Green Goes Geek: Interview with Kelaine Vargas

Rikki Kite

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Aug 17, 2009 GMT
Rikki Kite

At OpenSource World last week, I attended a talk by Kelaine Vargas, urban ecologist and project manager of the Urban Forest Mapping Project. San Francisco's Urban Forest Mapping Project is an effort to "digitally pinpoint" the location of trees, maintain tree data (e.g., planting date, location, maintenance) in a database, and offer web access to the tree data. In San Francisco, for example, more than a dozen organizations have jurisdiction over trees and the project will help map and coordinate them. The community can get involved by posting photos, stories, and other information about trees in the area.

Why does this matter? Mapping the trees could help track disease spread, for example, or predict which trees might affect power lines during a storm. But this project could prove useful beyond tracking trees. "As an ecologist, to me trees are just the beginning," Vargas says.

After her talk, Vargas sat down with me to discuss her experiences as a woman in open source. Kelaine Vargas got involved in open source about a year ago when she became the ecologist on the Urban Forest Mapping Project. "I'm the tree geek, not the developer geek," she says.

I couldn't help but notice that only one woman – me – attended her OpenSource World talk, but Vargas says that being the only woman in the room just doesn't bother her. "You have a bunch of really smart people doing really interesting things, and I just don't care what sex they are," she says. In fact, she says that it's nice to feel like a groundbreaker.

Vargas entered the world of open source from a science background, and she says that one thing she likes about working in open source is the cutting-edgeness of it. She says open source takes the best part of what makes technology exciting to the next level. She also likes the looser organizational structure and the fluidity of the open source environment.

Three other people work on the Urban Forest Mapping Project – two women and a male sub-contractor. Vargas says that one of her colleagues is pregnant and this project will work well around parenting because they are able to work from home and enjoy the benefits of flex time.

I asked Vargas what she'd tell women from other industries about moving into a role in the field of open source. She says that the flexibility of many open source positions works well for women who want to parent and keep their careers, whereas women in more traditional fields are often penalized for taking time off for family.

Vargas also says that she likes the feeling of community in open source. For example, she says that people have been eager to help with the Urban Forest Mapping Project. "I love the quirkiness of it, too," she says, explaining that her project allows people to express their "greenness" while also building a database.

When asked what she'd say to a female high school student who might be considering a career in open source, Vargas says that that the low number of women should not be a deterrent. She says that working in open source actually gives you a chance to excel because you will stand out.

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