This is the eighth conversation of the 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100) project.

Since 2023, we are meeting with more than 100 people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, scholars, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators, and community leaders from everywhere.

The Open Knowledge Foundation team wants to identify and discuss issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to deliver best what the community expects of us and our network, a pioneering organisation that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.

Another goal is to include the perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalised communities, dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside of the world’s major financial powers.

How openness can accelerate and strengthen the struggles against the complex challenges of our time? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.


This week we had the opportunity to speak with Rebecca Firth, Executive Director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), an international team dedicated to humanitarian action and community development through open mapping.

Rebecca joined HOT in 2016 after working in digital and innovation consulting. She holds a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Geography from the University of Cambridge, UK, where she focused on international development. Before taking on the role of Executive Director, Rebecca served as Interim Executive Director and Senior Director of Strategy & Programme. She has worked to improve HOT’s ability to provide longer-term capacity building to OpenStreetMap communities through training and micro-grants, to increase the use of OpenStreetMap by NGOs and other partners, and to spread HOT’s message globally to new volunteers and partners. Rebecca also led HOT’s application for the 2020 Audacious Project. She has lived and worked in Borneo, Japan, Colombia and Peru, focusing on public health, education, disaster risk reduction and organisational management. Rebecca is currently based in London, UK.

HOT is a new partner of Open Data Day (ODD), a community event co-led by Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Knowledge Network. This year, HOT is sponsoring mini-grants to promote local open mapping events in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. ODD is also part of the HOT OpenSummit ’23-24.

This conversation took place online on 27 February 2024 and was moderated by Renata Ávila, CEO of OKFN, and Lucas Pretti, OKFN’s Communications & Advocacy Director. 

We hope you enjoy reading it.


Renata Ávila: For a lawyer like me, it’s always been very clear what the barriers to openness are – inaccessible laws, closed databases, proprietary licences and so on. You’re a geographer by training, and I’m curious about the geographical perspective on openness. What role does openness play in your practice and work?

Rebecca Firth: I love that, I’ve never been asked that question before. I’m sure every geographer you talk to would have a different opinion. For me, there’s something about geography: in theory, everyone can see it, but in practice, not everyone can. So what we do with HOT is sort of map places that might not be visible in other data sources, but they are very visible to the people who live in a particular place and are aware of the challenges that they face.

There’s this kind of strange intersection between place, which is obviously an intimate and local thing, and openness when it’s opened up to millions and millions of people. The very local nature of geography kind of collapses with the global appetite that we all have for open data. Because we’re not mapping anything that people don’t already know. It’s just that we have to put it somewhere where people can access it so that it can be used in the best possible way. Obviously, openness is a huge lever to achieve that.

Renata Ávila: I find it very interesting how open mapping can become an infrastructure in places that lack it. I come from Guatemala – in places like this, sometimes you have the map, but the social layer is completely missing. You have lived in so many places. Based on this experience, please tell us a little bit about the perspective of community participation in mapping and the role of open mapping in critical moments.

Rebecca Firth: There’s a lot of representation and justice that happens not just in mapping a place, but in people from that place being the ones to map that place. Because often data is something that’s used as a tool by one person against another. A good example would be indigenous land: there are a lot of people who do have data – like mining companies or resource companies – and a lot of people who don’t, like local communities. There’s a clash there.

So the practice of community mapping is about trying to get not just the data into the hands of people who haven’t traditionally had access to it, but the power to create it, update it, manipulate it, and figure out how to use it for their purposes. That’s only really possible through techniques that lower the barrier to entry to mapping and participating in data as much as possible. It has to happen through open source, because obviously these are communities where proprietary tools aren’t going to reach the lateral scale that we hope they will.

The thing that keeps me passionate about the work that HOT is doing is the premise that data shouldn’t be a cause of human suffering. All the people who are working on human suffering need access to information that is very difficult and expensive for them to get. So if we can be a part of solving that problem, that’s amazing.

Renata Ávila: We’ve spent many years in the open movement discussing licensing, standards, interoperability and so on. And I think there are two missing layers, two unfinished pieces. One is crowdsourced participation and the community component of that – there’s always a blurred line between exploitative extractivism and meaningful participation and collaboration. The other is the governance structure. We would like to know more about how HOT is organised, how you work locally and globally, and how you connect with communities. Because I think the wider open movement has a lot to learn from this.

Rebecca Firth: In terms of our structure, HOT is run by a group of a few hundred voting members – these are super dedicated volunteers or participants in past projects. One of the most important things they do is elect our board of directors. We’re very fortunate to be one of the few multi-million dollar non-profits in the world to have a board that is 100% elected by the community. The benefits of that are that the community is really at the forefront of all the major decisions of the organisation. And the board represents the community. That’s one of the unique things about HOT.

The voting members also coordinate and lead activities in a number of working groups, which are really great spaces where the board, the community and the staff can interact. It’s a meeting place where the community can engage with the staff, sharing their ideas and needs in a formalised way. So the staff are there to serve the community. That is a big part of their role as staff.

