Thanks to Abby Cabunoc’s recent work on the Science Lab’s web offering, I’m very pleased to report Collaborate, our portal for open science projects seeking new participants, is open for submissions following its initial four-month beta period. We’ve learned a lot about the intersection between researchers, coders and students over the past few months, and we’re ready to put these ideas into practice at Collaborate. Here are some early lessons learned from our first steps in this space.
I was stunned at the diversity of projects that approached us for Collaborate’s initial offering; from public health to quantum gravity, the scientific community stepped up with a rich array of projects to capture the imagination; I found myself all of a sudden unable to resist hacking on things from bee ecology to oceanographic data to bacteria genomics. When we were first coming online, there was plenty of speculation (a lot of it from yours truly) on what would make a successful project. Should we tease out lots of really detailed issues, so newcomers have a clear roadmap of how to jump in? Should we focus on brand new blue-sky projects without a lot of technical overhead, or well-established projects with strong code bases and thriving communities? Totally unsurprisingly, the answer turned out to be more nuanced than any first guess.
It turns out, that it wasn’t factorization or domain knowledge or simplicity of engagement that seemed to matter the most; the projects that caught the hottest fire were the ones that were the most aspirational, like Trillian‘s attempts to unify a huge subset of astronomical data, or Phage Parser‘s ambition to uncover how disease immunity works. I think the thing that I admire most about the developer community, is that I’ve never met a coder who was afraid of a big, ambitious idea. The Collaborate projects that offer transformative, impactful science are succeeding by capturing imaginations and speaking to the heart of an engineer by saying: we can do anything we put our minds to, and the bigger the game, the better.
Another key ingredient, is understanding the intense creativity exhibited by people with a passion for code. I fell in love with coding, because I find it a uniquely articulate, precise expression of idea and intent. Part of the joy of coding is exercising that rich palette by imagining solutions for exciting, novel problems. It’s important for researchers to express their goals for their projects clearly, but also crucial to leave plenty of room for coders to experiment and imagine and innovate; the ideas they create will supercharge any research project beyond the limits of our original ambitions.
The opportunities for researchers also go beyond engaging experienced developers, too; there is also an opportunity to interact with students in your field, and build knowledge and technical skill right there at home. Making sure there are clear setup instructions to help newcomers get started goes a long way to including your students; setting up some smaller problems for them to start with is something we strongly encourage, so that Collaborate can help foster student coding experience and familiarity within the sciences, as well as bringing in participation from wider audiences.
Finally, the last and perhaps most important hack on the researcher side is leadership and engagement. There is tremendous talent out there, eager to engage and learn and contribute to research today – the key, then, is to actually engage with them. Projects with research teams most eager to have conversations with their volunteers, meet with them to learn about their interests and answer their questions and take the time to interact with them have had the most success. As such, all research teams should be prepared to spend several hours every week interacting with their volunteers; anything less, and the relationship is too one-sided to be successful.
First and foremost, a huge thank-you to everyone who has dropped by Collaborate so far to look into any of our projects; keep checking back, because we are posting new ones regularly. We’re immensely grateful for your contributions, and if there’s a project that looks interesting to you, the best way to start a conversation is by asking questions. We started Collaborate because of the overwhelming excitement and interest the developer community expressed for participating in open science projects as far back as 2013 at LXJS, and because my personal experience has lead me to be completely confident that great impact can be had by coders engaging with the sciences that interest them. The obstacles to doing that aren’t scientific knowledge or experience; they are almost always pure communication issues. By asking questions and starting conversations we can quickly zero in on ways we can work together across personal and professional experience. As always, the Science Lab is happy to help in these conversations; I’m @BillMills on GitHub, feel free to cc me on any issue and I’ll try and help sort things out.
Another thing we saw, was the huge impact that projects from developers could have when interfaced with the right research project. One example of this was the Dat project, Max Ogden’s ‘GitHub for data’ that he and his team have been working on for some time now; turned out, that Dat had an interesting overlap with Trillian, one of Collaborate’s first projects, that led to fruitful discussions and collaboration. If you have a project (side or otherwise) that you think could be impactful in the sciences, feel free to create a listing for it on Collaborate! It may just be exactly what a researcher is looking for, and all that’s needed for a powerful team-up is a little added discoverability.
Something I’ve been telling students worldwide, is that coding workshops and lessons are fantastic ways to get started building coding skills, but the only thing that will get you the comfort with coding that you want is practice, practice, practice. One great opportunity Collaborate provides to students, is a chance to practice and build their new coding skills on authentic, real-life research projects. Just like coders, I strongly recommend students start conversations with the researchers behind projects they find interesting by asking questions about them, and finding out where they can start to contribute; again, feel free to cc @BillMills on conversations on GitHub if you’d like some help figuring out how to get started.
Also for students, don’t ride alone! If you’re new to coding, make sure to find some friends or colleagues to work on these projects with you. Try and get together once or twice a month to discuss what you’re working on, help each other with your problems, and work together. You’ll find the experience more fun, learn more and make more progress if you do it together.
Collaborate is a forum for ideas, an incubator for ambition and an aspirational space characterized by a curiosity for what’s possible and an enthusiasm to learn more about science and coding; the people who have been having the most success are the ones who treat it as such. I’m looking forward to seeing plenty of new projects and new participants come on-line in the coming weeks; if our first few months of collaboration are any indicator, we’ll do great things if we aim high, make room to innovate, prioritize conversations with each other and work together. As always – I hope you’ll join us.
Image Credit: Adapted from Cytoscape.js, one of the projects participating on Collaborate.