The Software Sustainability Institute is all about building and supporting communities that use good software techniques to support research. Traditionally it has achieved this through in-person gatherings, particularly at its annual Collaboration Workshops although, over the years, many of these communities have also developed online in between such meetings. Like so many conferences and workshops, this year’s collaboration workshop, CW20, was forced online due to the COVID-19 situation. Going online brings a whole host of challenges which require us, as community builders and members, to think carefully about their solutions. In addition, however, it also brings several unique advantages compared to in-person interactions. Here we provide a snapshot of what the Institute and the RSE communities have seen when moving collaboration activities online.
Why going online is difficult
There are many different, often interrelated, issues that make growing online communities a complex challenge but broadly these fall into two categories: technological and social.
Technical challenges focus on tooling: finding the right software and hardware, juggling the variety, and understanding the licensing and access rights. For example, many of us might have comfortable office-place setups, such as standing desks, multiple monitors, dedicated network access provided by institutional IT services but lacking at home. As the lockdown continues and evolves, we may upgrade our home’s technology but this will likely be at our own expense and may be difficult to source. The variety of equipment and spaces we have to work from online are increasing and we need guidance to pick cameras, microphones and lights best suited to our homes as well as working online. The same is true for the software tools we choose. How can we run a mind-mapping session together online? How can we take collective decisions when we’re not in the same room or even timezone, and when there’s a chance we’ve never met each other before? There are many, many options out there to address specific challenges, but with this dazzling array of tools comes a risk that communities become fragmented, or individuals feeling disengaged and confused. In many cases the licensing of these different tools can be complicated - shared community licenses, where available, can be an important step to reducing these difficulties. And lastly, different tools and different community needs create a huge variety of ways to put all these options together - how can we share knowledge and experiences on good practices?
Social challenges mainly revolve around issues such as building working relationships without meeting face to face. How do we recreate the ad hoc events such as meeting the Dean or the numerical expert in my field in the corridor or chatting at the ‘water cooler’ that may spark new ideas and develop better understanding and respect for those we work with. How do we build trust and measure appreciation if we have limited bandwidth and cannot see or hear them? How do we learn what good online inclusive etiquette is so that we can encourage it? Stuck at home, we are moving less and staying in one chair all day, reducing our mobility - can we develop healthy work patterns? Finally cyber-security and privacy need to be considered. By going wholly online we are likely to be recorded, without realising it and continually, bad habits and all. Who owns this data? Is there confidential content, not just in terms of unpublished research but also personal data or concerns? Legally, who owns this data and what can they do with it?
How can we make online experiences better?
From a technical perspective it is important to pick the tools that match the task. Make sure to understand what the needs of your community are, then review what is out there. Common tasks include: whiteboarding, video calling, messaging, collaborative document writing, software engineering, data sharing, and documentation - there are many tools available for all of these, including free and open source options (e.g. this wikipedia list, this curated set of collaboration tools, and this awesome list). If video and audio calling will be important to your community then encourage members to get a good quality headset (the Institute has often used this one), a decent video camera, and a solid lighting solution (e.g. a desk light above your computer and no strong light behind you). Finally it is important to think carefully about how you expect people to use these tools and, crucially, document this clearly. Be aware, however, that although there are many tools, it’s not always sensible to use them all: too many tools that don’t talk well to each other can be hard to keep track of for members.
Beyond just the tooling, though, it is important to define how community members will engage with one another on these tools. For example, the experience for people connecting to a meeting or reading a chat history can be very different to one another. Try to encourage a common experience, for example, by making sure everyone sees the same information. In this regard, hybrid or blended community events can be extra challenging since the interaction between physical attendees is so different to those connecting remotely. If you do have many online discussion sessions, you will need to plan the timetable quite differently to an in-person event, e.g. allow lots of breaks for stretching and relieving eye strain.
If people have never met before, use ways to humanise community members or event participants. This may include activities such as encouraging sharing pictures of people's pets, what they are having for lunch, what’s outside their window. Other activities that are useful include ice breakers e.g. walking through the interfaces of online systems being used to maximise everyone’s uptake of the benefits. In addition, asking people to share activities they are doing for enrichment (e.g. reading, watching, listening). It is useful to know someone's background but one also has to be aware of potential bias this may introduce. However, one needs to understand the place of such activities.
Ultimately this is about building trust. One of the methods for getting people to build such trust is to get people to work together on something (e.g. speed-blogging) but online hackathons or reproducing a paper or finding background together on a particular topic might be other such activities. Another aspect of trust is being upfront about the creepy stuff, by this we mean we are clear when we are recording, what the code of conduct is, what we will do with people's data, the platforms we are using and where they store their data, and with incoming video streams there is also the possibility of face tracking. Thus focus on humanising people and then building trust through working on community related problems or sub areas of special interest to form compelling online activities where people feel valued and known. Online platforms and communication can be a chance for some to engage who otherwise in the physical world might be too shy to speak up or share.
Can online be even better than in person?
An advantage of communities, meetings, and events moving to online space is that physical travel is not a barrier anymore (although time zone differences can be). This allows community members to participate in events which would be out of reach for reasons such as finance, time, medical, or positions of responsibility such as parenthood. In turn this creates the possibility for new projects and communities to come about, since being co-located geographically is no longer a requirement.
This global inclusiveness can be further increased by using tools that allow asynchronous interactions. These give individuals the ability to adjust timetables to best match personal schedules and preferences although they require us to better document the workflows, discussions, and decisions. Since this documentation can easily be preserved indefinitely, transparency within the community and the potential for long-term impact will both be increased.
While some of these working methods might be unfamiliar, completely new approaches can become possible, such as the ability to watch back a recorded presentation, potentially at double speed. As speech-to-text algorithms improve, making a transcript of a meeting will become easier, which can in turn with translation to different languages.
Finally, if people travel less to take part in such events, the overall environmental impact of being a community member will be significantly reduced. In research sectors, travel for conferences often makes up one of the largest contributions to a researchers’ environmental footprint - moving online can help reduce this!
An online world
There are many challenges in moving events and community activities online, although many tools and techniques are being developed to address these. Community building is all about creating social connections between members but in a time when a move to an online world has been forced on us, it is clear that we do not need to give up these aspects - we only have to change how we do things and there are many examples out there of what works. What is more, by choosing appropriate technology and by being open, transparent, and sensitive to each other’s needs, the world of online communities and events can bring many additional benefits over traditional in-person meetings.