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Enough is enough: disinfecting OSM from poisonous people

OSM is mostly a consensus-based community, or a do-ocracy. It was never a benevolent dictatorship, and I have given up (as far as I know, anyway) all power I have in OSM. I used to write the code, own the domain names, run the mailing list(s), run the servers, evangelize, talk to the press and so on. I’ve successively and successfully given up those rights to very capable individuals. However this has led to a power vacuum when it comes to making some key decisions because nobody, for example and in a sense, is “in charge” of everything. For the most part I’ve enjoyed giving up control and seeing the project blossom, because it wouldn’t have if I hadn’t.

However, things break down in a consensus-based community if you don’t have a way to deal with malcontents.

As background to the topic of this post, there is a nice video on how open source projects can survive poisonous people on youtube here:


It’s about an hour long so I’ve provided a summary I made while watching it again at the bottom of this post. It’s thesis is that you need to understand the problem of poisonous people, fortify your project against them, identify who they are and ultimately remove them.

The talk above identifies people who are poisonous as those who appear with traits (amongst others) of obviousness that they will suck and drain your time, use silly nicknames/email addresses, are hostile, make demands and blackmail threats, make sweeping claims, refuse to acknowledge reasoned argument, make accusations of conspiracy and reopen topics continuously.

One quote from the talk in particular comes to mind: “it’s a technique that poisonous people can use to derail a consensus-based community from actually achieving consensus. You have this noisy minority make a lot of noise and people look and say ‘oh wow there is no agreement on this’ and if you look carefull the ‘no agreement’ comes from one person while seven or eight people actually agree”

With that in mind, take a quick look at the recent discussions on the main mailing list link. I won’t point to an individual thread or post, it’s easy enough to figure out:

Without discussing the individuals or the topics of the conversations, it is clear to me we are infected by poisonous people. This is bad because as the talk above specifies in the ‘comprehension of the problem’ section, such people distract, drain, paralyze, slow cause needless infighting and destroy the attention and focus of a community.

I know this first hand. Many (if not most or all) of the key people in OSM are feeling drained, distracted and upset. Some are talking of hiatus or resign. These are the key people who write code, build things, maintain things and run our working groups.

There is a tipping point between which our working groups and individuals have the time and patience to deal with poisonous people and the work they cherish doing, which are the things that make OSM work every day.

The discussions have spilled over now from poisonous people merely making life difficult on the mailing list, to paralyzing the project and even systematically corrupting the data we serve out using bots. This is not to say there are not good points in the discussion, good points being dealt with by the License Working Group or others either in meetings or on the mailing lists, but these are being buried by poisonous people on the mailing list and elsewhere. Personal communication from multiple people, public discussion, phone calls and more have been tried without effect.

This destroys consensus-baesd community.

So we are at a point now in OSM, I believe, where a few poisonous people are wrecking the time, focus and goodwill of the majority of contributors, creating dissent out of nothing and even purposefully breaking our data. And we don’t have a clear process to deal with all the factors. The Data Working Group is one piece of the puzzle, but is not responsible for curtailing the mailing list going in infinite circles.

Worse – it’s giving the project a bad air to outsiders, both newbies and those outside the project. It’s stopping people from becoming more involved.

Thus we need some kind of process for calling timeout on people in the project, blocking them for a limited time. This could range from electing individual mailing list admins with a remit of when to shut down discussions (much like an IRC chat admin(s)), to more clear and actioned policies on list etiquette (like forcibly keeping legal discussion to the legal list), to an ejection committee to me just appointing myself benevolent dictator and blocking people for a limited time out cooling off period based on advice from the community (a worst case option I’d like to avoid).

Let’s be clear – we’ve tried all the nice things. We’ve sent nice emails. We’ve sent nice emails privately. We’ve offered phone calls. We’ve offered every rational debate and community consensus tool we have. We just have poisonous people that either need to cool off or be forcibly blocked for a time.

We need to restore the balance of healthy debate over important issues, restore the time and focus of existing contributors and restore the positive view outsiders and newbies of the project are used to.

