Anelda van der Walt, founder of Talarify, is an eResearch Consultant who works with research institutions to facilitate adoption of the latest technologies and methodologies throughout research project lifecycles, build networks between researchers and research support environments, promote and facilitate interdisciplinary research, improve research data management practices, and build computing and digital capacity amongst students and staff.
She is currently working with North-West University to help develop their eResearch Initiative in collaboration with IT@NWU. She is passionate about capacity building and empowering people specifically about connecting people to communities and resources available online. Since 2014 she has been involved in more than 20 Software, Data, or Library Carpentry events in South Africa and abroad. She also served as co-chair for the RDA-CODATA Research Data Science (RDS) Summer School Working Group which was responsible for delivering the first RDA-CODATA RDS Summer School in Trieste, Italy in 2016. Anelda has been involved in several awareness and capacity building initiatives at the North-West University and nationally around Research Data Management, Open Science, Reproducible Research, and Capabilities to support Data-Intensive Research.
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Start by giving me an overview of your work and the goals that you work towards.
I started my company, Talarify, which is now two and a half years old, because I realized universities are having trouble to adapt fast enough to adequately support researchers’ changing needs. I work with support services, like IT, libraries, and the research support office, to help them understand researchers’ needs better. I also work directly with researchers and postgraduate students to create an awareness of tools, resources, and communities that are available online.
Although I have a background in Bioinformatics, I now work with people in social sciences and humanities, life sciences, engineering, health sciences, and more. I really enjoy this diversity.
We’re heavily involved in Software, Data, and Library Carpentry. We run workshops to teach researchers and postgraduate students to work more efficiently with research data – from collection to analysis and publication. As part of our awareness and capacity building campaigns we get involved in projects like the Mozilla Science Global Sprint, OpenCon, the open Access Week, and study groups. We work with a broad range of people to help them adopt new technologies and new resources to do better research in the 21st century.
Which part, specifically, was there a lag in adoption in terms of the university community? Was it their ability to procure new software, or integrate it, or accept it?
I think curriculums are hard to change, and lecturers might not always be able to teach the most cutting edge things because they still have to learn these new things themselves. It’s not simple to learn a new technique and then teach it at a graduate level right away. It takes a long time to phase everything in. My personal target area is postgraduate level and early career researchers, but I love working with anyone who’s interested to learn.
As you go higher up in the careers ladder, people are just so busy — they’re trying to keep their heads above water, they’re trying to keep their jobs, they’re trying to make sure that there are grants for their students, and they’re often more involved in management tasks than research. It’s much easier to introduce changes and new approaches at postgraduate level or early career research level. Those people are typically still looking for the thing that is going to make them successful — for things that will differentiate them so that they can get jobs, keep jobs, or finish their degrees.
I think often, established researchers are too busy already, and too deep into what they’re doing to change quickly or easily. I’m not saying that they don’t want to learn new things — they just really are trying to survive. There are some who are established and keen to learn new things and really make staying current a priority, but mostly people find it hard to strike a good balance between innovating to stay current and focusing on their research whilst keeping up with all the other demands associated with being a university lecturer and researcher.
Then there is a lag at the support levels. Typically research support environments are not used to collaborate beyond or sometimes even within their departments — but this is critical for research support in the 21st century. They don’t have people inside who look from another angle. When you work in the research support environment, you work and report into your specific department.
It’s sometimes great to have someone from the outside, like a contractor who is not affiliated with the organisation, to look across departments. For people associated with an organisation, sitting in a department, it’s sometimes hard to see the duplication or the glaring omissions. They may not be aware of something else until someone comes in and points them in the direction of potential collaborators in other departments. That’s one of the roles I play — I’m an integrator, network creator, cheerleader.
What technologies are most popular that you train on? You mentioned a few in your early intro, but it was quick, so I just want to make sure I capture those.
We run workshops around research data management. We create an awareness of data across the life cycle of a research project. Most institutions don’t have a lot available at the moment — it’s all still in development — so we provide a high-level awareness around those topics. We introduce and teach new technologies — like Figshare and other institutional repositories. We show them there are better data management practices and data management plans and tools to help achieve better data provenance.
