Reflections on sustainable communities for digital skills training
The following article was written by Megan Guidry, NeSI Research Communities Advisor; Matthias Liffers, Research Software Skills Specialist, Australian Research Data Commons; and Liz Stokes, Senior Research Data Skills Specialist, Australian Research Data Commons.
When people come together with common interests and shared goals it’s easy to rock out with Belinda Carlisle, dreaming the same dream, recognising that we do indeed want the same thing. (Especially if you listen to the same classic rock radio stations as Liz). And indeed, in the skill sharing and training communities, we recognise the importance of attending to the social side of learning new digital and data skills.
But what does a community need in order to thrive and maintain the momentum of the people who drive it forward? What social and economic structures ensure the sustainability of a community?
More than 40 people gathered at the Sustainable Communities BoF during ARDC’s Australian eResearch and Data Skills Summit 2020. Hosted by Matthias Liffers, Liz Stokes, and Megan Guidry, this session aimed to focus the communities' efforts in cultivating and sustaining a healthy community of eResearch trainers and learners by achieving three main goals:
Identifying, as a group, what features we value in a community
Determining next steps for developing an Australian Carpentries consortium
Determining the feasibility of coordinating ResBaz efforts in 2021
Those attending were divided into breakout rooms to discuss the topic most relevant to them, and the results of these conversations are summarised below.
Breakout 1 - Defining the features of a sustainable community
Participants in breakout room 1 were given the task of identifying what good community support looks like and how we might start to think about making the eResearch training community more sustainable.
To kick off the discussion attendees were asked “How do you know when you are part of a community” and the group responded with several indicators including:
Informal regular contact
Common interests, vision, goals, and values
Knowing who to ask questions (and feeling safe to do so)
Feeling supported, understood, included, and valued
Upon further reflection, attendees shared that they often felt most part of a community when they were sought out to perform a task or contribute to an event because of their unique skills or knowledge. Being asked for help can make people feel appreciated, useful, valued, and respected, which is how this group hopes to feel when engaging with a community
How do we apply this understanding to the eResearch training community?
One attendee mentioned that feeling short on time is very common to many in the eResearch community which got the group thinking about the role structure plays in successful communities. Since many of us are time-poor it may be imperative to fund a core group of individuals with a dedicated mandate to keep things rolling, and to ensure community contributions are meaningful, valuable, and put into action.
Essentially, the load of steering and maintaining a community needs to be shared effectively. Too often new responsibilities fall on the shoulders of a select few which leads to failure. If we want to create a sustainable community the governing structure needs to evolve as the community matures. In the words of one attendee, “Communities are often started by a ‘Benevolent Dictator’ but must migrate to a democratic governance model as it grows.” A next step for the eResearch community could be to take stock of how decisions are currently made and to identify any stress points within the current community governance structure.
In summary, characteristics of sustainable communities include:
Clarity around shared and agreed vision, goals, values, and approaches
Core resources funded to “keep things rolling”
Governance structure which ensures responsibilities and tasks are equitably shared
Regular (more formal) and irregular (less formal) meetings can lead to strong communities
Promoting and encouraging mechanisms for asking and responding to questions and challenges
Breakout 2 - Next steps for creating an Australian Carpentries consortium
Many Australian institutions would like to have trained Carpentries instructors, but it is difficult to justify the expense of a Carpentries membership with limited operational budgets. What can be done to improve the value of a Carpentries membership?
The breakout started with a provocation - “Why would it be a bad idea to form an Australian Carpentries consortium?”. In response, attendees suggested that a consortium might not meet the needs of all Australian institutions, and that some institutions are not very good at accessing or utilising a shared resource effectively.
However, it was agreed that the potential benefits of a consortium far outweighed the potential pitfalls. For example, greater coordination of member institutions would lead to more effective use of resources, and a more coherent community for new Carpentries instructors to join and be supported. A greater pool of instructors could give rise to discipline-specific communities that might not be able to exist in a single institution.
The concept of a consortium for Australia, perhaps along the lines of the NZ model, is one ARDC is interested in exploring, and initial conversations testing benefits, ideas and approaches are currently being held with organisations including QCIF and Intersect. If you are interested in joining these discussions, please contact the ARDC.
Breakout 3 - What could national coordination of RezBaz events look like?
The collaboratively organised ResBaz digital skills festival model works well as a common framework because it is flexible enough for local organising teams to tailor their efforts to their immediate, or city-based communities. This distribution, independence, and agility does however make the idea of “RezBaz” as an entity more difficult to contribute to on a national level. So the question is: does this distributed model provide benefits that outweigh the potential benefits of a more centralised structure? What kind of national coordination would be helpful and not just add an additional layer of committees?
We started the discussion asking the more existential question of whether the community-based skill-sharing experience particular to ResBaz could be replicated online, and if not, would hosting ResBaz in 2021 be a serious possibility? People agreed that it would be hard to replicate the physicality around community that is central to the ResBaz experience and the networking, social bonding and community building aspects would be difficult (but not impossible) to maintain. Running simultaneous hubs in separate institutions which could hook up to common online events (eg keystories) was one suggestion. Perhaps waiting until physical distancing restrictions eased rather than undertake an online event at the same scale could be a sensible option?
It was acknowledged that ResBaz without the face-to-face social events is basically standalone Carpentries-style workshops, which we’re all doing anyway. Even though many of the ResBaz core audience would have gained experience interacting through online learning/training platforms, it’s important to recognise there is an extra learning curve for participants if ResBazzes were held online.
Despite these difficulties, there was resounding enthusiasm across the group for hosting ResBaz festivals in 2021 in some form of hybrid or online event. Perth ResBaz are looking at running training online but hosting a community day where people come together for the social factor. For Brisbane, QCIF and QUT are keen to be involved, but the venue is not confirmed. Sydney expects to be hosted by USYD in 2021 but have reservations about what format is best going to meet the needs of attendees and sponsors - if sponsors remain necessary. CDU in Darwin flagged interest in holding a ResBaz too.
Having established that we (collectively) do want the same thing, i.e. host our respective ResBaz festivals in some form or another, discussion turned toward how coordinating nationally might help us meet the challenges on the horizon for 2021. These topics included:
Coordination - and potentially resourcing- on central infrastructure like the website and slack spaces. Currently there’s a blog from the originating Melbourne team (https://resbazblog.wordpress.com/) which has support information for hosts, and a new website created each year which can be cloned and customised (https://github.com/resbaz/resbaz2020). However this is volunteer managed and could benefit from more information and support for new sites who’d like to run ResBaz for the first time.
Facilitating information sharing between organising teams of what worked and what didn’t each time. Nothing bonds people like candid acknowledgement of shared triumphs and abject fails.
Managing trainer availability was less a problem for local institutions, but certainly a concern for trainers from any national facilities.
Finally, there may be some benefits to centrally coordinating sponsorship from large organisations, who might prefer to work with one umbrella engagement, rather than small multiple engagements. This would save work for each individual event organiser too.
Since there are ResBaz festivals in both Australia and New Zealand, the eResearch NZ Conference in February 2021 could be a great opportunity to continue this conversation.
Taking advantage of a well-placed BoF might just be the catalysing effort we need to help our respective ResBaz communities support and sustain each other. Maybe we really can see it together, for now, for the future of open science, for reproducibility, Amen!
If you would like to keep up to date on this and other topics relevant to the eResearch training community in Australia and New Zealand consider joining the ENRICH Community of practice on Slack.