Of course, as a growing organisation, there are tensions. One thing that’s really hard about being an open community is also being an organisation. As an organisation, we have to meet deadlines for proposals, projects, funding, budgets and so on, which obviously don’t work on the same timescales as communities. Also, the organisation can’t grow enormously, but the community can. So our goal is not just to hire infinitely more people, but to grow the community exponentially, which is a challenge in terms of managing the different dynamics and tensions that that’s going to create.

As an open source movement, the sky is the limit. You can have an infinite mission, but what is your ability to actually achieve it? We set a goal a few years ago to map an area where 1 billion people live, and that was going to be the most vulnerable billion people in the world, those who are either at very high risk of disaster or experiencing very high levels of multidimensional poverty.

But how do you set up your organisation to do that? No one in the world can get close to 1 billion people. So we have a very decentralised structure where most of our work is done through four regional hubs – Latin America and the Caribbean, Western North Africa, Eastern Southern Africa and Asia Pacific. Each of these hubs serves about 20 to 25 countries with a staff of about 15 people. Their aim is to develop leaders in the countries they serve who are experiencing the problems and have a deep understanding of the solutions to those problems.

I think it’s a really nice system. I’m really proud of it, but it’s also incredibly difficult.

Lucas Pretti: Could you give us some concrete examples off the top of your head of recent open mapping projects that inspire you? I mean, what is the work that HOT is doing at the end of the day?

Rebecca Firth: A really good example of local and global coordination working really well was the response to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February last year, just over a year ago. This was a community led disaster response and a good example of the power of local communities really changing the way disaster response happens. 

This response was in collaboration with and led by a Turkish open mapping community called Yer Çizenler. They sprang into action very quickly when this event happened in collaboration with us. The affected areas were very densely populated and only partially mapped. So we did remote mapping of the affected areas in both Turkey and Syria, and we had almost 7,000 volunteers around the world who joined forces to map about 1.5 million homes and 66,000 kilometres of roads.

It was great in terms of the amount of mapping that was done, but of course mapping is pointless if it’s not used. So the key role of HOT was to make sure that we had partnerships with responding organisations, including government and local communities. I was really proud of this case because maps were used at every single stage, including search and rescue, which is often the hardest thing to get maps used for because you need them in the right hands incredibly quickly. We also had individual doctors, medics, people facilitating the delivery of medical care, people setting up infrastructure for temporary shelters, and a story of someone trying to get electricity to a tent city.

Today, OpenStreetMap is the standard expectation of any humanitarian responder in a crisis. I got a figure the other day that there have been 330,000 downloads of HOT data for humanitarian and development interventions in the last three years, so our data has been used for impact 330,000 times. It’s really amazing the scale we’ve reached, something I’m sure the early dreamers who created HOT out of the Haiti earthquake response in 2010 would be very proud of. 

Renata Ávila: At OKFN we’ve been working hard on standards and data interoperability in projects like Frictionless Data. This year we are developing the Open Data Editor, which will be a very simple, no-code solution for data manipulation and publishing. Since you specifically mentioned data, I’m curious about the friction you face when working with data. When I say friction, I also mean social friction, institutional friction and so on.

Rebecca Firth: Indeed, we face many of them. On the institutional side, things are getting better. There’s an expectation in almost every part of our global economy that decisions are going to be based on data, and good data is going to be required, that’s a trend that’s happened in the world over the last 10 years. And I think that’s helpful for us.

In terms of social friction, obviously how you map and who decides how you map is a really contentious issue and one that a lot of people would have different perspectives on. I can think of some personal experiences I’ve had with this. We once did some local mapping with a community in Peru, and we were tagging the village houses made with adobe, which is the name of the local mud bricks that the houses are made of. At some point, that got changed back on the map by someone in another country saying that the buildings should be brick or whatever. So we are standing in this village at this moment and we can see that this is made of adobe. Who has the power in this interaction? The indigenous person in the community or the person who knows how to do the mass undoing of edits? Open communities also generally reflect (and sometimes amplify) the power dynamics of the world. I think part of HOT’s role is really important to help navigate that.

On the technical side, what we’re trying to work on with our team is how to lower the barrier to entry for mapping and using maps. When I started, the tools were just incredibly difficult. They were all open, but it’s not really open if you can’t figure out how to use it. One of the parts of our vision is that everyone can access and contribute to the map, and that open map data is available and used for impact.

So one of the frictions we have is making sure that the process is really open. I’m not as well placed as most members of your community to debate the exact meaning of the word open, but for me, openness is not just about open data, it’s about open processes, it’s about open policies, it’s about making sure that everything is actually accessible and freely usable. We see so many examples of open data that is still impossible for people to use, whether it’s because it’s ridiculously large and you have to pay for cloud hosting, or because it’s a PDF that you can’t really work with. It’s a huge frustration. I wish the open community would take more seriously the definition of openness as accessibility rather than availability, because there’s such a big difference between the two.

Renata Ávila: Absolutely. I’m glad you mentioned that. We recently joined the Digital Public Good Alliance (DPGA), and that brings me to the importance of standards and the horizontal effects they can have on communities. In particular, the importance of fighting to get those standards adopted by big players, big governments, big aid agencies and so on. 