Then we also run Software and Data (and Library) Carpentry workshops where we teach R, Linux command line, SQL, OpenRefine, Version Control, Git, and GitHub, and applied subject specific tools in some cases such as for genomics data analysis.
My own background is in bioinformatics and genomics — this is where Mozilla Science comes in — I’ve started a Genomics Hacky Hour Mozilla Science study group which is now lead by Bianca Peterson, a PhD Student at the North-West University.
Wow. It’s super fascinating — the fact that you’ve found this niche. I’m wondering, when you look back over this work, can you pick out one specific time where you really felt a sense of success?
I think at every single workshop that we run, there’s someone whose eyes open up to opportunities and skills they never knew existed and is within reach for them to learn, acquire, and use in their own research — there’s a light that switches on.
When you start a workshop, you have all these frowny faces and concerns that they will never be able to learn this. They think it’s hard, and only for clever people and computer science people. Within a day of starting the workshop, you see their attitudes change — they start believing that they can learn this stuff.
In November 2016 for example we ran a workshop that specifically excited me. It was at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), which is in quite a rural area of South Africa. We had trained up two instructors from that university earlier in 2016 and they were teaching their first workshop. I went out there to mentor them and brought someone from the U.K. along to help mentor and teach. The workshop was funded through a programme (RCCP II) of the Department of Higher Education. Of course with every workshop we run, we also learn loads, so it’s a two-way stream.
The feedback from all the participants at that workshop was really good. So many of them were interested and committed to learning more about these skills. The two local instructors really enjoyed it as well — I even had an email from the U.K. instructor saying how much he had learned during this workshop. Subsequently we ran another workshop at UNIVEN in 2017 and they also created a study group who meet regularly. The two champions at the university are postgraduate students, not professors, management, or people with budgets and decision making power. But they are making a difference. Building on opportunities given to them, and sharing these opportunities with their colleagues. I LOVE it.
How about an example of a challenge?
One of my challenges was that I’m not able to scale. There’s so many possibilities and opportunities to do magnificent things, but our days are only so long, and I just couldn’t take advantage of all the opportunities I was aware of and didn’t know how to help people become aware of these opportunities. I really wanted to grow the network of leaders so that change could happen faster. Are you aware of our 12-month capacity building program?
No, I’m not.
In 2016 we developed a 12-month program with Mozilla Science Lab, Software Carpentry, Data Carpentry, the University of Cape Town, my company — Talarify, and the North-West University to train up instructors for Software and Data Carpentry in Africa. Those instructors were then supported by mentors in the international community to finish their instructor training, and then the newly qualified instructors were supported to run workshop at their institution.
Afterwards, we brought those newly qualified instructors back together again to ask them about what they’re doing now and how they experienced their involvement in the programme. We tried to understand why they qualified, who didn’t qualify and why, their experience running their first workshop, how our support worked for them, and what didn’t work for them. That program started in April of 2016 and we trained 23 people as instructors, and run several workshops.
Subsequently we ran another instructor training in May 2017 where we trained another 28 people. Suddenly the leadership group is growing. We have people mentoring each other, creating opportunities for each other, taking opportunities that are coming around. The challenge of not scaling and creating a bigger leadership group has mostly been overcome and nothing makes me happier than to see how the community has grown and matured over the past two years.
There are some other challenges too. Sometimes it’s hard to find a host to work with at an institution where we’d like to run a workshop, other times it’s hard to find funding. In the past two years we’ve received funding from several organisations. I would definitely like to mention some of our biggest financial supporters over the past year: the North-West University’s IT department (specifically the IT Director, Boeta Pretorius), the Data Intensive Research Initiative in South Africa (DIRISA) – specifically Anwar Vahed – and the DHET through the Rural Campus Connectivity Project (RCCP II) – specifically Geoff Hoy from TENET. The funding made available through these three organisations have really been instrumental in getting things off the ground in South Africa.
What are some of the ways that you’re approaching addressing the challenge of activating more mentors?
