Foundation of Participation Part 2: the social concerns

The biggest challenge that I see for the ‘social’ part of the architecture of participation that the foundation could encounter is to fall in to a top down structure. We are actually at one of the most sensitive points at the moment, when new ‘members’ are being elected, which will necessarily involve some of the nominees not becoming ‘members’. These in turn will elect the board, and it starts to look like a very traditional organization, with the power residing at the top, voting rounds take place to just put the structure in to place.

The notion of ‘friend of the foundation’, has also been raised, where people could donate $20 to show their support. This starts to look like a very traditional foundation/non-profit organization, like Sierra Club or NPR, where the people who work there do the work, others cheerlead, and others pay some money and get a mug. If OSGeo is to fall in to such a mode of existence, indeed to have an executive director that goes about raising money, in all the ways normal foundations do, it has the danger of losing the potential of being a place where people can do interesting things.

Thankfully all current members and the board understand this danger, but it’s still easy to fall in to such ways of thinking, as there are many clear examples. But we should clearly think through how we can do the traditional things that may bring a bit of money in while not sacrificing the participatory elements. Most of these concerns line up the one of the aspects I believe essential to creating successful architectures of particpation: treat your users as co-developers. In a traditional non-profit, the ‘members’ just contribute money, they don’t actually have a real say in how the organizaiton is run.

What we want to see out of the foundation is that someone who has a great idea (be it an open geodata campaign, a great argument for open source geospatial software, an innovative way to market, a course for teaching os gis, ect.) can find a group of supportive people, and a structure that can bootstrap them to bring the idea to reality. This is what sourceforge does for new open source projects, we want to enable that for new ideas that help grow and promote open source geospatial software.

The first big point is how we refer to those who haven’t been elected ‘members’, but who are obviously doing work that supports the foundations goals. Frank made a great attempt with calling them ‘trustees’, and everyone else would be members, but unfortunately we learned that trustee is a special word in a legal sense for a non-profit corporation that isn’t quite compatible with what we want. A good example of trying to do something new and being stymied by the already existing trends. The latest idea is to call those who are elected ‘voting members’, and everyone else is a ‘member’.

Once that is established we must be very clear that being a ‘member’ is the important thing, and make that bar relatively low, perhaps just registering at the site, perhaps register and fill out a little bit about yourself. Every member must then be rewarded with responsibility when they put in more work. They must have the power to form and lead their own committees, there should be practically no difference between a voting member and a member except that they vote for board members each year. Indeed one of the first things we should perhaps seek to do after the member election is to have the chair of one of the new committees be a non-voting member, to show that it’s just about the work and dedication put in, and that over time the recognition by peers that becoming a voting member implies will certainly come. This is key in treating our ‘users’ as our ‘co-developers’. Anyone who checks out the foundation and signs up for an email list, agrees with the principles, should be encouraged to join in building things further. It is through that energy that we will snowball in to something bigger.

The other key social area is the board. In time I feel the board should seek to obsolete itself. Of course it will always exist for the legal entity of the non-profit, but the ideal to me seems to be that the board just ushers along the community, that the power resides in the people actually doing things. A board position should ideally just reflect the work one is already doing, those who put lots of good time in to advancing the foundation goals should sit on the board, and ideally they should not have to do much more. Ideally I see the board serving as a Project Steering Committee for the whole. And a PSC that just sets the tone and arbitrates on issues that bubble all the way up, but for the most part decisions should be made by the sub-PSCs. The key to this, I think, is that the committees that we are talking about: the web, incubation, curriculum, open geodata, ect. should eventually be turned into PSC’s of the same value as the software projects. Initially they will likely stay close to the board, report more and have more board involvement (or perhaps more effectively just have at least one board member sit on each of them, which may just start that way naturally, Markus on open geo data, Arnulf on promotion, me on incubation, Frank on web comm, ect.). But over time I’d like to see them become their own entities, and each set up the architecture of participation that is appropriate for how the actual members work. Each open source project is different, based on the tasks and the people involved. Indeed I could almost see multiple open geo data committees, one that buys full in to the wikipedia, one map to rule them all, approach that Open Street Map falls in to, and another that presents a more decentralized geoweb community based vision, supporting different work flows for different people (more about this in a future post).

Of course, for now it is important that the board has a good bit of power to get the infrastructure up and running. And more importantly, to set the tone, to establish the ‘OSGeo way’, just like the Apache Way. Apache started from a single project, so it was easier to identify the common values. We’re starting from a number of diverse projects, and the danger in going straight in to a ‘foundation of participation’ is that it will just be a rabble, that doesn’t orient itself in any direction. People could be working on projects that end up working against one another, everyone could try to just pull it in the direction of their pet motive. There is a danger in the software projects that join the foundation as well, making sure that they have commonalities, that the developers behind them have compatible philosophies. But I think we’re going about it the right way, by basically going backwards, defining who we are first, by a fairly imperfect process, and from there figuring out what values we do have in common. The board should make firm decisions, and set a clear path, and hopefully after that is done start to obsolete itself. I imagine this process will take a couple years, and hopefully the boards are willing to give up the power, to see themselves as stewards towards something greater than themselves.

One thought on “Foundation of Participation Part 2: the social concerns

  1. Pingback: Mapping Hacks » Blog Archive » on Being in a Foundation

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