Achintya Rao "Working open has changed the way I do research."

“Will someone decide I’m not welcome in a certain part of the world because of an idea I’ve expressed online?”

Achintya Rao is a science communicator and PhD candidate, working at CERN since 2010. He works closely with CERN’s IT and Scientific Information Services teams as well as with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration open data team on the CERN Open Data Portal, which is itself developed openly on GitHub. His interests include open science, free software and public engagement with research. During what little spare time he has, he can be found playing table tennis or practicing taekwondo.


Achintya’s Story

I’m wondering if you can start by telling me about your work.

My interest is with science communication. I did my Bachelor’s in Physics and I did the Master’s in Science Journalism. I’m doing a PhD in Science Communication while working as a science communicator for one of the biggest research collaborations in the world.

I work for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and it’s a collaboration of about 4,000 people. One of my roles is to help disseminate the results and the process, and the technology that is being developed there for particle physics analysis.

The thing that I’m most interested in, from that point of view, is public engagement. Not just communicating research one-way to broader society, but making society feel like they have a say in research, of feeling like a part of the research process. That is not just something that happens in a secluded spot far away from their homes and does not affect them in any way.

This is trickier with areas of more fundamental research because it might not always be obvious how it impacts your life, and it can be something that inspires you but not necessarily be something you can participate in. So my interests generally have to do with communicating research openly.

And what are you doing with Mozilla?

My involvement has mostly been around a project that I am a facilitator with, rather than a participant in, strictly speaking. We have a project that stemmed from various conversations I had with physicists at CERN about cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are physics phenomena that have been observed for about a hundred years. They come from particles ejected from supernovae that fly at very high speeds, hit our atmosphere, and produce showers of particles. We can observe those particles on the earth, on the surface of the earth, with fairly inexpensive detectors. Lots of schools have these detectors, and they’re all collecting fantastic data that can be used for research.

The one downside though is that many of them are collecting their data in fairly closed ways, and when data are available they are all using data formats that are not compatible with one another. And they are using data storage systems that are not exactly accessible or open — you need to contact someone and then after six months they get back to you with a username and a password that lets you log in through three layers, and then you can download a database.

The data, while they are interesting, are not really exploited to their maximum research potential. With the two global sprints that we have done with the Mozilla Science Lab, I’ve learned how working openly with these projects can help bring people together and foster a conversation.

We started off with two or three people who are interested in this kind of thing and in these kind of projects and now we’re getting one group from the Netherlands and a couple of colleagues from the U.S. who are working on trying to put their data sets together into a common analysis framework.

My role is to facilitate. I am not a particle physicist, I am not a programmer, I am not a teacher. My role is as a passionate campaigner for open science, to get these people to speak to one another, to bring them to a place where the conversations can happen that can help exploit the research data to the maximum potential.

The global sprint was a great introduction for me into this kind of concept and following that I was invited to be part of the Working Open Workshop and the Open Leadership Training Program.

Through that, I learned a lot from the Mozilla Science Lab about how to use GitHub, not just exclusively as a code repository and a place to flag issues with code, but as a complete project management tool. They taught us about the importance of defining a meaningful readme file and contribution guidelines and how to make people aware of how they can play a role in a project — making sure that it’s a welcoming atmosphere.

We learned how to have productive conversations around our projects and how GitHub and other web-based tools can be facilitate this. A lot of the conversations that happen in this domain happen via email — they are not happening openly.

Even if there are eight people around the world, eight projects working on this topic, no one else knows about them. You don’t know about one another’s work because everyone is working in their own silos.

That’s been my interest. It stems from an interest in public engagement because it is something that student groups and the general public can do. But also stems from a passion for making sure that science isn’t locked up. I wanted to make it open.

Can you tell me about a time where you felt a real sense of success?

At work, the high point for me was helping to communicate the discovery of the Higgs boson, which happened at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012. We prepared a lot of extensive materials to help communicate the results to the entire world.

