Signaling openness

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How do open projects signal their “openness” to the outside community? This is a really hard question, particularly because nowadays “open” has become a buzzword that doesn’t just signal a project’s position to the community, but is also used as a marketing term to increase support, users, or resources.

I was thinking about this the other day, so decided to take to twitter:

I was surprised at how much this question resonated with people. Here are a few highlights from the (very interesting) conversation that came out of that question.

Some discussion threads

Wishes vs. reality

Tal immediately brought up a really important point: many projects want to be inclusive and welcoming to others, but they don’t have time to do so.

I think this is an important distinction, and something that should be signaled clearly. One the one hand, if a person generally wants others to contribute to the project, then they’re some degree of openness higher than a project that actively discourages this.

On the other hand, running open projects does take work, and a project that says “well I’d like to be open but can’t commit the time to do it” also isn’t that open in practice. No hard feelings there, but I think that the goal of defining a “degree of openness” isn’t to signal a value judgment on the people related to the project, but on the project itself. If you really want to grow an open community around a project, you need to dedicate time and resources to the community itself, not just the technical pieces of the tool.

Metrics of openness

That leaves open the question: “how do we measure the practical openness of a project, rather than just what it says?”. A few folks mentioned that the CHAOSS project does a lot of work in this gneeral space:

CHAOSS defines standards for metrics to collect about communities. They don’t necessarily say what others should do with those metrics, so perhaps that’s on the open community to define for themselves.

Personally, I’d love to see more tooling that makes it possible to scrape activity statistics from open repositories. Tal and others suggested a few things:

  • time to initial response to new issues (maybe separated by new vs. old contributors)
  • inequality coefficient for contributor commits
  • number of unique organizations/email domains in contrbutors
  • use of positive/welcoming language
  • explicit roles defined, and pathways towards working more with the community

I’d love to see more thoughts along these lines. If we could define a collection of metrics around openness, it’d paint a much more rich picture than simply “does this project have a permissive license.”

There was also a specific metric around governance that’s worth highlighting:

The paper linked above is a study that investigated “open governance” in a number of open-source mobile projects. It’s an interesting exploration of the ways that decision-making is made (and signaled) in several projects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they conclude that “more open” projects are most-likely to be successful in the long term (with a few exceptions).

Finally, apparently there’s also a “badge” to signal the status of a repository (is it active, vaporware, abandoned, etc):

I’d love to see more of these semi-automated signals to help guide the open source community in deciding what projects to adopt and contribute to. As more and more people do their work online and in the open, it also creates a challenge of sifting through the noise to make the most of your (limited) time and energy. Having better metrics like these will make these decisions easier.

Mozilla’s archetypes of open projects

One of the most fascinating links I found was Mozilla’s “archetypes of open projects” document:

Briefly, this is an internal document that Mozilla made public. It attempts to define the different kinds of open projects that exist. Importantly, it also explains the value propositions of each, how it can be used strategically within an organization, and how it supports (or doesn’t) an open community around it.

I added some thoughts about how Project Jupyter fits into these archetypes on the Jupyter governance research issue and I’d love to think more about how these archetypes fit into the pre-existing open communities that are out there. If anybody wants to brainstorm how these archetypes fit into the scientific open community, I’d love to chat :-)

On that note, I want to give a brief shout-out to Mozilla in general, which has either conducted or sponsored a bunch of interesting work in open projects. For example, they have a whole wiki dedicated to working openly:

and they also run lots of training and community programs such as the Mozilla Open Leaders program. Project Jupyter is in this year’s cohort and keeping track of its progress here.

Importance of ethnography:

A final note on the importance of ethnography:

For all of my talk about metrics above, I’ve come to appreciate that numbers are never sufficient to describe the complexities of a community or group. Over the last several years at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several ethnographers who have shared their perspective on how to study communities. Semi-automatically-calculated numbers can be a great way to see relatively coarse-level view of a community, but if you really wany to understand what’s going on, you need to dig in there, conduct qualitative interviews, operate in the community, and create some stories that back up (or not) the quantitative data that you collect. We’d all be better off if there were more ethnographers in our respective communities <3.

OK, that’s enough for now - I hope these links are useful and I’ll try to update them over time if I hear of some new projects along these lines. If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave ‘em in the comments!

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