I’m posting this to three places on purpose with different audiences: opengeodata, osmf-talk@ and talk@. I will undoubtedly be flamed here for being authoritarian but at the end of the day someone has to do it, and begin this process. I’ve purposefully left out individual names, details and links to keep this discussion to the key thing – how and why should we block people. If you want those details, just reply to this post and someone will probably tell you publicly or privately.

What are your ideas? How should we block people? For how long? What process should it be? What are the best practices from other projects you’re involved in?

Summary of the poisonous people talk:

comprehension – understand the problem of poisonous people
– you need to protect the attention focus of community – limited amount of time
– poisonous people
– distract
– emotionally drain
– cause needless infighting
– slow you down
– either on purpose on by accident

fortification – protect project from poisonous people
– in a project you need politeness, respect, humility, trust
– have a mission, with examples
– have a scope, limit the mission
– do not let people reopen old discussions
– don’t reply to _every_ message in a thread, summarise
– poisnous people derail discussion:
“it’s a technique that poisonous people can use to derail a consensus-based
community from actually achieving consensus. You have this noisy minority
make a lot of noise and people look and say ‘oh wow there is no agreement
on this’ and if you look carefull the ‘no agreement’ comes from one person
while seven or eight people actually agree”
– document your projects history for future use to point people to
– have code collaboration guidelines
– email review, reasonably sized patches
– increase the bus factor so if someone drops out, others can take over
– have well defined processes for
– releasing software
– test / release cycles
– admitting new core people
– voting is a last resort in a healthy community
– everything else should be tried before a vote

identification – who are the poisonous people?
– it’s usually obvious who will suck and drain your time
– usually use silly nicknames
– use CAPITAL LETTERS, !!!?!?!one!!, WTFLOLOMG
– hostility, demands help, blackmail, rile people deliberately
– accusations of conspiracy
– conceit, refuse to acknowledge arguments
– sweeping claims, reopen topics continuously
– lack of cooperation

disinfection – removing the poisonous people
– assess the damage
– how are they affecting your attention and focus?
– are they distracting / paralysing the project?
– _dont_
– feed the troll
– give jerks a purpose/purchase
– get emotional (stick to the facts)
– _do_
– pay attention to newcomers, even if annoying
– look for the fact under the emotion
– extract real bug report / action
– know when to give up and ignore
– know when to boot from community


Image of the Week: Sinj Croatia tourist map


Jhabjan’s map of Sinj, Croatia, printed for tourism office. Aerial
images were donated by local aerial club.

This is a Featured image, which means that it has been identified as
one of the best examples of OpenStreetMap mapping, or that it provides
a useful illustration of the OpenStreetMap project.

If you know another image of similar quality, you can nominate it on

Project of the Week: Monsoon Flooding in Pakistan


Monsoon flooding continues in Pakistan following what has been called
the heaviest rains in 80 years. As many as 12 million people have
already been affected and over 1600 are known dead to date. The
availability of up to date aerial imagery has been hampered by the
continuous cloud cover. New flood warnings are announced often, and
the rains are continuing. Lists of dead and missing, additional
flooding, displacements and injury seem overwhelming. It is expected
that disease will become a very serious issue as access to clean water
is reduced.…,relief-efforts-summary.html9925

OpenStreetMap has some data in some of the affected areas. You might
help by donating money to an international relief agency. And you
might help by participating in mapping the flooded areas from aerial

Photo from The News,

Image of the Week: Urban trees in Szczecin Poland


Distribution of k:natural; v:tree nodes in Szczecin. Poland,
contributed by the city’s cadastre bureau.

This is a Featured image, which means that it has been identified as
one of the best examples of OpenStreetMap mapping, or that it provides
a useful illustration of the OpenStreetMap project.

If you know another image of similar quality, you can nominate it on

What is the motto of self-described “Map Dorks”?

Terry Stigers was inspired
by Steve’s post the other day. He responded with an interesting article
which includes what should become the motto of every Map Dork. I
won’t steal Terry’s thunder and have quoted the article in part here:

Anyway, I got to thinking about a discussion I had with a
fellow Map Dork on Twitter a short while ago, about data and GIS.
About how the majority of the GIS community spends the bulk of its
time thinking about what to do with data, and not enough time thinking
about the quality of the data itself.