It was something that captured everyone’s fascination. It took a lot of time to process all of the information and boil it down and disseminate it.

We spent a lot of time preparing background material, writing texts to explain the significance of the result. For example, What does “5 sigma” mean? What is a femtobarn? These data units are not familiar to people outside of this field.

I helped coordinate the translation of the background materials into over 20 languages. We thought a lot about how to share these materials online so that they could go beyond the English-speaking world and be used by everyone.

We conducted interviews and prepared those kinds of materials as well, and they got used quite a bit around the world to disseminate the story. That was a really a high point for me because I was there in the room when the press conference happened following the announcement of the discovery.

In terms of the Mozilla work, the high point was people expressing an interest in Open Cosmics, this project in which we’re trying to get cosmic-ray data available more openly. The high points have been when you pitch this to someone working in particle physics and they’re like, “That sounds great, why haven’t we done this before?” You are using a very open flow so that anyone can follow your conversation — without needing to log in. Your discussions are taking place on Gitter and linking to specific issues on GitHub.

It’s a project where people feel welcomed to have a say. When people appreciated that this is a good way to move forward, it felt like a huge success even though the project itself is moving at a glacial pace. Everyone is doing it as a hobby, as an interest-based activity.

It’s not something anyone is paid to do, so it happens in spare time. It’s moving slowly but people are interested in it. It feels like a success every time people look at the workflow we’ve established and want to lend their voice to that conversation. I think that’s a good way to move.

As I’m listening to you, I’m also thinking you’re not just having that success around getting buy-in but you’re also helping to disseminate this structure, a series of practices around an open workflow that might have some really interesting ripple effects.

I hope it does. This is stuff that I learned from not just from Mozilla employees but also from the other people who were brought together. The feedback cycles that they generate have helped streamline our workflow. Now we do things like use GitHub issues around the Meta repository to record our minutes. We use an Etherpad as a scratch pad: We just go and dump in everything and then then when we formulate our minutes we create a GitHub issue with the label “meeting meetings”. All of our minutes are available openly.

When we’re having a discussion around the data format and what we might do with the data format, we propose that as an issue where people can go in and comment, and we edit the top-most post with the changes as we go along.

We’re using GitHub as a place to write policy documents so that the top post will be the document and people are commenting below it and we’re updating the document as we go. As you said, people within our community are noticing that this is a good way of moving forward, especially the younger generations.

Sometimes the older generations feel that the workflows that they’ve established over the years resonate more with them. They prefer email to have these conversations without realizing that it can be very exclusive for a project that doesn’t need to be. You’re not discussing business secrets, or anything like that, which needs to happen between a closed group, you’re discussing open research, publicly funded research with an education perspective.

This is something that should be discussed as openly as possible. We are getting people to see that this is a good workflow, and there are people who are doing it, but it tends to be the younger generation. It’s a success but a partial success.

How about an example of a challenge?

In terms of working openly on a science project, there have been two kinds of challenges.

The first has to do with people not buying into the GitHub workflow or using an open approach. Some people find it incongruous with their way of working — they prefer to send an email to someone asking, “What is going on?” instead of tagging someone on an open forum and asking, “Hey, can we get an update?” There is an openness that people have not embraced. That is one challenge which has been very difficult to overcome.

The second challenge is the one I mentioned earlier — about data formats. We have been contacting projects working with cosmic rays, and asking, “Hey, you have cosmic-ray data, and you are making them available openly. Can we get your data sets?”

We explain that we want to try and see if there is a common data format. We want to identify the commonalities between the different data structures to see what the overlaps are, to see what a minimum data format can contain, whether there’s any meaningful research that can be done with it, etc.

People are generally happy to give you their data. But they want to use it in the way that they’ve envisioned it. Using their infrastructure, their network, their framework, and their access rights. That makes it easier for them to show who is using it. These projects are still run by institutions, by universities, and they want to show impact, to show that the data is being used by this many people.

