Archive for June, 2010

Freedom and Restrictions in Open Data

Very interesting situation developed last month within the Russian community of OpenStreetMap. It is illegal to map the location of military facilities in Russia. In fact, a permit is required to do any mapping. The Russian community started a vote (well, in practice and discussion, a non-binding poll) on whether military installations should be removed from the Russian map, to protect the safety of the local community.

Response from the international community was that any mapper has the choice to map whatever they like, especially if it physically exists. Deleting someone else’s data would be against core principals of OSM, of open data.

As Frederik states, this puts us in an ideological paradox

With Russia we now seem to have a case where it is possible that a
majority of the local community decides to work differently from the
principles that we have grown to cherish, namely letting everyone map
what the hell they want. We now have people who not only want to keep
certain things out of the map, but even delete these objects where they
have been mapped by others. It is even possible that they form an OSMF
chapter supporting these actions.

If this happens, then we have a clash of two principles. Either we say
that the principle of subsidiarity overrides the “freedom to tag”,
allowing the Russians to restrict that freedom in their area because it
is, after all, their area; or we say that the “freedom to tag” is the
overriding principle and we will not tolerate any local community to
tell us outsiders how they would like to be mapped.

This could have repercussions for mapping in many restrictive authoritarian regimes. It’s my position that for the vast majority of cases, open data is better and the default, and in fact, makes us more secure and informed. This was one critique of our mapping in Gaza, that showing details of Gaza would make Gazans more vulnerable. Fortunately, Gazans also agree that information is all about changing perception.

In general, I view these edge cases as a question of power. Hiding information protects those already in power, but not those that are already marginalized. Legitimate cases to me is only information that puts dis-empowered people at risk, such as refugee routes along the Burmese-Indian border. But does this mean I would remove those tracks if someone added to OpenStreetMap? This and other questions remain to be answered.

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