[OSGeo-Discuss] OSGeo is becoming irrelevant. Here's why. Let's fix it.

Darrell Fuhriman darrell at garnix.org
Fri Sep 25 12:57:51 PDT 2015

The recent discussion on the board list <https://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/board/2015-September/013172.html> that came out of the question of the 2014 videos has got me thinking about a few things again, and I want to try to get them out there.

Grab a mug of your favorite liquid and hunker down, because I put some time and effort into this, and your own well considered reply is appreciated.

Keep in mind that all of these comments are coming from my personal perspective, which, like everyone’s, is an incomplete picture of the whole. Much of what I’m going to say has been rolling around my head for a while, so I’m just going to put it out there.

I will start with a provocative thesis:

OSGeo lacks visionary unified leadership and without it will become irrelevant.

Of course, making such a claim requires support. So let me break down the statement. 

“Visionary leadership” is really two things, “vision” and “leadership.” I will address each in turn.

OSGeo lacks vision

I looked at the list of “Goals” for OSGeo <http://www.osgeo.org/content/foundation/about.html>. I wonder: when was the last time these goals were evaluated for both success and relevancy?

Here is my own opinion of success of some of  these goals. (In the interest of brevity, I haven’t tried to tackle everything. That’s left as an exercise to the reader.)

Example 1

To provide resources for foundation projects - eg. infrastructure, funding, legal.

Allow me to break each of those examples down.

It’s true that OSGeo provides some infrastructure, such as Trac instance, Mailman, SVN repos. If the budget is to be believed, we pay some $3,500/yr to OSUOSL for said infrastructure. I wonder if such a service is necessary, however. Issue tracking and source control are much better provided by Github, which is free for organization such as ours.
I say this because a) that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere and b) supporting these services burns precious volunteer time (more on that below).
There are clear cost savings available, which are not taken advantage of. For example, OSGeo could be hosting FOSS4G infrastructure: conference websites and registration, a central location for conference videos (regardless of platform/provider). This neglect is especially galling given that FOSS4G is OSGeo’s sole source of income.


OSGeo does not fund projects. It has provided some funds to pay for Code Sprints — $15k in 2014 according to the budget <http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/OSGeo_Budget_2014>.


I see nothing that has been done on this front recently. Please feel free to correct me.


OSGeo, where it actually does what it claims, has not adapted in ways that could save money.

 My grade: D

Example 2

To promote freely available geodata - free software is useless without data.

The geodata working group is dead. As near as I can tell by perusing the mailing list archives, and the wiki, there has been no meaningful activity in the past two years (maybe more).

My grade: F

Example 3

To promote the use of open source software in the geospatial industry (not just foundation software) - eg. PR, training, outreach.

The Board of Directors <http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/Board_of_Directors#Packaging_and_Marketing> page says:
Packaging and Marketing

OSGeo’s marketing effort has primarily been focused around the packaging and documentation efforts of OSGeo-Live, and to a lesser extend[sic], osgeo4w. […] It has been entirely driven by volunteer labour, with 140 OSGeo-Live volunteers, and printing costs have been covered by local events or sponsors. In the last couple of years, OSGeo has covered local chapter expenses required to purchase non-consumable items for conference booths (such as a retractable banner). In moving forward, OSGeo hope to extend marketing reach by providing co-contributions toward printing costs of consumable items at conferences, such as toward OSGeo-Live DVDs.

Local Chapters

Much of OSGeo’s marketing initiates are applied at the local level. In many cases, this is best supported through as little as an email list and wiki page. OSGeo also supports local chapters by offering to pay for an Exhibition starter pack for local chapters. Local chapters are also usually the coordinators of conferences and related events, as mentioned above.

Exhibition starter packs almost never happen; OSGeo-Live explicitly gets no support; and OSGeo struggles to staff a booth at its own conference to say nothing of any other conferences.

Note: Local chapters certainly do do marketing and outreach, but these efforts are essentially unsupported by the OSGeo Foundation. In fact, this goal and the Board of Directors webpage seem to be explicitly contradictory. 

My grade: F.


I could go on with my own personal evaluations, but I’m not sure that’s necessary. The only place I see that OSGeo has unquestionably succeeded in the past few years is the final goal, “To award the Sol Katz award for service to the OSGeo community”.

So, what’s my point here? It’s simple: there is no longer a coherent vision for what OSGeo should be. I’ll return to that below, but let me continue with my other point.

OSGeo lacks leadership

Again quoting the Board of Directors’ page:

The board’s primary responsibility is to efficiently and effectively make strategic decisions related to the running of OSGeo.