So when you tell them, “Hey, your data are available? We can download them, right?” They’re like, “Yeah, but why?” You say “Well, we want to do this.” “But then, you’re not going to use our framework that we’ve built? You’re not going to use our web tools to do this?” There is a feeling that you might be stepping on their toes.

How are you addressing these challenges?

To promote working open, we’re doing two things. First, we’re providing an example by using an open workflow as much as possible. Second, we periodically sending summaries to people who prefer to receive emails rather than jump into a Gitter chat or open a GitHub issue.

So I summarize what’s on GitHub and send it out using a mailing list. I say, “Here is a mailing list. If you have any concerns, or questions, or comments, reply to the mailing list so that all 20 people in the list can see your response to the email that I’ve sent out.” Although I still have some people who respond by writing just to me, copying another colleague who is an authority figure, and asking “Why is this being done this way?”

To address the data formats challenge, we drafted a policy proposal outlining the benefits of depositing data into a data repository, which allows them to have a DOI [digital object identifier] associated with the dataset. This way, the name of project, researchers, and university can be embedded into the citation. If anyone does research on it, or builds on top of it, there is a thread that leads back to those who originally provided the data. That’s meaningful.

We’re showing the advantages of having an open data repository and meaningfully licensed data. We’re demonstrating concrete benefits so that researchers will make their data open. We’re hoping this will convince them that we’re not trying to step on their toes. We’re not trying to take away control from them — they still retain ownership of the data, they still get credit, and they will be cited if the data gets use somewhere.

For us it’s about use, but for them it’s about ownership. They retain ownership and we can get use as long as they get credit for it. They need to be aware that we’re not trying to take away their data and ruin their reputations and stop using their methods of doing things.

This approach has worked because the people who work on this issue are very passionate about education. They work with teacher groups, they want them to get Particle Physics into middle school, high school classrooms. They really care about this. They’re not sitting there going, “No, we don’t want to give it to you because we don’t want anyone to analyze it.”

They care about it, so if they can be shown benefits of maximizing the use of the data in an educational context they’re up for that as well. It’s a question of identifying everyone’s needs, requirements, and desires and then moving forward.

Do you find that creating the summaries for the people who prefer email has some good effects? Can you use that content for communications?

Creating summaries helps us to stay on track. We also used them during the Open Leadership Training, where every two weeks we’d meet Abby or Aurelia. So we crystallize the work we’d done in the preceding two weeks into a summary. That helps you realize that you’re on track, or helps you identify any issues that are preventing you from moving forward.

Periodic summaries are very useful in that sense, it’s like a stand-up meeting where you get together and you say, “What have we done? We have done this, this, this. This is great; we can continue on this track. Here are some blocks that we have on our path which we need to address. This does not work, we need to find a solution, or move away from this.”

Those kind of summaries really help. Especially since everyone is doing this as a part-time, interest-based project rather than a professional project. It helps us define our next steps.

I might have preferred we had virtual meetings every two weeks, where we could summarize and have those in minutes on a GitHub issue. But, looking at the positives, creating summaries forces us to reflect on the work that was done the preceding three to four weeks, and then identify the next steps. That’s a good thing.

Let’s switch now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe — keeping the net open and free. What for you is the open internet?

The web was born at CERN 25 years ago as a means of disseminating knowledge. Tim Berners-Lee set it up as a means for physicists to share their papers in a rapid way — without having to rely on printing something and then posting it.

You had Usenet and other groups that existed before this, but the web provided a means of delivering persistent content with identifiers and so forth. This was a development meant for disseminating knowledge.

For me, the open web is something that continues to foster that ideal of unbridled access to knowledge, to information, to not have gatekeepers telling us what we’re allowed to read and what we’re not allowed to read.

Also not having someone observe what people are reading and accessing — because that sets a very dangerous precedent. People behave differently when they’re being observed.

