Commons and Digital Commoning

Recently, an extensive academic and activist debate has developed around the notion of the commons and, specifically, digital commons. This debate follows from much older, much more extensive work on the conceptual and practical consideration of commons as an alternative form of goods and social organization beyond the market and state (e.g., Linebaugh 2008; Ostrom 1990). Research in this field has explored how decision-making and provision structures in commons are organized. Commons are understood not just as open and free goods but as forms of regulation of the reproduction of goods through egalitarian and participatory means (Bollier and Helfrich 2012; Ostrom 1990). This governing of commons is always unstable and challenged by forms of containment. To more strongly emphasize the practical and political aspects of the commons, Linebaugh suggested that the term be used as a verb: commoning (2008: 279).

The advent of digital information and communication technology has led to new methods of producing and using data and knowledge collectively. Some authors have suggested calling this development digital commons or commoning. Dulong de Rosnay and Stalder (2020: 2) understood digital commons as a “subset of the commons, where the resources are data, information, culture and knowledge which are created and/or maintained online.” Like other forms of commoning, digital commons rely on specific arrangements of legal and economic rules, modes of governance, and social practices (Dulong de Rosnay and Stalder, 2020). Most prominent cases for digital commons are projects like Wikipedia, Linux, and many other forms of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) and commons-based peer production.

In this contribution, we focus on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project, a collaboratively created database of nonproprietary, openly available geographic data. OpenStreetMap is currently the most popular open data alternative to Google Maps and can also be considered a project of digital commoning (see also Chapman 2015). In the first step, we determine which formal and informal structures of interaction enable the digital commoning of geospatial data in OSM. Second, we discuss the challenges of the project. With the rapid development of a commercial geospatial industry, the geospatial data of OSM have become increasingly interesting for large technology companies, which raises the question of the future of OSM as an alternative form of creating and using geographic information. This example reveals that exploring the practices and rules of commoning is helpful to understand the successful interaction in such projects of an alternative socioeconomic organization in the digital age and its challenges in the context of new developments in digital capitalism. This contribution is based on numerous interviews with OSM activists and representatives of private sector actors in the geospatial industry and the analysis of numerous online forums and documents.

OpenStreetMap as Digital Commoning

In the early first decade of the 2000s, OSM was founded in the context of the early open data movement by a British computer science student as a collaborative project with the goal of creating a “free editable map of the world.” Over the years, OSM has grown into a worldwide crowd project with a steadily increasing number of active contributors (as of 2023, several thousand mappers contribute data to OSM daily; around two million mappers have contributed to the project so far [see Neis 2023; OSM Wiki 2023]) and an increasingly detailed database and more use cases based on it. In addition, OSM builds on the socio-technical practices associated with Web 2.0 and the availability of satellite-based positioning. It has often been described as a prime example of “volunteered geographic information.” The OSM geospatial data are used for a variety of applications; for example, in emancipatory projects (e.g., for people with walking disabilities), numerous humanitarian projects, and purely commercial projects in the geospatial industry (Schröder-Bergen et al. 2021).

The socio-technical practices of data production and use in OSM, with their specific informal and formal arrangements, can be considered a form of digital commoning. Formally, the OSM Foundation (OSMF) acts as the legal entity for OSM. Active contributors to OSM can become members of the OSMF and elect seven volunteers to become members of a board that represents OSM externally and internally. The OSMF board aims to moderate trends and opinions within the community. It introduces guidelines, manages memberships to the OSMF, and raises funds for the project. The foundation is the custodian of the servers and services needed to host the database. It also makes OSM data available under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL). This license places a share-alike restriction on the use of OSM data: anyone may share the data, modify it, and produce new work as long as the adapted database is also published under the ODbL license.

Generally, however, the scope of activities and importance of the OSMF is somewhat limited. Active OSM members discuss problems in forums and document solutions in a continuously modified wiki. Thus, important decisions are often made in a rather nontransparent way, which has sometimes been described as a ‘do-ocracy,’ which indicates that those who actually do the mapping, tagging (or annotating), and programming directly determine the direction of OSM (Glasze and Perkins 2015). Thus, a relatively small group of OSM members with the necessary (time) resources and some in-depth technical expertise can largely decide on the development of OSM. Critical research on OSM has noted that this ultimately leads to certain inequalities and exclusions in the geographical knowledge produced in OSM. However, the participatory structures in OSM have made it possible for these biases to be increasingly criticized in recent years and for the project as a whole to become more inclusive and diverse (Garcia and Dittus 2019).

In summary, OSM succeeds in organizing the cooperation of numerous different actors – despite some weaknesses in the democratic processes described above. In this way, OSM provides a comprehensive and up-to-date, nonproprietary, open database of geospatial data, which is the basis for numerous civil society and commercial services. It is precisely because of OSM’s success that its geospatial data have become increasingly attractive to the major players in digital capitalism. Next, we discuss how their involvement could become a fundamental challenge for OSM.