We’ve been fortunate to have very active interest from the international community to assist us. For the first round of instructor trainees, we had international mentors from Brisbane, University College London, and from Central University of Florida, who supported our instructors.
The fantastic attitude of the international community provided our newly trained instructors with great roll models. When we trained the second round of instructors, our own newly qualified people started volunteering as mentors for their colleagues. It worked better in areas where there were at least two or three people in close proximity or from the same institution or research group.
Although the instructor training is theoretically about learning how to teach computational skills to peers or students, we have found that there is a strong element of leadership development as well. So although some instructors will only be interested to teach technical skills to others, as we’re running more workshops, a greater variety of people are being attracted to these workshops. As the community grows, we are starting to find people who have leadership qualities and different viewpoints on how they could be involved in this community building and capacity development effort.
Some people grab the opportunity to create and develop study groups where they mentor people on a continuous basis in a more informal setting. Study groups are now really starting to take off in South Africa. Through the continuous support of people such as Aurelia Moser and Zanna Marsh, as well as Bianca Peterson, we now have two active study groups at North-West University as well as one at the University of Venda. There is also a group at the University of the Western Cape. One of our soon-to-be qualified instructors will also launch an episode of RLadies in Cape Town in July 2017.
I’m going to shift now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the web open and free. What for you, and I really want to emphasize the for you part here, is the open internet?
The open internet is the thing that makes my job possible, that makes it possible for my company to exist.
It’s not just access to information, it’s the community as well. If I didn’t have the internet and if I didn’t have these virtual communities, the open access training materials, access to blog posts and commentaries and fora and whatnot, I would not have been able to do any of the work that I’m doing, because I would only have had access to what was around me. In more isolated environments, like some of the provinces in South Africa and some of the universities in South Africa, there’s often not much around you in terms of cutting edge technology. If it wasn’t for the web, I wouldn’t have been aware of all these initiatives. If everything was behind a paywall, I wouldn’t have been able to start up my company.
I can communicate with the people I need to because of Google Hangouts and other free open videoconferencing tools. If it wasn’t for the open internet, for the Software and Data carpentry community, I would not be half the person that I am today.
You seem to have already answered my next question — what is an example of how the open aspects of the internet have been important for you? Do you want to add any details, or have anything else you would like to add?
Yes. One of the things I do when I’m at a workshop, meeting new instructors, or helping someone, is to show them all these open resources — they are stunned to find that there’s so much you can do for free. There’s so much that you can do to help yourself succeed. Most of the resources I use are online for free.
The internet can help people accomplish things they want to do in their life — there are so many resources available on the internet — motivational things like TED talks, workbooks, and tools. One of the things that really helped me was a website called Mind Tools. Some of their materials are closed, but many of them are open. They had this 30-page workbook that you can go through and write down your dreams, aspirations, and challenges. I filled it out and forgot about it. A year later I looked at it, and found my goal for starting company — I started it three months earlier than what I had said in that book!
There’s just so many resources available for any aspect of life. One of the reasons I started my company was because I knew so many people in South Africa dreamt of starting their own company. I thought if I can start a company and be successful, surely it might convince those that are timid about starting their own company, that if I can do it then so can they.
What I love about the story that you’re telling me is it’s not — I mean, I’ve heard a lot of people say I use it to learn, I use it to advance my career, but your story is a particular one about entrepreneurship being enabled by openness.
I think that’s really important to document that and kind of spread that message.
Well, if you can help me spread that message, if we can inspire one more person in South Africa to start their own company, it would be wonderful. I work a lot with academic institutions and I still get the feeling that many people who enroll for postgraduate studies believe they will be able to pursue an academic career, while the reality is that there are only a limited number of academic positions available and typically there is a very low number of jobs becoming available every year while there is a large number of students graduating. We have to provide postgraduate students with the vision that they can create their own companies, non-profits, or whatever and can contribute in other ways to the economic development of our country. Also, academic institutions are not the only place where those interested in research can thrive. More and more companies in South Africa are also opening R&D departments. We have to teach our young people to be open to new, and sometimes foreign (not as in another country, but foreign as in not familiar or traditional), opportunities and ideas.