Some of the communities that intersect with both openness and maps are those working to mitigate the climate crisis. Of course, there is an element of unpredictability in natural disasters like earthquakes. Coming from Guatemala, I can tell you that you can never predict when the next big one is going to hit. But we can certainly predict other impending disasters. How can members of the open knowledge community work better with members of your communities to join our efforts in trying to solve the most pressing problems of our time, such as the climate crisis?

Rebecca Firth: I didn’t think the conversation would go in that direction, and I’m glad it did because thematically I think it’s so important for people in open communities to engage with why climate change is such a big deal. Like all NGOs, we are used to working on impact areas by categories, such as public health, disaster response, gender equality, displacement, safe migration, climate resilience and sustainability. But what is happening now is that we have climate-related disasters, which lead to displacement, which leads to disease outbreaks, which disproportionately affect women and girls, and so on. So all of these impacts are now completely overlapping and cross-cutting. We need open data highways behind and above all of these areas. Never before has there been a greater need to have a panacea of data that touches on all of these issues, rather than siloed efforts.

Climate is a very, very local thing. The way you experience climate change is going to be radically different depending on where you live. At the moment there are climate models produced by scientists and universities that show a whole country as red, amber or green, based on a rating that is simply not the experience of the people who live there. Even at the city level, there are huge differences for people who live in vulnerable housing, or at the bottom of a hill, or in places where there is no shade, and so on. Experts are looking at this problem at a global level, but the point is how to visualise it locally and add some truth to these reports.

Sometimes I have conversations with people who don’t want to fund climate mitigation work because they’re interested in funding emissions reductions. They say “We’re not there yet, it’s 10, 20 years away”. And that is not true! We are working with communities that are affected by climate change right now. It’s just that these funders don’t know about it because they see a global model that turns a particular country or locality green.

I really think there’s an important role for open communities. The thing that would help us collaborate and get there faster is a really honest commitment to a minimum-viable product. Here’s an example. There’s this amazing project in Liberia with iLab Liberia where they’re trying to map the resilience of buildings in coastal cities to flash floods. And they did it by mapping how deep the foundations are by the number of fingers. The map shows where all the buildings are with foundations that are one finger deep, two fingers deep, three fingers deep and so on. This has a huge impact on how resilient that building will be before the next flood.

Something similar happened in Tanzania, where they tried to record historical flash floods according to each resident’s memory of how far the water reached their body. I would consider that really good data. 

That’s the kind of thing our communities need to work together on the most. What is the minimum data needed to solve this problem? If we can get that, we’ll be fine. But if we’re arguing about data models and schemas and not everything being perfect, then we’re never going to get out of that conversation.

Lucas Pretti: I really like that. I think we are on the right path of collaboration, starting with a very minimum viable product, which is Open Data Day 2024 as part of HOT OpenSummit ’23-24. Your sponsorship through mini-grants focused on open mapping activities was a game changer this year. I think our two organisations share a recent practice of moving away from centralised, self-focused events towards supporting community events. I’d like you to talk about that. Do you think it’s a trend among global organisations that are as embedded in communities as we are?

Rebecca Firth: You are right, we used to have this thing called the HOT Summit, which was a wonderful event, but it was a conference for us, limited to 200 people who could attend. I think it basically did not do what it was supposed to do. So, thanks to the community working group and the community staff at HOT, we took a completely different approach and asked ourselves, where are people talking about open mapping and open data and how can we support them to do that better?

So they came up with the idea of the OpenSummit. The idea is that HOT can support a range of different global events, from conferences to workshops to just hosting a session at another big event, and so on. It really opens up who can participate. Last year we supported 13 events. There were 113 sessions on open mapping attended by 300 people. And we also had 122 scholarships for community mappers to go to those events. So it’s been amazing in terms of really opening us up and getting out of ourselves. 

I think it has a similar ethos to Open Data Day. I mean, we both want people to build partnerships and networks and collaborations to do their own thing. What we’ve learned from this is yet another example of how sticky the community is. Leaders are nurtured through these events because it’s the relationships they spark that keep them going. The more events we can support, the better chance we have of finding people who want to lead this mapping work in their countries.

Renata Ávila: Beyond Open Data Day, the same thing is happening with the Open Knowledge Network and our Global Directory. It is almost like having different red phones everywhere that you can just call when something is happening in a country. Exponential change happens when local community members take action and share their knowledge to help the wider community.

Rebecca Firth: Building on that, I think one mistake we’ve made in the past is communicating only in terms of big numbers: we’re going to cover an area of “one billion people”, we need “one million volunteers”, we’re going to work in “94 countries”. These huge top lines are obviously important when you’re defining a key overarching mission for an organisation, and we are doing them. But, the reality is often that the majority of local mapping is done by less than 10 people. 

So practically, in the work we do each day, we don’t need to bring 3,000 people to a conference about HOT. We need to turn those three local mappers into six local mappers, and that will lead us to double the amount of local data available. And that will get us to one billion! One thing I’ve learned from the community working groups is that mass global campaigns may reach a lot of people, but not in a way that deeply nourishes a local community, and that’s what we need to focus on.