Retrospective - 2020 Microgrant Selections, Ethics

At the time the board simply wanted to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust to make good weather since it had been sitting on a quite large reserve (note that this was -before- expenses had gone up to current levels), and had been unable to spend money on the things (mainly development work) that should have actually been done. I wouldn’t expect a return of the money burning in the pocket situation any time soon.

For the administrative burden, being done voluntarily, is there any way
that could be improved, if there’s any issue?

Please consider to participate in a working group to help the community
keeping its sovereignty.

In this case, there are preparations underway by the Engineering Working
Group on the one hand and by the LCCWG on the other hand to have again a
round of Microgrants in the near future. I can speak for the EWG that
they are definitely low on people and that the Microgrants program is de
facto priorized down due to that shortage.


May I ask which budget that turns up in?

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It is obvious to me that we get our money’s worth when we do things like pay for servers and bandwidth and that kind of core infrastructure that keeps the project’s core services going.

Can someone summarize the benefit we’ve gained from the 50,000 euros we’ve spent on microgrants? Are they things that benefit the project as a whole or are we paying for people’s pet projects?

I could understand it if we were putting up bounties for things we decided we needed and wanted to get the community to do. Grant programs, on the other hand, seem more appropriate to organizations that are flush with extra cash looking for a purpose rather than ones that are making a big push to increase fundraising.

I already mentioned OSMcal, further StreetComplete got support for surfacing out of date objects. Those are the two projects with general and longer term applicability.

The rest are either region specific or paid mapping. Not ruling out that there might be a wider benefit for something created to solve a local issue, but net there isn’t anything I’m aware of from the 2020 program.

See Microgrants/Microgrants 2020 - OpenStreetMap Wiki for the full list.

PS: that is not the cynical answer to your question that I normally would have given.


12 proposals were funded, and a report published at File:OSMF Microgrants report 2020-21.odt - OpenStreetMap Foundation. Page 10 and onward have brief comments on each project. One project (video for beginners about mapping pacific islands) did not give a report, it was valued at 1800 EUR. Three of them (Teaching and learning OSM in Albania through LibreTech School, Water and Sanitation mapping in Nairobi’s informal settlements, and HIV facilities mapping in the Philippines on OpenStreetMap) were delayed had a combined value of 13909.91 EUR. I do not know if all of this money was given to the grantees, but looking at draft reports it mainly was.

I was able to find draft reports on Water and Sanitation mapping in Nairobi’s informal settlements and HIV facilities mapping in the Philippines on OpenStreetMap and it looks like they accomplished some of their objectives but not all.

I believe all projects that had in-person aspects were delayed due to COVID, and this is the direct cause of one of the failures.

So about 75% of the objectives (by value) were accomplished overall. I don’t have enough experience to be sure, but that’s probably not bad. So the microgrants largely accomplished what they set out to do. The question was, was it the right stuff that was selected?

As simon has indicated, two have had lasting impact world-wide. A number of them involved paying expenses associated with mapping events, or more directly associated with mapping. I am not sure that projects which are mainly about paying for hosting mapping events are a good use of microgrants.

Shortly after the microgrants the OSMF funded three software development projects. I’m not sure what happened with all of those.


This rings true to me.

Some background: I have not applied to grants in question, nor even followed them, so this is more generic post. I’d like to give some perspective from my little dot on the planet. For reference, Croatia is among poorest members of the EU, but still much better than some other parts of the world.

In my experience, the poorer the people are, the more problematic does offering them the “pot of gold” becomes.

I can quite see how people from rich countries wouldn’t even see the issue - or only see a tip of the iceberg (e.g. “worst case, some money is wasted and some project is not accomplished”). The situation in practice is much worse – when money becomes involved in the game, it stops being a game.

I’d guess if you were to give significant funds (where 5000€ counts as significant in this and poorer parts of the world) to random small volunteer communities here, at least third of those communities (and inter-personal relations) would likely either get destroyed or seriously maimed by internal money-grab that would ensue. I can only imagine that the situation would be even worse in poorer countries where those 5k€ has much bigger impact . Thus, most surviving volunteer communities either involve no funds at all, or funds are barely enough to cover the day-to-day operating expenses (thus with no opportunities for money-grab attempts)

IOW, in the richer countries, giving 5000€ to a project idea is likely to be “a nice pocket change to justify to myself some time spent on this project” and invoke maybe some friendly competition. In poorer countries, it is much likely to lead to cut throat tactics to eliminate other contenders (even literal ones in poorest of them – e.g. giving 5k€ to someone in say Luxembourg which has $127000 GDP per capita is completely different universe to giving 5k€ to someone in say DR Congo with $586 GDP per capita).