Automated Data Production and Digital Capitalism as New Challenges for OpenStreetMap

Commercial actors have participated in OSM since the beginning. However, these were most often small and medium-sized enterprises closely linked to the community and the ethos of OSM. Especially since the end of the 2010s, large technology companies, such as Meta and Microsoft, have become engaged in OSM. They use OSM data for their services, but they also actively contribute to the project as financial sponsors with their contributions of new data and as developers of new tools (e.g., new editors with machine-learning-assisted mapping).

There is considerable discussion about the consequences of these developments within and outside the active OSM community. The new technology is partly welcomed but partly considered to be in danger of a ‘takeover’ of the project (Schröder-Bergen et al. 2021). The formal rules (e.g., the OSM license in particular) of interaction prevent OSM data from being simply ‘enclosed.’ However, OSM activists fear that do-ocratic structures could be exploited due to the possible use of extensive resources through these enterprises. For example, this exploitation could happen in the form of the project being ‘flooded’ with mass uploads or data generated by machine learning. However, thus far, relatively informal rules of interaction, which outlaw mass uploads, have prevented such takeovers and regulated interaction with very resource-rich actors, such as Meta.

Nevertheless, the growing number of geospatial data produced through sensors and automated processes (in remote sensors, mobile phones, and vehicles) fundamentally changes the meaning of the production of data by a crowd of volunteers like those in OSM. Against this background, three large technology companies (Amazon, Microsoft, and Meta) established the Overture Maps Foundation with the navigation provider TomTom at the end of 2022. They aim to jointly establish a database with global, openly available geospatial data, primarily in competition with the dominant position of Google with its comprehensive proprietary geospatial data. These companies are also reacting to what they view as OSM’s slow and complex organizational and data structures, which are not primarily geared toward commercial use cases (Prioleau 2023). They were searching for an alternative that they could better steer in their intended directions, essentially a project providing open data without the practices of participatory commoning. There is a risk that Overture will develop into a commercially oriented alternative to OSM and ultimately demotivate parts of the OSM community (Clauss et al. 2023).

Digital Commoning and the Diversity of Geographic Knowledge

The conceptualization of projects like OSM as ‘digital commoning’ involves formal and informal rules that can make collaborative work successful. However, digital commoning projects are never isolated islands but are embedded in larger economic, political, and socio-technical contexts. The success of OSM, similar to many digital commoning projects, was built on specific socio-technical practices (Web 2.0 collaboration, an increasingly mobile/ubiquitous internet, and the availability of satellite positioning) that enabled the field of volunteered geographic information in the first decade of the 2000s. In addition, the ethos of the community, which is the basis of the formal and informal rules, is fed by the ideas of cyber utopianism of the 1990s. The case study demonstrates that, in the two decades since 2004, the OSM community has established itself as an alternative to governmental and commercial projects of cartography and geospatial data.

However, the establishment of the Overture Maps Foundation in 2022 indicates that the context seems to be fundamentally changing: geospatial data are increasingly sensor-based and produced in largely automated ways. Large companies from the technology and geospatial industries aim to establish a new global, open database with geospatial data based on their datasets, in competition with proprietary databases, especially from Google. In doing so, they use OSM data, at least at present. With the Overture Maps Foundation, some central actors in digital capitalism are trying to turn geospatial data into a kind of ‘ubiquitous resource’ on which commercial products can be built. This development poses a fundamental challenge for the digital commoning of geospatial data in OSM. The danger is that a large alternative supply of open geospatial data will demotivate thousands of volunteers who have been contributing to OSM.

Nevertheless, why would open data without the practices of digital commoning in OSM be a loss? Research in the context of Critical Cartography and Critical GIS has already noted that there is no such thing as ‘objective geographical knowledge.’ Geographical knowledge is always specific: certain information becomes emphasized, whereas others become marginalized. As shown, OSM is also not free of such biases. However, the ethos of participation inscribed in the formal and informal rules of collaboration has repeatedly allowed these inequalities to be problematized and enabled OSM to be an increasingly diverse and dynamic project. Initiatives (e.g., the nascent Overture Maps Foundation) that primarily have commercial interests in the data and are not embedded in commoning practices are unlikely to develop a similar sensitivity to the diversity of geographical knowledge. Hence, it is hoped that the OSM community will succeed in further developing the formal and informal rules of cooperation so that OSM remains a socially diverse and inclusive project of geographic knowledge production, even in the context of increasingly automated data production alongside prominent commercial players.


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Susanne Schröder-Bergen is doing her PhD at the intersection of digital and political geographies at the Institute of Geography at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. Her research interests lie in the relationship between big tech companies and volunteer engagement in the context of OpenStreetMap.

Georg Glasze is Professor of Cultural & Political Geography at the Institute of Geography at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. He is interested in how the production and use of geographical knowledge is changing in the digital transformation.