There had been instances of people having to face issues because they look up something based on an interest or a curiosity, which turned out to be something that some groups consider threatening. Surveillance changes the way we approach knowledge acquisition.

We’re fundamentally curious species. We have grown and furthered our use of resources and exploration around us as a result of curiosity and anything that stunts that curiosity is a problem.

Anything that inhibits people from looking at something just because of what might happen later is a problem. “If I look this up someone is going to stop me from going somewhere because they know that I looked this up?” That worry throttles our creativity, our imagination.

There’s bad side to this as well. I don’t mean to say that everything that people can access on the internet is virtuous or good, but some of it is driven by curiosity and their search for inspiration.

There’s lots of literature on the world that has been banned at one time or another. For various reasons, society imposed some subjective criteria saying, “These are reasons you should not read these books.” I went to Strand Books — a big bookstore in New York. There is an entire section on banned books [] — books that different people has decided that you shouldn’t read. Maybe because they were thought to be immoral or they were thought to incite desires. These works are now considered to be high literature — or at least works that are representative of human culture at a point in time.

Stifling access to information is not a way to get people on your side. When they ask why, “Because I don’t think you should be looking at it” is not a convincing argument. That’s not good enough.

For me, the open web is something that enables people to have access to knowledge and information. And yet there’s a whole set of illegal activities that are taking place and that’s something that needs to be monitored. I don’t know how it would work. There is a balance that needs to be struck but often we’re on the side of overcompensating in restricting people. I don’t know what the right balance is. I don’t know how you would do it. I just know that the ways we have been told things should be done is not really the right way of going about. That’s how I feel about it… even though that’s not a very helpful answer.

Can you give me an example of a time where the type of openness you’re describing has been important for you, or has impacted your life?

Since I moved to Europe from India I have second guessed the terms that I enter into a search engine when I’m looking for something. I can use search engines that are more privacy-focused — and that’s what I have done when researching things like the history of the atomic age and nuclear weapons.

Those are topics that have interested me since I was about 11 years old. I was studying about uranium, about how you can have fission and stuff in it. I remember talking to my classmates when I was in sixth grade about it. They wondered why I cared about it, but it was something that fascinated me. This is something that I now think twice about looking up.

I have been told that every time I apply for a U.S. visa my entry will be restricted, and it take much longer to process my application, because I have the nationality of a country that has nuclear weapons and I have a background in physics and I’m working in a nuclear-research laboratory.

Even though I’m not a physicist, even though I’m not interested in nuclear weapons in terms of manufacturing them, I was told that this is the reason I get limited, restricted access.

I missed a conference in the U.S. because I didn’t get my visa in time. I got it eventually but it made me rethink what I look up and what I want to associate with my IP address.

Do you get to the point where you feel like looking up things using Tor?

I haven’t done that yet, but I have considered it. The fact that the Tor bridges sometimes are so slow has prevented me sometimes from looking things up. But it hasn’t really affected me very deeply, it’s just played at the back of my mind a few times.

I’ve read that there are different levels of power, and the most insidious is the limit you put on yourself, with no one explicitly telling you what you can or can’t do.

It hasn’t affected me in any meaningful way — I haven’t been prevented from doing anything. But it’s something I’m aware of. I don’t like the idea that almost every conversation that you have with a friend via email or something that can be indexed by state authorities, it’s at their discretion.

At one point my friend and I were having a chat on Google Hangouts and we’re joking about some stuff and almost every third line was, “We’re just kidding NSA. Please don’t come after us.” It was partly a joke but also partly an acknowledgment that it was all there for anyone to look at our chat history. It’s a private conversation, but of course it’s not private on the internet if it’s going through the servers of an organization that’s not encrypting your communications within their own servers.

It’s encrypted to and from, but yeah, I don’t quite feel free to have certain conversations with my friends about issues, and I don’t talk about political issues sometimes.