Paradoxically, that means that giving funds to those who would benefit from them the most likely ends up being the most problematic. And the least problematic is giving the money to those who don’t really need it (but then, what’s the point of giving it away instead of keeping the servers running a little longer?)

So, in some way, “giving funds to economically starved projects is always a good idea” is as flawed as “giving AI bots editing rights to OSM API is always a good idea”. Theoretically (assuming the best possible result) yes; in practice, quite often it turns out to be bad idea.

Anyway, I’ve got no horse in this race - just figured that some food for thought from some less-economically-privileged part of the world might be eye opening for well-meaning folks who do not seem to see the whole picture.


To those saying “oh an apology was made!”, don’t seem to know that that was like pulling teeth. Very demotivating.

On one hand, I can appreciate that it feels unfair to keep bringing up this topic as a past mistake that we can put back on the shelf. However, since you’re no longer on the board, these criticisms aren’t really directed your way any more. Sitting on a non-profit board and voting to fund yourself from the organization’s coffers is absolutely negligent governance and the OSMF as an organization deserves all the flak it continues to get for not recognizing how ugly and problematic that decision was at the time. Along that line of thinking, the current OSMF absolutely owes the community a squeaky-clean and open implementation of any future grants that it decides to administer.

In that context, I can’t ignore these comments from a sitting board member:

It seems that the OSMF has not learned from its mistakes and is insisting on continuing the microgrants program without so much as a community consultation as to how it’s going to be administered. It’s like “well, we made a mistake in the past, we got only a few positive outcomes, but f-- it, we’re going to do it again”.

So apparently we need to keep pulling teeth.

Though this might be the case, I think we should give them the benefit of doubt and assume the best. That post just said that there are “preparations underway”, which might just be “looking if there’s space in the budget” and some broad goals, and once they have done that they’ll go ahead and ask the community for input on how that money should be distributed. I think a microgrant program, done right, can be very good for the community (though @Matija_Nalis raises some valid and concerning points, but there might be solutions to that as well), so my opinion is that we should welcome a new attempt (but keep a very close eye on how it is handled).

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To those saying “oh an apology was made!”, don’t seem to know that that was like pulling teeth. Very demotivating.

Sitting on a non-profit board and voting to fund yourself from the organization’s coffers is absolutely negligent governance and the OSMF as an organization deserves all the flak it continues to get for not recognizing how ugly and problematic that decision was at the time.

I’ve tried to stay out of this thread since I’ve found it hard to extract the nuggets of goodness … but I gotta say, as one of the people who had their teeth pulled, I don’t put much credence in these summaries of the events and likewise found the experience of working with some board members on this issue something I’d rather forget, demotivating and not worth revisiting.

We did recognize the problem at the time and addressed it! The way this episode is being portrayed years later in front of people who weren’t even involved, is wholly off base, whipping a long dead horse.

All I can personally say … again … I had no hand in anything in any part of the application process where I had CoI except being part of the final final vote, where we voted in mass. That was a mistake and we should have separated out the two applications where there was CoI for a more limited vote. I did not personally benefit in the slightest. This was not some self dealing scandal. It was certainly an oversight. I apologized. The OSMF learned to handle these things better.

That does not let future iterations of this program off the hook from being transparent and fair in its dealings. I think OSMF is in a good place. Please everyone contribute to this potential beneficial future in a way that will benefit OSM, end of story.


Great. Here’s some things OSMF can do if it decides to establish a grant program:

  1. Establish criteria for how we determine whether a grant justifies an OSMF expenditure. Ultimately the board will decide but this is the part that really needs the community consultation. What are the priorities? Technology components? Expanding the project in underrepresented regions? Education? Etc. Require proposals to describe how they satisfy the criteria.
  2. Eliminate the “gold rush” and just accept proposals on a rolling basis. If the budget is €50K but there’s only €10K of ideas worthy of the OSMF expenditure, we should not spend money just because it’s budgeted.
  3. Appoint an overseer who can review grants pre-awards to assess whether there’s a conflict of interest. OSM US has a governance committee independent of its board specifically for independent review of governance issues. Since the OSMF is both executive and advisory simultaneously, there is no real independent oversight of the organization’s activities. OSM US has three entities (board, executive director, governance committee) for oversight; with OSMF there seems to be no such separation.

