[OSM-talk] About OSM social implications and what can/should be displayed on the map (or not)

Carlos Cámara carlos.camara at gmail.com
Fri Jun 29 15:27:09 UTC 2018

Dear all,

After participating in this openstreetmap-carto issue
discussing to create an icon for casinos in which I stated that they should
not be highlighted with an icon due to their grave consequences derived
from gambling addiction (there are plenty of scientific literature about
it), I was pointed out that OSM does not take "any ethical stance and
display the world as it is."

It is for that reason that I want to raise that particular topic to OSM
Is that true? and if so, should it be that way?

Long story short: although I am aware that it is a sensible and polemic
issue, I think that such position does not make much sense in a project
like OSM as I believe that OSM has a great social responsibility and
opportunity as well. It is for that reason that we could be much more aware
and sensitive to those matters and act accordingly.

My reasons for such statement are the following ones:

First: Any map is also a political act in terms that the mappers decide
which information is displayed and which one is not, but also in the way we
represent countries in terms of size and position (spoiler alert: countries
are not like we represent them on the maps, and definitely are far
different from the common web-mercator projection -more about that on this
Wikipedia article <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map_projection> or, if
even in this chapter of West Wing TV series
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVX-PrBRtTY>). This is to say that it is
impossible to represent reality as it is due to the fact that it is
impossible to project the Earth onto a flat surface without
errors/distortions.  OSM is no exception to that and, as such, it has a
cultural and techno-political perspective/bias even if we are not aware of
that. We should not forget about that (and leads us to the following point).

Second: The very foundations of OSM as a project are techno-political in
terms that it was created to overcome the lack of certain geographical
information about certain areas or topics. This is even more obvious in
HOSM or the not-at-all-accidental use of open licenses from its very

Third: by creating the map the way we love, we are also creating the world
as we would love to live in. Since most of OSM contributors decide to share
their free time with other mappers around the world in making the best
possible map, we could infer (yes, I acknowledge certain bias here which
would require much more research) that we would love to live in a world
where sharing was considered as a positive value and change-driver for a
better world which also promoted other positive values such as openness to
information, collaboration, inclusiveness, communication and discussion
(which, surprise, are OSM's pillars). Following that reasoning, I believe
that OSM should set the grounds for a world aligned with their values by
acting accordingly. It is doing so anyway, so why not to take some time to
reflect on that instead of avoiding discussion based on the illusion that
we are not taking part in this?

Fourth: OSM has a complexity that makes it difficult for newcomers to
wholly understand it (let alone to get involved). Part of these
difficulties lie in the fact that OSM is, in fact, a complex ecosystem
formed by a spatial database, a community, a map (or better, a series of
maps), 3rd party apps... that cannot be appreciated at first sight, since
many newcomers' first contact with OSM is the openstreetmap.org which, in
fact, is even more complex than that as it is in turn based in several
components such as nominatim, javascript libraries or renders such as
carto, transport, HOSM...  What most of these people see there (and what
they are likely looking for) is a map "similar to Google maps" yet
different. This is to say that openstreetmap-carto is OSM's business card,
which should serve as an entry point to the project to people from many
conditions and hence, we have a responsibility in deciding what do we
display and how we do it (I'm sure we are all more or less aware of that
and there are great efforts and success in making it a great default
renderer -I honestly love how fast it has improved in recent time).

Unfortunately, even if someone completely agreed with all those points, I
have to acknowledge that there is not a single and non-controversial
position that can be taken from them. Even if we agreed with the fact that
we have a social responsibility, several questions arise: Which are those
polemic features that we are talking about? and, what should we do with

Let's start with the latter:

IMHO there are several options for dealing with polemic features, like the
following ones:

   1. Not display them at all on openstreetmap-carto (and possibly,
   creating a specific renderer for that purpose)
   2. Display them on openstreetmap-carto, but discretely, without
   highlighting them (eg: by only displaying its name, without an icon or with
   a generic one)
   3. Keep openstreetmap-carto as it is and as it is currently evolving and
   simply add a new "sensitive renderer" without that sensitive information
   and possibly highlighting other ones (I know that this is not a good name
   as it has ethical connotations/judgements, but I can't think of a better
   name and I think it serves to clearly explain what I wanted to say). We
   could discuss whether it is to be used as a default renderer or not.
   4. ...
   5. Please note that I am not arguing for their removal from the
   database, as I acknowledge that those features can be useful even for
   detractors (eg: downloading that data with overpass to make a study
   comparing them with other sources of information)

But again, where are the limits of those polemic features? how we define
what should be included and what not?

   1. Considering a feature as hazardous activities may not seem good
   criteria since there are many activities with negative consequences for the
   humans that are mapped and currently displayed like tobacco shops, alcohol
   shops, whereas others (like casinos or gambling) are not displayed with the
   same importance.
   2. Legally accepted activities are also controversial, because some
   features may be legal in one country whereas forbidden in many others (eg:
   coffee shops, brothels, guns' shops, alcohol...)
   3. Considering something as of "public interest" is also problematic:
   Even socially accepted features for some groups may be reprovable for
   others (such as butchers, shops that sell meat or bullfighting rings to
   name a few).

In order to overcome those matters (and if I am not wrong), so far the
position on this regards is to render everything on openstreetmap-carto
provided the following conditions: A) there is a significant number of uses
(don't know how much is "significant"), B) someone creates an issue
requesting for it, C) someone designs an icon or a representation for it,
D) someone implements it by creating a Pull request that is merged into
openstreetmap-carto project.

It seems a sensible approach as it tries to be both as objective as
possible and pragmatic but is not free from polemics: behind the appearance
of not taking part on the political debate, the truth is that the resulting
map has a strong Eurocentric and heteropatriarchal perspective which may
not take into account diversity either in the world nor in OSM's community
(which does not have to do with figures about representativity). Or in
other words, it is like European white heterosexual males were doing a kind
of digital colonization of the world by imposing their rules simply because
other groups are not participating in the decision-making process and hence
their needs/opinions have not been taken into account.

Unfortunately, again I don't have solutions for that, and that's why I
wanted to raise the debate on what I consider to be an important matter for
OSM's project and an opportunity to make it even better.

Willing to read your points of view on that matter.

Carlos Cámara
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