I really choose not to, even if it’s with someone I trust implicitly because it’s not just about the person I’m having the conversation with. There are all these layers just to have a private chat with someone.

The web has been a great enabler. People can have communications around the world with very few barriers. There is instantaneous communication with everyone, something that my parents’ generation never thought possible.

My grandma was telling me about how when my father was in West Africa 30 years ago and they had to have a phone call it would take seconds for their conversations to go through.

Now we have virtually instantaneous text-based, wireless-based communication, but there is still this notion that if I say something to my friend — even in jest — or if I’m discussing an issue that I’m really passionate about, who’s going to look at that?

Who’s going to make a decision and who’s going to at some point decide that I’m not welcome in a certain part of the world for no crimes that I have committed, but just an idea that I’ve expressed?

Also you may be exploring an idea, trying to decide, or trying on an identity. It may be something that you later abandon because you’ve gone through a process of discovery.

Privacy can have the benefit of reducing extremism. When people are able to have a conversation about their views it becomes possible to see another side and it changes your perspective. But, if you’re not allowed to have that conversation, it means that you’re in a series of echo chambers — constantly repeating the same thoughts.

I don’t know if it has affected me in any personal way, but it has made it funny to have certain conversations with people.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them and what has that been like for you?

Mozilla was something that I’d wanted to be involved with for a very long time having known about the good work that they’ve has been doing in pushing for a web built on meaningful standards and democratizing things. I created an account to be a volunteer — years ago — but at the time it wasn’t very clear how I could contribute.

I looked at a lot of things they were working on, like coding issues and browser development or Thunderbird or whatever. This is a while back. There were a lot of conversations about internationalization and localization. You can help improve our wikis and this and that.

At the time, I was not very familiar with wiki syntax. I signed up and I got an email from Mozilla welcoming me to the network. That email sat in my inbox unread because I opened it and I said, “OK. I will get to this long email of, ‘Here’s how you can do it.’” And then I just never went back to it. It was there for years.

It wasn’t easy to figure out how to contribute. Before that, I said, “OK. If I can’t really contribute meaningfully, but I can donate monthly.” So I set up the monthly donation as a means of contributing to an organization that I believed deserved support.

I started really involving myself when I joined the Mozilla Science Lab community calls. This was something that was because of an interest that I had in using science and writing code. I’m doing a PhD in science and communication which is a social science field which doesn’t do a lot of programming. It doesn’t do a lot of coding. I don’t really have an academic support structure for exploring programming paradigms.

I joined the community course or listening by calling in via Skype on the tram ride home and I had a little notebook which I was noting interesting projects and would stay in my pocket and I’ll be like, “Oh, this sounds cool, I should follow up.” I also heard about the Etherpad. I saw that there were very interesting projects that being discussed. There were ways in which people could contribute to those projects. Even if it was just something you learn about, there was a platform for people to learn about tools around the web.

I heard about Global Sprint through the community calls and a friend and I decided to organize one at CERN in 2015. I got this great mentorship from Abby and Aurelia over the next few months in the lead up to the Global Sprint where they said, “OK. How’s it going? How’re you doing this, how’re you doing that.”

When the Global Sprint happened I was like, “This is really cool. They have set up this amazing infrastructure. They’ve set up this plan for us.” Like, “Here’s how we do it over two days. Here’s how you can organize locally at your place,” and said, “This is great.” Five projects emerged from the Sprint. There was a lot of good that came out of it — including our project.

After a while the Mozilla team contacted me and I got invited to attend the Working Open Workshop in Berlin.

That was really a big occasion, a very transformative experience in many ways because, over those two days, we were taught how we can harness collaborative tools to have our projects get some structure, to have them get some direction, to communicate the direction and our desires and our aims and objectives.

After a while, Abby and Aurelia contacted me again and said, “Hey, would you be up for passing this on? Would you be up for mentoring someone else?”

