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Why you should donate to the OpenStreetMap Foundation

January 16, 2022

A lot has already been said about the Wikimedia Foundation's fairly blatant misuse of funds. Despite having annual revenue exceeding that of some small island nations' entire annual economic output, they continue to run ASPCA-esque banners, I'm sure some of which are viewed by users in those island nations. Three times as much money is spent on fundraising than webhosting, which represents a mere 3% (rounded up) of expenses. I realize that the bulk of the money they raise is spent on "programmatic expenses", but I'm very skeptical of the value those programs produce. In the past decade, I have seen three substantive changes across the Wikimedia Foundation's Projects: None of those are worth the $80 million they spent in 2021, much less whatever staggeringly higher amount they must have spent over the past decade. Instead, let's look at an thematically similar organization that hits far above its class: the OpenStreetMap Foundation.

OpenStreetMap was founded in 2004 for the purpose of having a very wiki-like collaborative platform for sharing geographics data as an alternative to the copyright-laden alternatives at the time. It quickly grew in Europe, and the OpenStreetMap Foundation was founded two years later in order to better organize efforts. Today, OSM and projects based on its dataset is the only feasible alternative to the increasingly extractive Google Maps. Indeed, OSM actually has superior data much of the time.

You might be wondering how much it costs to maintain a project that underlies a fairly huge chunk of online maps. The answer can be found in the OSMF's most recent annual P&L report: That's it. For less than the cost of a single entry-level Google software engineer, the world has access to high-quality, free-as-in-beer-and-speech maps. How? Let me break down their expenses for you, from high to low: The numbers speak for themselves honestly. The OSMF has been very studious with its funds, effectively having a single part-time employee, various necessary expenses, and practically all the rest of the money going towards actually hosting the project. And unlike Wikipedia, which has terminally declining contributions, OSM contributions continue to grow with a thriving, entirely volunteer-driven developer community. Maybe the WMF could learn some lessons from its little sister, no?

Now, you may be wondering, "but Josh, if OSM is doing fine with its current funding, why does it need more?" And there is a very good answer to that: the OSMF Operations Working Group. I'll save you the time and just tell you: the biggest drawback to using OSM in 2022 is that the tile server and related APIs used to actually access the map by most people isn't great. Although various vendors have graciously donated server space to help host it (and this has increased performance dramatically over the past year), relying on the continued benevolence of for-profit third-parties will obviously be a permanently tenuous partnership, not to mention that virtually all of them (including all three major providers) are located in western Europe.

In summary, the OpenStreetMap Foundation has a history of spending the money it receives quite well, and has detailed plans for worthy future expenditures. Information on how to donate can be found here. You can also become a member of the foundation (which includes voting rights under U.K. law) here for £15 (approx. $21) per year.