Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

Lessons from One Week | One Tool – Part 2, Use

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For all the emphasis on the tool itself, the primary aim of One Week | One Tool is not tool building, it’s education. One Week | One Tool is funded by NEH under the the Institutes for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities (IATDH) program. IATDH grants “support national or regional (multistate) training programs for scholars and advanced graduate students to broaden and extend their knowledge of digital humanities.” Thus training is the criteria by which One Week | One Tool will ultimately be judged.

A key argument of One Week | One Tool is that learning digital humanities consists primarily in doing digital humanities, that digital humanities is a hands-on kind of thing, that to learn tool building you have to do some tool building. At the same time, we recognize that there’s a place for instruction of the hands-off sort. To that end, the first 18 hours or so of One Week | One Tool (essentially from Sunday night until mid-afternoon on Monday) were reserved for presentations by CHNM staff. Jeremy offered a practical introduction to software development best practices and tools. Trevor described the range of outreach strategies we have employed on projects like Zotero, Omeka, and the National History Education Clearinghouse. Dan provided the view from 30,000 feet with thoughts on the state of the art and near future of digital humanities software development. I kicked things off on Sunday with a brief introduction to CHNM and our tool building philosophy. Several strains of thought and practice inform our work at CHNM—public history, cultural history, radical democracy, dot.com atmospherics, and more—but to keep things simple I summed up our tool building philosophy in one word: use.

Here is more or less what I told the crew.

At CHNM we judge our tools by one key metric above all others: use. Successful tools are tools that are used. The databases of Sourceforge and Google Code are littered with interesting, even useful, but unused open source tools. Academic software projects are no exception. Every year NSF, NIH, and now NEH and IMLS award grants for scholarly software development. In recent years, the funding guidelines have stipulated that this software be made freely available under open source licenses. Much of the software produced by these programs is good and useful code. But little of it is actually used.

There are several reasons for this. Many efforts are focused narrowly on the problems of a particular researcher or lab. While the code produced by these researchers proves useful for solving their particular problems, even when released, it hasn’t been designed to be generally applicable to the needs of other researchers in the field. It is, in effect, a one-off tool released as open source. But open source code alone does not constitute an open source project.

Other projects build generalized tools that may be of potential use to other researchers. But few make the necessary investment in outreach and, yes, marketing to make potential users aware of the tool. It is for this reason, among others, that we see so much duplication of effort and functionality in scholarly software projects.

Building a user community is the first prerequisite to building a successful open source software project. The success of software is judged by its use. The universal assessment that iTunes is a hit and Zune is a flop is not based on the quality of the code or even the elegance or potential usefulness of the experience. It’s based on the fact that everybody uses iTunes and nobody uses Zune. This is not to say that software has to have millions of users to be successful. But it is to say that successful software is used by large swath of its potential users. To be sure, the total population of potential users of cultural heritage mapping tools is much smaller than the total population of potential users of digital media playback software. But any open source software project’s goal should be use by as many of its potential users as possible. In any case, we should aim to have our software used by as many cultural heritage institutions and digital humanists as possible.

Moreover, a large and enthusiastic user base is key to a successful open source software project’s continued success. If people use a product, they will invest in that product. They will provide valuable user testing. They will support the project in its efforts to secure financial support. They will help market the product, creating a virtuous circle. Sustainability, even for free software, is grounded in a committed customer base.

Related to building a user community is building an open source developer community. Some number of users will have the inclination, the skills, and the commitment to the project to help on the level of code. This percentage will be very small, of course, less than one percent, which is another reason to build a large user base. But this small group of code contributors and volunteer developers forms the core of most successful open source projects. They find and fix bugs. They provide end user support. They write documentation. They add new features and functionality. They provide vision and critical assessment. They constitute a ready-made pool of job candidates if a core paid developer leaves a project.

This developer community is a project’s best chance at sustainability, and collaboration at the developer level, rather than collaboration at the institution or administrator level, is usually key to a scholarly open source project’s lasting success. Getting provosts, deans, and directors from partner institutions to commit FTE’s and other resources to a project is very welcome—we’d love some commitments of this sort for the tool we built last week. But it’s not where the strength of a collaboration will be located. Individual developers, who commit their time, effort, ideas, code, heart and soul to a project, are the ones who will keep something going when money and institutional interest runs out.

A developer community does not develop on its own, of course. It requires support. First and foremost, a developer community needs open communication channels—an active IRC channel and listserv, for example—something which, in the case of a university of library-based project, means a group of responsive staff developers on other end. Community developers need profitable access to the project’s development roadmap so they know where best to contribute their efforts. They need well-documented and thoughtfully-designed APIs. They need technical entry points, things such as a plugin architecture where they can hone their chops on small bits of functionality before digging into the core code base. Most importantly, community developers need a sense of community, a sense of shared purpose, and a sense that their volunteer contributions are valued. All of this has to be planned, managed, and built into the software architecture.

This philosophy of use is core to CHNM’s vision of open source software for scholarship and cultural heritage. The tool the crew of One Week | One Tool developed—like Omeka and Zotero before it—should be case in point. It was chosen with clear audiences in mind. It was built on approachable technologies and engineered to be extensible. It’s outreach plan and feedback channels are designed to encourage broad participation. When it’s released tomorrow, I think you’ll see it is a tool to be used.

#oneweek #buildsomething

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