I said, “Yes. It would be a pleasure if you think I’m in a position to do it.” Because you always feel like you’re not good enough. You can’t really do it. They said, “Yeah, no, go for it. Do it.” I said OK, I took it up and in the last six, seven weeks I’ve been mentoring two projects, one more than the other but mentoring one project.

It was rewarding to see that some of the things I’d learned were things that I could pass on and that’s a good way for us to expand this knowledge base. It’s one thing to write something in a document that no one ever reads. There’s great articles on the internet about how to write a good ReadMe file, how to have your project running openly, how to use collaborative tools.

When you see them written, you don’t have a practical explanation of what it means to do those things. But when you have a project and someone sitting with you going, “Try do this. What do you think? Try this for two weeks and come back and tell us what you think.” It’s much more meaningful, it’s tangible, it’s something that you can really put your finger on and say, “Aha! That worked. I can see what that article that I read about meant.”

Then you can pass it on to someone else who has those same ideas and ideals. You can say, “All right, this is what I learned. Here is how you might want to do it,” and then they come back to you every two weeks and again, “This worked for me. I’m stuck here, how do I move forward?”

That’s a very powerful aspect of this network. It’s not just having passive information that can be consumed. It’s about being active contributors to projects and supporting people around you.

From what I’m hearing, you’re also talking about the importance of being accompanied, of having someone walking with you. Not all the time, but from time to time. This is the value of community.

Very much so. Some of the people I know through this network are people I didn’t know six months ago. Before then, I didn’t know that they existed. Now they’re people I speak to a lot about all kinds of issues. About issues I’m passionate about. About issues that I need help with.

One of the guys who was in our Working Open Workshop was the Open Science fellow last year, Rik Smith-Unna. He’s been tremendously helpful with my research when I struggle with code, I ping him because he is a wizard with R. Every time I struggle with something, I ping him and he looks at it and he says, “Yeah, this is what you need to do.”

He didn’t just give me the solution. He would write comments in the code and send snippets, saying, “This is what this bit of code is doing,” which was in itself useful — but also showed me the value of doing this for someone else. That whole network, that whole group of us who went to Berlin earlier this year, a lot of us have stayed in touch.

A lot of us talk regularly about our work, our research, or whatever might be our concerns. It’s nice that there is this group of people who share those same issues you might face or have solutions to the issues you might face.

It’s nice that that exists — especially for someone like me because I don’t have an academic support network.

I’m doing PhD remotely, on a part-time basis, which means I don’t have a cohort. I don’t have a university group where I can go. It’s a little bit frustrating. Either of those two is bad enough, but when you combine distance and part-time it’s crazy.

But now there’s this virtual cohort, virtual support structure that I have of people who I can ping and say, “Hey, what do I do here?” Or, “Have you faced or this?” Someone will get what I mean. That’s very helpful. It’s very useful to have that group of people who care about science and using digital tools to further science.

You have already touched on some of the benefits you got from being part of Mozilla. Is there anything more or specific you’ll like to add about the impact of being involved and contributing?

The benefits to me are maybe two-fold. One of them is that it has directly changed the way I work on my research. I have been exposed to workflows and paradigms that I would never have come across before just in terms of, “Here’s how you’ll make a presentation using the programming language directly and then build up an HTML page.”

It’s like, “This is cool. I didn’t know this was a possibility,” and people help with that. It has directly impacted my work. It has also been a rewarding experience in knowing that I can make a contribution. Like I said, I created a Mozilla account a long time back saying, “Yeah, I’ll look into it.”

I know others have contributed meaningfully to the Mozilla community after receiving the same email. But, for me, it was a “I don’t know where to start!” kind of thing. It was something I wanted to be a part of. Now, having been brought in and coached and shown “This is what you can do. This is a niche that you can fill or help further.” It’s a very rewarding feeling I think more than anything else.

What happened between letting that welcome email languish in your inbox and joining the community calls?

