How To Get Involved with Open Source

OpenHatch: Non-profit advises projects, helps volunteers

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OpenHatch teaches projects how to welcome recruits.

Most people know that newcomers sometimes struggle to fit in to free software projects. A few, like the GNOME Outreach Program for Women, have even tried to do something about it. But few have focused on the problem with the intensity of OpenHatch, a newly registered non-profit dedicated to helping newcomers find their place and advising other projects how to welcome them.

According to Asheesh Laroia, the president of OpenHatch and a member of the board of directors, the project began when he, Nelson Pavlosky of Students for Free Culture, and Raphael Krut-Landau, an acquaintance of Laroia when they attended Johns Hopkins University, decided to start a project together. “We weren’t sure what we would do,” Laroia recalls, “but we knew we wanted to help make free and open source software a more vibrant world, [to do] something to help users of apps engage with the creators and become contributors.”

After some thought, the trio built OpenHatch’s web tool to help people find open source projects with opportunities for volunteers. Still in use today, this search tool tracks bugs for more than 700 projects, organizing them by programming language, task, and size.

“But after a year of working on tools related to online engagement, I felt a little distant,” Laroia says. “Are people using it? What is their experience like? How could we make the OpenHatch website more powerful, in terms of [encouraging] people to get involved?”

The answer to this question was the first Open Source Comes to Campus event in 2010. A two-day seminar with a low student-teacher ratio, the event became a template for similar events, introducing students to bug tracking, version control, and other aspects of free software development. Teachers did their best to match students with projects that might interest them and to keep in touch with students after the event.

Limited to 20 students, the event was heavily oversubscribed, and Open Source Comes to Campus remains OpenHatch’s most successful activity to this day. According to OpenHatch’s sole staff member, Shauna Gordon-McKeon, the project held 12 of these events in 2013, and expects to hold twice as many in 2014.

At the same time, the success of Open Source Comes to Campus has made the project aware that it lacks the resources to respond to every request to organize an event. In particular, requests that would require OpenHatch’s volunteers to travel are often impractical because of the project’s limited budget.

For this reason, the project also provides resources so others can organize successful events for newcomers on their own. Today, OpenHatch maintains a mailing list and IRC channel – where event organizers can ask for advice – and is in the process of writing on-line documents about how to organize successful in-person events; some of these guides have already been published online.

Additionally, OpenHatch now acts as an advisor to other groups that want to put on their own events, including local Python groups in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Montreal and Django Hack and Learn in San Francisco. More recently, OpenHatch has also added to its list of affiliated events Deb Nicholson’s SpinachCon, in which free software projects combine to do user testing.

“It’s a project that just by existing improves open source,” says OpenHatch volunteer Britta Gustafson. “It reminds people who manage projects to care about newcomers, and it gives them a place to ask questions about welcoming newcomers. It also sends a very clear message to any newcomers who are lurking around that ‘you belong here.’”

The Problems of Providing a Welcome

Exactly why free software has the reputation of being unwelcoming to newcomers is uncertain. As Gordon-McKeon points out, “newcomers have problems joining any established community. Being inexperienced and unfamiliar is difficult for anyone.”

However, Gordon-McKeon goes on to say that the treatment of newcomers “might be worse in open source than some other areas. Historically, a lot of free software projects have not done a lot of outreach to newcomers. It’s a sink-or-swim culture, a collection of distributed, autonomous projects, and it’s generally difficult to know where to begin unless you find someone to help you. The philosophy is that if newcomers are interested enough and talented enough to contribute, they’ll overcome all the barriers that exist.”

Nor is the problem helped, Gustafson notes, by the tendency of active members in a project to forget what being a newcomer is like.

In fact, the number of potential contributors who fail to find a place in free software is unknown. “There’s no data on the people who fail silently,” Gordon-McKeon says. Although at least one paper has researched the problem, “for the most part, it’s not been studied. And it would be hard to study.”

“One thing I’m noticing doing a lot of work with newcomers and students,” Gordon-McKeon adds, “is that people will be very quiet about failing, because they’ll assume that the problems they’re having, whether technical or social, are their own fault, rather than providing feedback to the community about how it could make its materials more welcoming. I can imagine that if you’re not in an environment like a newcomer workshop, if you’re just on a computer by yourself, it’s quite easy to decide not to help and just disappear forever – which is unfortunate.”

These conditions can be especially challenging for women. The fact that men outnumber women in many projects by a ratio of 20:1 or more “is just going to reinforce the idea that it’s not a community that women want to be involved in,” Gordon-McKeon says. Also, “women are generally socialized to be less demanding, and there’s research that shows that women are less likely to step forward and say that they can do a thing. We’re less confident, and the way that gender socialization works is at odds with the sink-or-swim mentality that some communities have.”

The problems can be so pervasive, Gustafson says, that newcomers are “happy that someone just answers their email. They can get kind of lost.”

Admittedly, not every project has such problems. According to Gordon-McKeon, the exceptions tend to be extremely large projects, which have the resources to assign people specifically to newcomer outreach, and tiny programs whose maintainers care about welcoming people. She mentions Wikimedia, Gnome, Mozilla, and Dreamwidth as projects that are especially welcoming.

Growing Pains

Still, these exceptions are rare enough that the demand for OpenHatch’s services is greater than its mostly volunteer organization can meet. Consequently, many of the project’s future plans involve figuring out how to do more with less – specifically, developing software to help run events and to receive feedback.

At the same time, the project is continually hoping to reach out to new categories of newcomers. Gordon-McKeon is currently working with contacts in India to adapt the curriculum of Open Source Goes to Campus. She is also looking into expanding the project’s operations for audiences of high school students, librarians, scientists, other non-profit organizations, and newcomers over 55.

“Doing open source outreach is itself an open source project,” Gordon-McKeon says. “The main reason that we’re currently targeting campuses is because that’s the process we’ve figured out.” However, given the ever-increasing demand on its resources, OpenHatch is clearly an upstream project that is filling a need that many projects can appreciate.

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