Usually nonprofit boards communicate with a single voice so I was surprised to see Roland just casually drop that microgrants were under consideration again. Of course individual directors are free to speak their mind, but I hope the board will take that point as input on better communicating new directions on controversial topics as an organization.

Do you mean the board will decide the policy, or if the grant justifies itself? For the latter, I don’t see that the board should be involved if a WG is capable of doing it. For the former, it should be the relevant working group taking the lead.

I didn’t read his statement as a board member speaking, but as an EWG member speaking, saying that the EWG intended to put in a request for budget to hold microgrants.

Reading the minutes, this is what is happening. They intend to request 30k, with a maximum of 6k, but as of the December minutes had not yet got their budget request in. When they request the budget the board can evaluate it against other needs and decide what budget to give them.

If you want to criticize the OSMF for being bad at getting an annual budget out on time, I would agree. This is an ongoing problem that I am very aware of myself since I’m working on the OWG budget.

I would also like to offer my perspective and confusion. To me it seems logical that one would only give away money when they themselves were not cash-strapped.

But here I seem to see:

  • on one hand, one day I see OSMF asking for donations which seem on the level of “OMG we’ll have to start powering off critical infrastructure servers on Monday as we can’t even pay for electricity PLS donate NOW” where I’m seriously considering donating little what I can because I don’t really need to eat 3 meals each day
  • but then on the other hand I see OSMF acting in a way (giving microgrants) that seems to me to say “we have so much money we should start giving it away to others who have nice-to-have ideas so maybe something will come out of them; it’s better than it getting taxed away for sitting idle”, where I’m definitely not parting with my lunch money.

That does not make sense to me. I’d assume that any money would be put toward (in descending order of priority, and only first two bulletpoints being ultimately important):

  • doing taxes and other legal requirements
  • making sure servers continue working (e.g. hardware, datacenters, electricity, internet, emergency sysadmin)
  • allow for growing servers as needed in next year
  • if there is any leftover put it towards one bigger internal software project we really need (adding vector maps, improving iD, forking Carto, whatever community finds as top priority),
  • if there are still funds left put them toward SotM
  • If there are still funds after that, really, you’re not cashstrapped, and you should not act like you are. It’s fine: give away microgrants, organize “OSM beer day” where all drinks are paid by OSMF for anybody who mapped that day or week :beers: , or whatever other money-disposal-with-some-potential-for-goodness idea is popular.

But really: If I wanted to donate to some project somewhere, I would (and did) send them money directly, not via OSMF intermediary.


Here’s the idea: perhaps the microgrants should not be done in that way, but instead once a year (once first 3-5 bulletpoints above have been fulfilled, or little more to have some reserve) OSMF would replace page with its alternative which says something along the lines:


We at OSMF/WhateverWG feel following few project deserve special help this year!
We’re covered out most basic needs, and would like to ask if you’d consider donating to some of those projects in need instead to OSMF this time?

  • project A [link to more info / description] [donate button]
  • project B [link to more info / description] [donate button]
  • project C [link to more info / description] [donate button]
  • project D [link to more info / description] [donate button]
  • project E [link to more info / description] [donate button]
  • nah, I really just want to donate to OSMF [donate button]

And when each project receives its requested amount, remove it from the list (or disable it with "funded!" message or such). One might even show $donated / $total_requested for each project, but that has both advantages and disadvantages. When all projects are funded, regular donation screen could be restored.
Of course, when this “projects in need” time comes, it would be announced in forum, osmweekly, whatever communication channels we have to give it extra promotion.

Clear advantage would be that people could choose where their funds will go, so there would not be any grievances towards that, even if people felt that nondeserving microgrant projects were chosen - they’d just not donate to them (e.g. had I donated this year to OSMF in hopes of keeping the servers running, and found out that my money went to some microgrant instead, I’d probably likely be much demotivated to donate again next year). Another advantage would be that people who are low on money might consider helping those project in other ways.