A friend of mine who had heard me talking about my interest in open source programming and science and communication and happened to see a tweet about the Mozilla Science Lab community calls and sent me a link and said, “Hey, this is happening. This might interest you.” I subscribed to the email alerts and I began to say, “OK. I’ll listen in.”

I also started looking forward to the next call and I went to the wiki and saw that it hadn’t been updated with the link to the latest Etherpad for the call, I also saw that the list of past calls had not been updated. So I logged into my account and updated the wiki — I got authorization to do that.

I never touched any Mozilla wiki until that point. But this was something I was involved with, even if just passively listening in to the calls. I thought “Hey, that information is not updated. And you know what? I can update it.” I would go and fix it. I did this three or four times. I’d go in before any of the Mozilla team would go and update the wiki.

I think that’s how I first contacted Aurelia or Abby — asking them for permission to edit the wiki. Then it felt like there was a practical tangible way for me to contribute as opposed to looking through a list of stuff that said “You can do any one of these things. Here you can do this. Here you can do that.”

With the list, I thought, “Where do I start? What can I do instead of being given one thing which matches with my abilities or interest or desires?” But with the wiki I thought, “Hey, how about this? Yeah, I can do that.” That’s an in and then, of course, you expand the things that you do but having that in was valuable.

Getting more involved was serendipitous. My friend came across this tweet and recalled a conversation we had and then sent me the link and then I was like, “I can fix this wiki and then I can organize a Sprint.”

It was not something that was planned or something that I followed, like a document on the Mozilla website that said, “Hey, you can do this, this, this, this. Step one, two, three, four, five.” It was an ad hoc thing that grew over time. Maybe it’s worth identifying what those ins are and seeing how they can be developed into a defined kind of strategy.

Looking back at these experiences you’ve had with Mozilla what hasn’t gone well? Where would you want to improve things?

Years ago, when I first signed up, it wasn’t clear to me how I could get started. How I could help. They had a page with calls to action: “You can do this, you can do this, or you can do this.” It was even streamlined to the point where, when you created your profile, you had to select your areas of interest and things that you think you can contribute. I think I put down editing and proofreading, because I do communications. I thought, “I can’t really code. Maybe I can read.”

The dead end was after my interests had been identified. Life gets in the way. So unless I’m sent a document that says, “Hey, edit this file by this date.” I’m not going to go out looking for stuff that I can fix. I might come across something and then fix it. I did that with Wikipedia. But I never go out and say “I’m going to spend an hour editing.” When they looked through my Wikipedia edit history, a friend once remarked that I had edited the most random articles. They asked, “How are these connected?” I said, “I was just Wikipedia hopping and I came across something that needed a correction and I did it.”

Maybe once those interest areas are identified there needs to be some kind of onboarding process which says, “You’ve identified this as your means of contributing, here’s where we need help,” — concretely. GitHub works well for this. People can now create issues with labels like “beginner” or “easy” or whatever.

But when people sign up and say, “I can edit your text,” and they respond, “Great. OK. Thanks. Go on, edit our text.” many will wonder, “Where do I start?”

Of course, if you give me something concrete I may not have the time to do it. For example, when CERN asked me to contribute to the study groups document on open science — on why you would do things openly — I was asked to contribute to the section on public communication because that’s my domain of expertise. That was something that I just could not for the life of me make time and do. The deadline had come and gone, and I said, “I’m terribly sorry, I need more time on this. I will do it for you and I might not perfectly happy with it but I will do it.” It was good because they contacted me and said, “Here’s something we need done,” and it was on my list. I had it prioritized, I had the page open, and I kept going back to it.

Admittedly I’m maybe an outlier. A lot of people signing up for Mozilla are programmers or coders or web developers, people with a more technical bent. But there should be somewhere that says “Thanks for this, we’ve acknowledged your areas of interests. Here’s what we need right now that you can help with,” rather than “Go on then, you can edit our documents. Thanks.”

