Men and maps – and women

Many of us have seen those hilarious maps showing us “The world according to americans”, “The world according to Hungary” etc… You can even buy the maps at sites like Alphadesigner or Zazzle. Great fun and a friendly reminder about bias – in maps and life in general.

Who we are, what we do and what we know are determinants for our perception of the world. If we are asked to draw maps based on this knowledge we end up with biased maps. In one of my first geography classes the professor asked us to draw maps of where we would walk through town from the students fraternity house and to a particular spot on a late evening. It turned out the women chose different paths than the men. -Why are so few of the girls choosing the backroads and alleys, the professor asked rhetorically.

Today I incidentally ended up on the OpenStreetMap foundation webpage about its officers & board. Well qualified persons, no doubt intelligent, knowledgeable, resourceful and with excellent networking skills. But why are they all men? Of the +50 members of different working groups I ended up finding four women (correct me if I am wrong)! My next thought was – does this represent some kind of bias for the processes prioritized for OpenStreetMap. I think it might. Not by intention or because of power-play. Good engineers and creative spirits found together and created something amazing. We now have to make sure it shines equally bright for all of us.

Wikipedia, on the other hand, has both women and men in their Board of Trustees and their Advisory board. They had women entering their boards at a very early stage. All in all their organization is a much more professional one.

Does it matter who sits in a board? Or even in a working group? Having been a member of the board of directors for one of the bigger NGOs in Norway I know it matters. It matters if you are a man, and it matters if you are a woman. Your background as a man or a woman might influence your opinions. Gender is a bias. Since OpenStreetMap is for both women and men it matters that such differences are represented in a board. If you are making maps it also matters.

This posting is not so much about providing the answers. But the question is important for many. Being both a contributed and user of different OpenStreetMap products it is important to me that the bias in these products is controlled and of not out in the open. On a good day bias shows you something you could not possibly see without. On a bad day bias distorts reality and leaves you with a poor understanding of the realities of life.

If it wasn’t for the fact that I am a man, I guess this could be a good campaign speech. So I will do the next best thing – I will become a paid member of the OpenStreetMap foundation. At the next election I will vote for any qualified woman running for election.

4 thoughts on “Men and maps – and women

  1. Kate Chapman

    I too am concerned about the lack of women involved in OpenStreetMap. I did a proposal to the Shuttleworth Foundation to look at the gender and geographic discrepancies within the project.

    Personally I think one of the issues is though OpenStreetMap aims to be a free map of the entire world it is a highly technical community right now. That isn’t to say there aren’t technical women in the world, but the percentage is pretty low when compared to men. Not all attitudes are always friendly either. I’d love to seem more people working to change the gender discrepancy though.

    1. ragnvald Post author

      I read your application – and saw the video. Both of them makes me think that your project should be funded! If not by the Shuttleworth foundation, then surely by someone.

      I am thinking this because the issues you raise in full width in your application, which I just happened to stumble upon on Saturday, need further work. They need further work within OpenStreetMap, and they need further work in governmental mapping projects as well.

      Good luck with your application! I will keep my fingers crossed!

  2. Mikel Maron

    Agree with Kate … this is a (admittedly poor) reflection of OSM’s origination and continued strength in open source programming communities, which tend to be male dominated. And the Foundation reflects the project as a whole … possibly even reflecting the origins even more, since it tends to be the more long standing members who get involved in the Foundation. In places where there’s been a considered effort to reach out to new places and practices … say with Kate’s work in Indonesia, or my own in Kibera, the gender balance is more equal.

    The practice of OSM is distinct from and wider ranging than technical communities, and with deliberate effort, this gender imbalance can change. And the Foundation itself recognizes that it could make more effort to include new faces with its work, and it’s more challenging to volunteer for Foundation projects than it is to simply map. I’d suggest that rather than simply voting for whichever women run, we figure out ways to include more women and new people in the work of the Foundation generally.

    1. ragnvald Post author

      I hate to say it, but after joining the OSM foundation on Saturday I probably tipped the balance on the gender scale even more to the male side 😉


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