Mozilla Festival 2014

The new Science Lab team wrapped its first Mozilla Festival this past weekend in London; many thanks to all our facilitators who ran a huge constellation of sessions, and to everyone who participated – the Science Lab can lay down the broadstrokes, but it’s the energy and enthusiasm from all of you that brought this thing to life. Each and every session deserves its own blog post (hint hint facilitators), and I encourage everyone to check out the repositories and etherpads linked from the schedule – what follows are some memories of just the sessions I had a moment to jump into.

Francois Grey (CERN) brought Upscience, a hackathon-in-a-hackathon session that floated a whole bunch of exciting citizen science projects, including the PyBossa framework for building the same – during this session, I had the honor of hacking with Kevin Dungs, Igor Babuschkin and Tadej Novak (also all CERN) of Particle Clicker fame, on that team’s new project, working title ‘Detectorcraft‘. Detectorcraft will teach players about the ins and outs of designing and optimizing a particle detector array in a fun and gamified way; more on that project as it evolves. What really struck me during this session was the keen enthusiasm the CERN team had attracted from a diverse array of participants, from high school students to journalists to other physicists. Particle Clicker charmed people with its simple fun, and the MozFest platform gave people a chance to dive in with the team and design next steps together.

Next up was Nicole Zhu and Alex Duner of Knight Lab demoing user testing in their session, ‘Can you help me break my project?’ In the past, I struck out trying to introduce formal user testing in the science projects I worked on; breakneck development speed and pushing hard on other new ideas didn’t leave my peers with a lot of appetite for further radical change. But the Knight Lab team was able to use their enthusiasm and their clear recipe for success to pack people around their demo in the science track; people participated, and quickly picked up the basics of a skill they could see the value in, and take away to use at their home institutions – all in a session that lasted about an hour. We have plans to collaborate on a teaching kit to capture some of their ideas – coming to the Mozilla Science Lab repo space soon.

Finally, thinking of the recent forum conversations on scientific publishing, I accosted Arfon Smith (GitHub), who was there teaching Git and adding to the general levity of the room; what role could GitHub play in building a publication platform that made research objects completely open, remixable and repeatable? To his credit, Arfon didn’t just entertain my enthusiasm; he took the opportunity to convene an impromptu session, ‘Let’s Build a Journal (or not)’. The session turned into a roundtable on what people wanted from an open journal, what would need to happen, and perhaps most importantly, what opportunities were on the table right now; we heard from Andrew Preston, co-founder of Publons, on his work building a structure for open and incentivized peer review, from Eva Amsen of F1000, on lessons learned in the space by that organization, as well as from a diverse group of other participants. I have said a lot of words to a lot of people about a reform of scientific discourse, but MozFest was special; what was usually a conversation that barely squeaks in to ‘dream stage’ status got dangerously close to something that could actually be implemented. Things are afoot there now – watch this space for developments.

This was this Science Lab’s first MozFest, and for a couple of months beforehand, I badgered everyone about how to plan for such a thing, what to expect, and how it all worked. The most common response I managed to wrest out of festival veterans was that the nature of the event was chaotic, and hard to nail down. Coming out the other side, I now disagree; MozFest is frenetic, but its driving force isn’t chaos – it’s combinatorics. MozFest attracts a group of participants that are both diverse and illustrious: students, developers, technologists, professors, CEOs, educators, artists, journalists and curious people of all stripes. It compresses them under its gravity until their interactions ignite, like the birth of a star; the sheer density of ideas and the low barrier to sharing them allows people to cross pollinate in ways they would normally never have an opportunity for, and puts enough raw interdisciplinary talent and resources on the table that things that normally seem out of reach become abruptly realistic. All the sessions I described above were striking examples of this, but the whole festival was driven by people sharing their ideas, expertise and curiosity across discipline, perspective and experience. The Science Lab had a great time at MozFest, and I would highly recommend it next year for anyone interested in a glimpse at what science post-silo could look like.

3 responses

  1. Naupaka wrote on :

    I really like the sound of that: “science post-silo”.

  2. Robert Flight wrote on :

    Interesting your comments about a journal hosted on Github. I know of at least one other attempt at this, although not in the biological sciences, but on the science of writing. That is Karl Stolleys “push” journal, on github and on the web Articles are submitted as pull requests, peer review is done by commenting on the pull requests. Although it seems to have stalled at the moment, it will be interesting to watch as it moves forward.

  3. Bill Mills wrote on :

    @Robert Flight: cool! Thanks for sending push my way – I hadn’t heard of it, and it definitely needs to be part of the conversation. Will bring this up with people working on it!