South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of more than 50%. [South Africa uses a broader definition of youth, covering individuals between the ages of 15 and 34 years.] Of that 50%, 70% have never worked — can you imagine someone at that age, at 34, have never worked? What are the odds that someone will ever employ them? If we don’t get more people to start creating jobs and if we don’t get people to think differently about jobs, South Africa is doomed.
These are really good points that you raise — it’s going to be great to spread this story. Let’s get more specific about Mozilla. How did you get involved with them, and what has that been like for you? What kind of experience have you had?
I got involved through Software Carpentry — specifically through Bill Mills, who was a Software Carpentry instructor and a Mozilla Science fellow. He posted some information about Mozilla Science’s study groups on a Software Carpentry mailing list or blog post.
I am always thinking about workshops — I’ve participated in too many workshops where people were brought under the impression that they will arrive with no knowledge of a subject or tool, and leave fully proficient in said tool. The reality is that people don’t go from not ever having programmed, then participate in a workshop for two days or however long, and then go back to their lab and start programming — there has to be something beyond that.
Bill’s mentions of the study groups was very timely. When I was in Cape Town, we wanted to start a R user group so we used some of the materials from the Mozilla Science Lab study group handbook. Then when I started working with the North-West University, we decided to start a Genomics study group in October 2015. Participating in the 2016 Working Open Workshop (WOW) in Berlin helped a lot to further build momentum with our Genomics HackyHour study group, and we also helped the University of the Western Cape to set up their study group and later the University of Venda. The study groups have been a wonderful way of creating a post-workshop learning and teaching environment. It has been very slow to establish, but I think it’s starting to gain momentum in South Africa.
We also ran Mozilla Science Global Sprint at North-West University in June 2016. We arranged it a bit last minute, but still had some great projects. The best outcome I think was that South Africa officially became part of the international Library Carpentry community as we joined their lesson sprint that year. More information about what we planned for those two days are available at here.
How has it felt to be part of this? What impacts or changes have you seen?
Being part of the two communities, the Carpentries and Mozilla Science, have opened up more opportunities than anyone could imagine. There were times when I got frustrated because things didn’t happen fast enough, people were initially slow to take opportunities that were coming their way, but now, looking back, I can see the impact these two communities are having on research even in South Africa and other African countries.
In the next phase we aim to help more people to develop Mozilla-like study groups. Aurelia Mozer has been amazing in supporting our study group — she’s always been there to help. She’s there when I ask her to do a six o’clock in the morning presentation about Mozilla Science study groups. Initially there was the weekly/bi-weekly calls and I could ask Aurelia speak to other people so that I didn’t always have to do the evangelist work. Now there are more people talking about the impact study groups are having on their lives. Ask for example Bianca Peterson, PhD student at NWU and study group lead.
There are many more and much beter compiled online resources as well these days. The WOW websites are treasure troves, so are the Carpentries’ blog sites (Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry). I love the study group handbook, and I point people to it. More recent resources such as the onboarding programme was developed. I love Aurelia, and I invite her to speak. These days I can’t attend all the meetings and events anymore due to other obligations, but there are others who participate now. Recently we had four people from the South African Software/Data Carpentry community participate in the Working Open Workshop hosted in Cape Town. Initially I felt very guilty sometimes for not showing up at more meetings or engaging more actively, but now I realise I had my time to be there, now these opportunities are coming to South Africans and colleagues from other African countries more readily and it’s time for others to join in and have the same experiences than what I had when I first joined these open communities. It’s great. Life changing.
We’re collecting these stories from people like you — people within the Mozilla Network, from around the world. How might these stories that we collect be useful to you, if at all?
Well, it’s another resource I can point people to, so that they can see what kind of support people get, what kind of communities are out there, and how people have benefitted from available opportunities from the open internet. Sometimes people are stuck in situations with line managers or colleagues who are not very supportive, but with these open online communities, you can augment your physical world and get exposure to mentors, role models, and people who encourage you to be great.