It felt a bit nebulous. It felt a bit directionless for me even though there were clear actions, as I said, “You can do this, or you can do this, or you can do this.” But what do I pick? What do you need?

You needed more human engagement?

Yes, which might not be something that is possible to implement. It was a very serendipitous thing. In terms of concrete steps forward it would involve a certain amount of work — maybe that’s where the existing community can help. The network can help identify specific places where people can go in straight in and start helping as soon as they’ve signed up.

So instead of a generic email that says, “You can do this or this or this. Thank you.” they’d get one that says “Here’s a link to our issues in GitHub.” Or, “Here’s where we need someone to proofread the text.” Or, “Here’s where we need someone to translate this into a different language.” Or, “Here’s where we need someone to expand on this chapter.”

Developers and programmers will be much more tuned into certain ways of working, compared to someone like me who cares about these issues but doesn’t feel confident enough to contribute or doesn’t know enough to contribute. There’s a misperception that Mozilla is a place where only coders can contribute.

Just look at the spaces that we have at MozFest. That’s a good starting point. If you’re interested in advocacy, here’s what you would do. If you’re interested in this, here’s what you would do. Sometimes is literally just a case of having someone sit with you and say, “Do this.”

Bill Mills (@billdoesphysics) is a particle physicist who worked with the Mozilla Science Lab. He was the one who developed the study groups on GitHub as a fork-and-go approach, where you fork it and then this is the workflow that you establish for having a study group lessons.

It was great. I looked through it and there’s this huge beautifully written documentation for how you would do it and then I was, “Is this the right approach? Whom do I speak with, whom do I contact?” What happened was we were at this workshop in Berlin where there were four people from CERN, including me.

We all sat around and said, “You know what? We should do this, right?” This is one of the things I think Zannah or Steph spoke about. She said, “Yeah, we have a study group and here’s how you do it. You fork this repo and you create this.” We sat there in half an hour and set it up. We did it hands on.

Before, when I received the email, I thought it was just me by myself having to do this, it was not clear who would contribute. But at the workshop I realized that there’re three people around me who also wanted to do this. When we met we said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea.” Of course, it has hiccups but we started it and now there’s conversations happening.

It’s not clear where people can jump in, even though there are lots of opportunities. But, when you come to MozFest and look at the spaces here, people are not developing or coding. They’re working on advocacy, fostering the open Web, on open science and localization. These are issues that people are affected by or want to be a part of.

Are there any ways in which the stories we’re collecting — or the documentation of the StoryEngine methodology — might be useful to you?

I don’t know how they would be used, ultimately, but I’m envisioning something like you have this entire spread of stories. Most of them won’t be relevant to the people coming in. If there’s a way of filtering them, of grouping stories, then you can deliver meaningful stories to people based on their areas of interest. That would give people a feel of what they might be able to do.

You’re going to get a whole bunch of very interesting perspectives. You will try to quantify them at some point — do thematic analysis and so forth. That overlaps a lot with the exercises that we’ve done here at Mozfest, something that I struggle with a bit, profiles of people want to contribute to our project. Imaginary bios… personas.

Creating personas was something that I found very difficult, but this is where I see the relation. If you have this whole spread of personas of people beyond a programmer — people interested in communication and rights. What story would you tell that person to make them feel like they can contribute?

That’s where the connection is for me. It think this is useful to have because it means that you get a whole gamut of personalities and experiences and interests, and you can use that to cluster them into groups where every person who wants to contribute gets an example or a story that is relevant to them or they can relate to.

Tell me a story how someone spend weeks hacking away on a project that help improve a browser plugin that does X. That’s really cool, but I don’t connect. I don’t relate. But if you tell me, “Hey, this is how someone actually improved their research workflow by making it open using this and that.” Then I see what you mean, I see where I can help, or I see where I can learn or see where I can contribute.