It’s like this – whenever I make a map, there are two primary
components involved in the process. The first is the software that
produces said map. [ … ]

The second component of any map I make is the data with which I make
the map.

The details matter, so you should go and read the rest of Terry’s article now.

Project of the Week: Out on a Limb – Adding trees to OpenStreetMap

They create oxygen in our cities and provide welcome shade from the
sun or temporary respite from a summer shower. There are trees urban
areas and sometimes they should be put on the map. How do you place a
noble Oak on OpenStreetMap? You follow the link to Project of the

More details and tagging suggestions for this Project of the Week:

This is your Project of the Week. Make suggestions. Inspire other mappers.

Tree photo by fr4dd
Licensed ccby

The false dichotomy: OSM as open or closed

I want to nip something in the bud before it gets too sexy to repeat by the geo-intelligensia who’re being herded in to place by the jetset geospeaking crew.

Here’s the basic argument: “openstreetmap is closed because the ordnance survey released data under a ‘more open’ license.” there are a bunch of obvious ways of rephrasing it.

It sounds simple, it’s a nice meme that will take hold with an audience. It’s one of those “Oh wow! A deep and logical point I haven’t thought of before” kind of mind bombs you get in a Malcolm Gladwell book. You can grin and snicker with your friends at the pub: Those silly OSMers! They aren’t even open. They’ve been leapfrogged by good old central government planning! If only they were _truely_ open, then we could all use the data!

Let’s strip this apart.

First, it’s a false dichotomy. That means they’re reducing OSM to one of two states namely ‘open’ and ‘closed’ when in fact there is a spectrum in between. There are many, many open source licenses which fan out between non-commercial with some sharing rights, right through to the public domain which allows you to do virtually anything you like. Using extremely loaded terms like ‘open’ and ‘closed’ is a false dichotomy. It’s a neat hand wavy argument designed to make the speaker look intelligent when comparing, actually, apples and oranges which we’ll get on to in a second. Everyone has a happy place on the license spectrum and this isn’t a point about where you the reader lay on that line, but a point about framing the argument in to two unrelated positions to make it look simple when it isn’t. And then be witty by positioning OSM on the closed end. Which it’s not.

Next let’s look at the type of data we’re comparing. This gives them some wiggle room to say “oh we didn’t mean the OS data but this other improbable dataset over there”. But let’s stick with the wonderful Ordnance Survey data release. You can’t easily compare the OS data release and OSM data for multiple reasons.

One is that OSM is a moving target. The OSM data is improving continually from the work of a large and diverse community behind it. The OS data is not. It is improving, granted based on a lot of employee surveyors, but there’s no guarantee (correct me if I’m wrong) that you will still have open OS data up to date in 2015. OSM has that guarantee. It’s in the license. We can’t fork OSM in to a proprietary stack. You (if you’re the OS) can fork the OS data, and of course they very reasonably do. They have a copy they can license to whoever they like under whatever terms, and also the open copy. Those aren’t guaranteed to be the same thing in perpetuity. The free version might start to lag the proprietary one. The free one might cease to be released. You have no idea, and no control over that. With OSM you have every control and every assurance that it will always be open.

Here’s some more simple kickbacks – OSM is global not just in the UK. OSM maps more types of things than the OS maps. OSM has a community around it of tools and software and mappers. Stop and think for a second – would you get all of those things under a ‘more open’ license? The answer is not very clear and I suspect the answer is no, but everyone has an opinion on that.

So the datasets are different. You can’t compare apples with oranges, the GDP of a country with the market cap of a company, or a free and open global community continually improving data with a point release of a single dataset in one nation.

Now dear reader, allow me to make my own cheap shot. The very people dancing around with this argument tend to work for large companies…. with large proprietary datasets. Perhaps Google could release the MapMaker data? Or perhaps Nokia could release their NavTeq data? Ghandi wanted us to become the change we wanted to see in the world. That means beginning at home. Surely we should be hearing more from the valiant geovisionaries during their globetrotting speaking tours (speaking as a globetrotting speaker) about their fine efforts at home to release large chunks of data? Say under an ‘open’ license like the OS did? Sadly I find silence on this issue, but it’s not a surprise. Oh and putting on your blogs and talks that everything is your personal opinion doesn’t make all these arguments disappear guys.

