Straightforward as they may seem, street maps aren’t objective. Shifting borders mean that maps are often political statements. They also can be sexist.
Eddie Pickle, the former CEO of geospatial company Boundless, first started paying close attention to sexism in the mapping community in 2010, while the company was recruiting new hires. Gender disparities in the tech field weren’t just a culture problem, he realized–there was also a problem with the data.
OpenStreetMap is a massive free map of the world, editable by anyone. Companies like Flickr, Foursquare, and Craigslist all use it in their products. But unlike Google Maps, which rigorously chronicles every address, gas station, and shop on the ground, OpenStreetMap’s perspective on the world is skewed by its contributors.
“When data is being contributed to OpenStreetMap, there is a specific bias because people contribute data they are interested in and familiar with. If they’re all male, maybe they forget to put in day care centers,” says Pickle.
There are far more male contributors than female contributors to OpenStreetMap, though female contributions have been increasing, according to Pickle, who still works for Boundless in the role of chief revenue officer. “Anecdotally, there’s more info [on OpenStreetMap] on strip clubs than day care centers,” he says.
Alyssa Wright, a former employee at Boundless who now works at MapZen, recently moderated a conference panel, “Is your map sexist?” that discussed these hidden gender biases in the world of geospatial coding.
“There was a general consensus among the panel that women are in the minority when it comes to digital mapmaking and that the geospatial industry presents the same hardships for women joining the workforce–a general lack of introduction and mentorship for women, maternity and child care issues, company culture clashes, and some issues starting as early as college,” she wrote in a blog post afterwards.
Encouraging more women to contribute to open-source mapping work is especially difficult, because everything is done by volunteers. That makes any sort of affirmative action more difficult. For its part, Boundless plans on holding more meetups for women in GIS. “We’re going to continue to do what we can to point out the value of having more diversity,” says Pickle.