The Case for Rapport: Community Year in Review

Every day this week, one member of the Science Lab will be posting their reflections on lessons learned in 2014, and point to plans for 2015 in their area of expertise as discussed by the team in Portland earlier this month. Our community manager, Bill Mills, will kick this series off today with his thoughts on the vibrant community surrounding the Lab, and the broader open science movement.

When I came to the Science lab late in the Summer of 2014, a community voracious for exchange was already coming to life. The Lab had just thrown its first summer sprint, bringing together people around the world to work on open science projects; Software Carpentry was filling as many seats as it could put instructors in front of, and I was about to launch Interdisciplinary Programming, now Collaborate, an ambitious and anticipated experiment in bringing researchers and coders together where little purchase was found before. Enthusiasm was palpable and the needs were clear – but there was much to learn about how all these players would come together.

Communicating in Collaborate

I came here because I believe that collaboration is key to the sciences becoming what the 21st century needs them to be; and as I wrote about yesterday, potent collaboration is one of the founding practical reasons we pursue open science. But as I have also written previously, real collaboration requires things like trust, communication, and rapport. Never was this more clear than on the run-up to the launch of Collaborate. I had the privilege of discussing projects with dozens of teams of brilliant scientists, and exploring the interests and enthusiasms of scores of masterful coders, designers and technologists – it was like straddling both sides of a gaping chasm of experience and communication. I immediately took on the role of translator, finding ways to help these two great traditions speak to one another in ways that were compelling to one another, and could push projects forward. Brushing aside jargon was simple; the real challenge was in finding ways that people could relate to one another, empathize with each other’s priorities and methods, and build the trust necessary to try something new and different. And when we could get there, opportunities (and pull requests) began to emerge – all that was needed was a little communication.

Discoverability at Codefest

Also shortly after I joined the lab, was NCEASCodefest, an unconference where about a hundred scientists and coders got together to hack on projects for a couple of days – kind of like a live Collaborate. I was excited to go to Codefest purely by virtue of getting to hack on novel things (never have I learned so many great things about bees!). But something unexpected and formative happened while I was there, that I’ve wanted to recapture ever since.

One of the great hurdles open source software suffers from in the sciences is discoverability. Our work is so siloed, with so little tradition surrounding communicating about code, there’s little practical way to find out if anyone else has solved a similar problem to yours before (and just like in more mainstream open source software, the answer is usually at least in part, yes). But as we convened working groups at Codefest, this discoverability problem totally evaporated. When one person described something they were wrestling with, another would immediately call out a solution, ready made and licensed for free use; participants reported tremendous progress on their work thanks purely to discovering the work of others. The so-called discoverability problem was shattered by the simple act of talking to fellow researchers with whom an easy rapport could be built. Finding a way to nurture those bonds beyond the conference setting is a fine prize for the open science community, that we must continue to pursue in 2015.

Sharing Skills at Instructor Training

Communication is fundamental to a successful collaboration – but how does one communicate clearly about something so technical and complex as code? Code has a singular ability to become completely inscrutable if we aren’t careful. Skills like modular programming, version control, structured data and unit testing seem like engineering problems on the surface – but in reality, these are all communication skills, meant to aid us in our efforts to communicate with other humans, and not computers, about our code and the science behind it.

Programs like Software Carpentry and other coding workshops have been doing a stellar job of bringing these skills to students for some time now – and the Science Lab continues to seek to help these programs grow. I had the great good fortune in 2014 to be mentored by Greg Wilson, founder of Software Carpentry, in the art and science of teaching that workshop’s Instructor Training course. A great deal of pedagogical thought has gone into that course, which we refined over our deliveries at the University of Virginia, The Genome Analysis Centre, and the University of Washington, but the central question we as educators have to ask ourselves remains the same: how do we reach our students where they are? In other words, how do we present these skills in ways that are instantly usable for our students in their daily work, how do we structure knowledge so that it is well-connected to experience, and how do we present new methodologies and ideas to students that may fly in the face of traditions and customs they are used to, in a way that respects and makes space for those customs? The great challenge in teaching these skills is not in their technical depth; the great challenge, once again, is in helping students build rapport with the ideas about clear communication these skills codify. I’m going to continue exploring how to support great instructors and mentors who can help build these skills and this rapport in 2015, via broader instructor training efforts beyond Software Carpentry alone, continued programs like Instructor Hangouts, our community call especially for coding instructors, and more events run in partnership with you, for and by your local communities.

Crossing the Streams at the Mozilla Festival

I admit: I didn’t know what to expect from my first MozFest going in. Would we get anything done in such an open-ended format? How would I present ideas and topics of interest to the community if I couldn’t nail people down to chairs and talk at them? For someone coming from traditional academia with the straightest of laces, the free-wheeling nature of the thing was all a bit hard to grasp. Much like Codefest, it wasn’t until I was there that I realized what the event’s specific magic was, or how important it was for the open science movement.

None of us would be here if we couldn’t imagine a better world; everyone involved in this movement aspires to build something, whether it is bigger, stronger, freer or truer than the science we find ourselves with today – we all see something greater. But status quo is heavy, and the prevailing winds are strong; we can build the world we want, but not alone, and too often, alone is exactly how we feel. The magic that MozFest brought, was in its singular ability to bring people together across disciplines, lived experiences and expertise; all of a sudden, absurd fantasies become tangible realities when you can assemble scientists, publishers, technologists, funders and the public all around the same table – and all at the drop of a hat. To do this at MozFest, all that is required is a compelling idea – and this community has no end of those. Creating the spaces where we can communicate with one another and build a living rapport brings lightness to the heaviest of lifts.

Onwards Together

Again and again, the theme of rapport came up this year; from the great events I recall here, to research in code review with Marian Petre that uncovered the imperative need for living relationships in collaboration, to discussions around respect and meeting students where they are, to the content we have been building together about code review and usability testing to augment the skills taught in workshops, right down to the conversations I had with many of you about your experiences in building things in open science – one of the most important things we can build today, is bridges. That’s why, in 2015, I want to find the mentors and champions that can carry the ideas, the skills and the aspirations of open science back to their home institutions and disciplines, and help their communities see them through their own eyes, understand them not as alien things but rather as their own, and begin to build the collective rapport that will make the driving force of collaboration in open science a reality. I will be supporting you in designing and throwing events for your home communities, working together with our partners and you to build the curriculum that will put skills needed to do open science in reach, and continuing to investigate how we can build a vibrant worldwide community of free exchange in support of open science. If you would like to investigate what events, curriculum and projects we can start at your home institution, reach out! I’m here to help, and as always, I hope you’ll join us.