Richard Stallman has many failings as we all do, but one thing he repeats resonates with me on OSM – don’t give up the long term vision for some short-term gains. To me that means not moving to public domain because one company might donate some data to us, or staying with another license because another will. There are other, valid, arguments for those moves but a short term gain is not. These are admittedly very attractive offers. Imagine if we moved to license X and Google gave us a lot of aerial imagery, or license Y and Nokia delivered us to the promised land.

But wait a minute, if they believed in those things then surely they’d gift them to us anyway? That’s rarely the case. And I applaud those who do, like Yahoo and AND for example.

What you’re seeing is that OSM is somewhere like one third or one half way toward real maturity. Time is very skewed. In some ways the 6 years we’ve existed looks like a very long time to those involved. If only we could get things quicker by changing the fundamental structure of OSM so that they would, perhaps, grant us some data (for that is often the offer)? On the other hand, 6 years compared to the timespan the OS took to map the UK, or any company or agency took to map a dataset as large as OSM… is tiny. We’re talking 6% of the time in some cases. Yes, it can take 100 years to map. Many datasets are built quicker, but very very few on the order of 6 years. Globally. For free. Then released for free.

As we’re in this midpoint somewhere and the pillars of proprietary data begin to collapse around us you see panic. You see people propping them up with beams. You see new temples built of wood made to look like stone. You see a general shoring up of an obsolete structure and in the general thrashing around you see a lot of people looking for someone to blame while they hold on until a secure future arrives.

And who shall we blame and poke? Google? Inscrutable. Nokia? They make phones.

No, OpenStreetMap will be kicked and get the blame. We’re the easiest target, with the most to lose. As far as I can see the cheap ‘OSM isn’t open’ arguments are just a way to deflect attention from the pillars falling: Think not of us releasing our vast datasets, think instead of OSM not being open. Think not of us contributing, think instead of changing OSM and allowing us to use it as we see fit – perhaps then we will contribute. Think of us as not evil, think of OSM as splintered, hemorrhaging and not as united as us.

If you have some of that OSM vision then you should be thinking about where OSM will be in another 6 years, not what we have to give up to appease those who’d love our data without attribution or reciprocal rights. It will be okay. Relax. In a few years it will look silly that anyone ever thought we should give up our values for some quick data injections.

OpenStreetMap has a challenge rebutting all these arguments. It’s tiring. We’re nice people. We have better things to do. We speak with many voices, each with a different view on key things like licensing, whereas those guys have voices almost in choral harmony. But don’t mistake that quiet for some kind of general acceptance. We haven’t been sleeping while you suddenly decided OSM was ‘closed’.

So, dear reader, the next time you see a talk or blog post where OSM is darkly described as ‘closed’ feel the strength to ask if the speaker works for a company with a vast proprietary dataset and if they’d like to discuss opening it, or perhaps if they have any experience whatsoever in open projects, licensing or building communities. If they mutter about their legal team not being comfortable with OSMs license, you can invite them to look at all the other ginormous companies using OSM who are perfectly comfortable.

Oh, and say hi from me!

Image of the Week: Graian Alps Mapping Party


OpenStreetMap contributor Lucadelu sends us this image
of the participants in the Graian Alps Mapping Party. Higher
resolutions available here

This is a Featured image, which means that it has been identified as
one of the best examples of OpenStreetMap mapping, or that it provides
a useful illustration of the OpenStreetMap project.

If you know another image of similar quality, you can nominate it on

Project of the Week: 25 July 2010 – “Be artistic – Create icons”

Be artistic! Create icons for map features that aren’t rendered already.

We all enjoy seeing our tagging work appear on the map. Different
renderers and different styles show different icons so some icons only
appear on specialty maps. But what if you want to create your own
specialty map, and the icon you want is not available? The Project of
the Week is to exercise your artistic talents. Create additional icons
in the theme of a the OSM icon sets.

More details and tagging suggestions for this Project of the Week:

This Project of the Week was presented by OSM user !i!. Matthias has
been mapping Rostock, Germany since 2008.!i!

This is your Project of the Week. Make suggestions, like Matthias did
when he provided us with this PotW.

Paintbrush photo by -mrsraggle-
is licensed CC-ND