I won’t bore you with the details, but a perusal of the board meeting minutes would indicate that strategy is rarely, if ever, a part of the meetings.

The emphasis on consensus-based decision making often leads to no decisions being made. I can’t count the number of discussions that have come up on the board list only to devolve into a morass of nit-picking and eventual lack of action when everyone tires of the discussion. What action that is taken is often to “delegate” to a (possibly inactive) sub-committee, then never follow up.

Instead what we have is a great deal of inertia, little interest in changing things, and no clear indication of what the Board’s priorities are.

If priorities do exist, they’re lost in a maze of confusing, incomplete and often contradictory information on the wiki. (Wikis — like abandonware for documentation.)

On pending irrelevancy

I encourage you to ask some random people in the open source geospatial community what OSGeo means to them. I would make a bet that the most common answer is a blank stare.

I would ask the board members to come up with three things, other than FOSS4G, where the OSGeo membership has shown its importance to the community as a whole in the last two years. Something where people say, “Did you hear about [exciting thing] OSGeo is doing on X?” To be clear, I don’t mean just things that OSGeo has a finger in, but things that need OSGeo. If OSGeo disappeared tomorrow, would any of these projects be significantly affected?

I don’t think it can be done. The OSGeo Foundation is sliding into irrelevancy — and it may already be there.

If anything should be seen as strategic for OSGeo, it’s FOSS4G, the foundation’s primary (sole?) source of income. Even regarding its flagship public event, the board is largely absent. Rather than provide adequate resources and planning, they instead rely on burning out volunteers, then make post-hoc demands on the way they should have done it, provide no future support for organizers to heed those demands, rarely follow up, then go on to repeat the same mistakes the following year.  Honestly, it’s surprising that FOSS4G has failed only once. (I think this is a reflection of the demand for the conference, not the blazing competence of OSGeo.)

Michael Gerlek brought this up <https://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/discuss/2015-July/014521.html> on the osgeo-discuss list in July, and probably has a more generous spin on it. He essentially argues that it’s time to declare mission accomplished and shut down or rebooted. I agree with his points, and I’m arguing that OSGeo can have something to offer, but it will require a major re-think of its mission.

Fixing things

I hinted at this in my recent questions to the board candidates, but I want to be explicit here: OSGeo needs to evolve or die.

Here’s how I would do it:

The board needs to evaluate all of its goals, as defined on the About page, to decide if they are still truly goals. Define any new goals.

Ask the question: “What does it mean to succeed at this goal?” 

If the goal is vague, or ongoing, give a timeline: “What does success look like for this goal one year from now?”

Create measureable objectives for achieving those goals. Ask the question, “How will we know if we’ve succeeded?”

Prioritize the goals.

Allocate resources to the goals. 

Obviously this is a tricky one, but I think we can look at this a balance between Importance and Effort.

Spend money to reduce to the effort required, more money if the goal is more important — this might be the hardest cultural shift. Volunteer time is precious and easily discouraged. Make sure that you make it as efficient as possible by spending money when you can.

For example, many of the infrastructure services OSGeo provides can be easily outsourced to more featureful services that are more responsive and rely less on volunteer labor.

Close the loop on tasks. When a task is delegated to a committee or individual, track its progress, both to know that it is or isn’t happening, and to be able to acknowledge and incorporate the work when it’s done. Failing to acknowledge people’s labor or to use the results of that labor will virtually guarantee that the volunteer does not continue to help.

Evaluate success and failure.  GOTO 1.

Aside: none if this will happen without a strong executive. Whether that position is paid or not is up to the board, but it’s clear that there needs to be someone who can make decisions without endless rounds of fruitless discussions. The board as currently constituted is not dysfunctional, but it is mostly afunctional. 

I’m will go so far as to suggest this: Fly every board member who is available to a two or three day retreat. Get everyone in the same room, a professional facilitator to speed the process, then figure out what OSGeo is going to be and how to get there. Don’t fret excessively about the expense — this isn’t about saving money, it’s about saving OSGeo.

If you ask me, irrelevancy is a fate worse than death. Be bold! It’s better to try to do something big and new then fail than to simply fade away and be forgotten.

Though my comments above may sound harsh, they are sent with the very best of intentions. I want OSGeo to succeed, but OSGeo is never going to succeed if it doesn’t know what it’s try to succeed at. Without real reform, I don’t see success happening, just irrelevance. Here’s hoping this gets the ball rolling.


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