where needed.
Local chapters mainly recognise communities organised on a geographic level. This does not take into account that people come to OSM often because they need map data for a specific field of interest. The OSMF should recognise these interest groups and needs to developing a schema of official affiliation similar to that of local chapters.
Responsible: Local Chapters and Communities Working Group (LCCWG)
Develop institutional relationships
OSM data has become an essential tool in fields that have a large influence on our society. This use is more than welcome and has the potential to increase the visibility of the project. But it also comes with a responsibility of being a reliable partner. The OSMF needs to become a contact for public and private institutions on a supra-national level and also represent the interests and values of the projects within the society. To assert response times, the OSMF may need to employ someone.
Increase community diversity
OSM has started out as a very technically oriented project. This is reflected in the composition of the community, where tech-savvy contributors from countries where OSM first took hold still make up the majority of the community. For OSM to accurately describe the world, we strive for our contributors to include as many people as possible with as many different backgrounds as possible. We strive for this with full knowledge the we are impacted by economical, cultural and political factors beyond our ability to fix. We acknowledge the current challenges in contributing to OSM - such as the need for technical knowledge and access to technology, little spare time, communication predominantly in English, and the complexities of joining the community. We are committed to addressing these barriers, ensuring OSM is accessible and inclusive for all.
The OSMF can particularly seek out and support projects that make the mapping process easier for non-technical contributors and make initiatives of contributors outside the core clientele more visible.
Support community interactions
The OSMF is responsible for providing modern community-wide communication channels. We are conscious that communication within the community is especially difficult because of the many different cultural backgrounds and languages spoken. From this follows a need to have moderators in place for mediation. Where technically feasible, we will also provide automatic translation to allow participation in different languages.
Conferences are an efficient way to improve interpersonal relations between subcommunities in OSM. The annual State Of The Map therefore remains a core task of the OSMF. The OSMF acknowledges that long distance and intercontinental travel is an undue burden for the average mapper. It therefore encourages and supports local and regional State Of The Map conferences.
Engage institutional actors
A continued source of friction are the requirements and approaches of organisational mappers versus the means and interests of individual mappers. The OSMF should engage as a body that can help to set a common understanding of how to engage in OSM effectively.
At present OSM has virtually no formal communication with data users, and in fact has little idea of who most users of data are. The lack of a feedback mechanism is a vulnerability and impedes the goal of making OSM the map of first choice. The OSMF could bridge the gap between mappers and data users but first needs to investigate how to reach data users. As a short term measure, relations with the corporate members can be intensified, seeking more feedback from the advisory board on how OSM is perceived.
Create strong institutional structures that are fit for purpose
To clearly respond to the technical and community needs of OSM, the OSMF must operate as an institution with reliability and intentionality, and fortify its ability to sustain and grow the project. OSMF retains the posture of supporting the project but leaving the active direction of what gets mapped and how to the community. The OSMF does need to take a more active role in marshalling resources where needed for that support, and make selective and focused investments in people and systems for that work.
OSMF Mission Statement and Scope is a critical document for succinctly defining the active roles OSMF and OSMF Board takes. The increasing relevance of OpenStreetMap has also an impact on the mission and scope. The mission statement needs to be regularly reviewed from time to time. With the last revision from 2015, this has a very high priority.
Build organizational structure that is fit for future purpose and carefully considered growth
An all volunteer Board has proven insufficient to execute on all Foundation needs. From supporting a small but growing number of staff, to fundraising, to working across the OSM community to facilitate top priorities, there is more than enough work for a full time role. While the Board intends to do everything necessary to fulfill its responsibilities in the immediate horizon, it is prudent to consider another model of executing the Board's strategic decisions. The OSMF will seriously consider an executive director role, starting with defining the potential scope or responsibility for that role within the OSMF.
Complete jurisdictional transition to assure financial and legal stability and overall effectiveness
The incorporation of OSMF solely in the UK has become a limiting factor on many practical needs, and an EU corporate presence will achieve more favorable circumstances legally, financially, as an employer, and as a data holder. Such a move is significantly complex, and the OSMF needs to identify and select legal representation in a chosen country to support the establishment of an EU based entity.
Increase visibility and reputation of OSM
OSM is a globally critical project across all areas of human endeavor. The work the OSM community does deserve to be more widely seen and understood, and a broader understanding of the role of OSM and the OSMF will help drive more, and more diverse, contributions and lead to greater impact of open geospatial data.
Effective communication requires planning, forethought and development of systems, and the identification of key messages, audiences, channels, and voice and messaging guidance.
Attribution plays a key role in complementing this brand awareness, through repeated exposure in maps they already use, and invitation to action through editing.
Provide balance of support between volunteers and paid staff
The OSMF is a body of the community and represents its interest. It can only do this task through participation of the community. Strong and active working groups ensure that the overall course of the OSMF is driven by community members as opposed to a paid body of staff.
To increase participation in the working groups, we need to make their work more visible, actively recruit more members and improve on-boarding of new members.
In addition to this direct engagement, the OSMF will also collect regular feedback from the community about its work through surveys and consultings about its course of action.
Build financial infrastructure to sustain OSM for the long term
OSMF must be a responsible steward of the financial resources necessary to act on the critical points of this plan. OSMF needs to have financial systems which are robust, transparent, and resilient.
Establish financial management policy
Clear policy is required to guide financial decision making. Financial management policy should cover how funds are matched to specific projects, ensuring an available reserve of size proportional to overall budget that buffers temporary gaps in funding, contingency plans for minimizing expenditures if necessary, and other matters.
Deliver updated revenue strategy
To maintain and improve financial viability, the OSMF should grow its largest revenue source through corporate sponsorship and support, while strategically diversifying funding options to grants, public funds, individuals and other sources. The 2023 fundraising campaign has helped develop resources for future campaigns like key content assets, policies and operational guidelines, donor management infrastructure, and cultivation of new kinds of donors. Future campaigns may need professional support in order to meet revenue goals.
Responsible: Finance Committee / Fundraising Team
Fortify financial infrastructure
OSMF's financial management systems should be efficient, stable and simple to manage. There is a need for a comprehensive assessment of the current financial infrastructure, including ways to streamline currency-related inefficiencies.
Provide financial support to communities
Local chapters and communities are part of the lifeblood of the project, but do not have as established financial systems as the OSMF. For instance, organizing local State of the Map events represents a large financial administrative burden, and OSMF will support as a financial intermediary with conference sponsors (where OSMF already has registered in their procurement systems).