I mean that the board should set the philosophical expectation for what kinds of things they’re willing to give grants for. That way people applying know whether or not to spend the effort in applying for it. And also, when the board is deciding what to fund and what not to fund, they’ve established some guidance that they can measure up against.

For example, the board might decide (hypothetically) that it’s a priority to establish new OSM groups at the grassroots level. Or that it’s a priority to fix a list of technical gaps that we’d like to solve. Or that it’s a priority to demonstrate new usages of OSM data. And then, when the applications roll in, the board can then evaluate them based on what they said the priorities were and use their judgement to assess whether the proposal is likely to accomplish those priorities.

I also don’t have any problem with the OSMF delegating responsibilities to the working groups as long as the same conflict of interest protections apply. They’re a part of the organization too.

Thanks for doing the homework.

My impression of the EWG – and I could be misunderstanding it – is that it doesn’t do any engineering at all – but rather sees itself as an group that makes grants to other people that want to in some way advance OSM technology. If so, I would view that EWG grant budget in much the same way as other grants from the Foundation and its WGs.

If the OWG and EWG both intend to be part of the grant-making, I would question where the line is drawn between them.

The OWG has no part in any grant process. I suppose if the EWG asked us some questions related to a grant we would respond, but I don’t consider that likely. Nor do I believe there is any overlap in members.

The thing is… OSMF already has that rule, in the OSMF Board Rules of Order!

Although like pnorman, I didn’t read drolbr’s post as “from the position of a board member”

While this can feel like an elegant and democratic solution to resource allocation, for a nonprofit in practice managing a set of restricted grants or funds is a huge headache. Asked someone working in a nonprofit, and restricted funds are their regular pain. The accounting and program management required is substantial at any scale, and doesn’t mean the funds are distributed according to best value or need ultimately. I work at a small nonprofit, which has an operating budget an order of magnitude bigger than OSMF, with professional accounting and management, and that’s certainly my experience.

Hm, but my idea was exactly to avoid those restricted funds problems?

As I understand it, restricted funds would be if on before clicking on Donate button you had a list of checkboxes for which area you want to donate (perhaps all selected by default). That, as you note, would bring a lot of headaches (e.g. “we have too much in SoTM bucket, but too little in OPS bracket” which would be bad for hopefully obvious reasons)

My suggestion would neatly avoid all those overfunded/underfunded/logistics/management problems by:

  • majority of funds would be destined for general OSMF use for any purpose except microgrants (nah, I really just want to donate to OSMF option), so no problem if user chooses that (default) option. (i.e. it would continue work just like any OSMF year so far which had not have microgrants)
  • as soon as funds for some microgrant reach their goal (i.e. funds that micrograntee has requested and had approved), that microgrant (e.g. project C option) would automatically from list and stop receiving donations, thus preventing both overfunding specific microgrant and underfunding of “general” nah, I really just want to donate to OSMF pool)
  • funds that donator has selected to go to e.g. project C microgrant would be forwarded directly to that “project C, without any muddying the “general” OSMF funds pool (minor nitpick: in reality, they would probably be spooled in some temporary-pool-for-project-c and payed in one big payout at end of donation run to save on transaction fees, but that is technical implementation detail that does not change how stuff works at all)
  • it would be done automatically by simple piece of software, so no extra accounting / management overhead at all compared to current solution

The accounting and program management required is substantial at any scale,

I hope I explained above why (as far as I can see) it is not any bigger involvement than current solution. If you still think it is, could you give hypothetical example explaining how exactly would it require significantly more accounting/program management than solution being used so far?

and doesn’t mean the funds are distributed according to best value or need ultimately.

It would actually guarantee that the funds to the microgrants are distributed according to best value (where best value is determined by direct democracy - i.e. “vote with your wallet” of each donator). It would also greatly reduce the impact of any potential unchecked Conflict of Interest / corruption (as they could only influence the choice of potential receivers, and not whether any of them would actually get any money)

Oppose that to the current solution, where who gets the “pot of gold” is needlessly solely determined by:

  • small number of people (instead of whole community - thus being less representative of community wishes) and
  • them not being the people who actually provided those funds (thus not only having hugely greater risks of CoI/corruption issues and requiring more work/transparency to try to offset those, but also needlessly building chasm in the community when people are unhappy how microgrant projects were selected, and who actually got the funds - for example see this thread).