By Aurelia Moser

Aurelia Moser was the Community Lead at the Mozilla Science Lab, a broad-reaching community of researchers, educators, tinkerers and librarians working to make scientific research more open and accessible to all on the web. Here she discusses her experience managing this community. Photo: Screenshot of a Mozilla Science Lab Community Call.

There are so many aspects of community development to share, but one that seems peculiar to Mozilla, though likely transferable to many technical/research collaborations, is the geographic scope of community development. Mozillians come from all “scientific” research interest areas (from the hard sciences to the social sciences to the library sciences), all career stages (from undergraduates to citizen scientists, to post-docs, to faculty), and all geographic, social, ethnic, and cultural identities. Developing a community that includes participants across all demographics, professional stages, and geographies is challenging, particularly when most of the community coordination happens asynchronously through technologies that while wonderful, are often vulnerable to limitations of access. It can be tempting to believe that when you use open source tools to facilitate community interactions, or rely on seemingly “open” platforms, somehow your community is accessible to all, but Mozilla often finds that collaborative tools like Github, Gitter, our own website and Etherpad are reliably available to a subset of the community we’d like to serve. Where internet bandwidth is strong, and researcher have time and funding to commit to open, we succeed in fostering community; where it is weak and time and funding are limited, we often failed to support community members.

Opening night, Mozfest 2017 photo credit: Eric Westra / Westra & co
Where internet bandwidth is strong, and researcher have time and funding to commit to open, we succeed in fostering community; where it is weak and time and funding are limited, we often failed to support community members.

Developing a diverse community means considering accessibility as paramount to web, infrastructure, and program design. We made a point to host regular events (Community Calls) where people could join via phone, web, or video broadcast to learn about our activities and co-promote the research projects that we featured and championed in our community. We conducted semi-monthly book clubs on social media where community members could read and engage with us remotely, and without the need for video bandwidth or Etherpad load support. We ran quarterly in-person events, maintained old-school list-servs, hosted a chat presence on MatterMost, Gitter, IRC (for a time) and multiple platforms across the networks of our small team. Even so, we definitely didn’t reach everyone. Each year, we brought our fellows to meet a “new” community we’d supported through our Study Groups Program (a GitHub project to develop peer learning communities around open source code curriculum, free for the forking online), and each year we encountered a new community that we had yet to properly engage in our full suite of opportunities.

Monica Granados (front) and other participants at the Working Open Workshop in Montreal, Canada in February 2017. 

There were times when team members would need to keep several tabs, and 4 applications open constantly to ensure we were monitoring all of our “channels” of engaging with community members. It can feel untenable. We did create some efficiencies which I would recommend, like using Zapier and IFTTT to integrate alerts across GitHub, email, and Gitter/IRC, by “mirroring” content across applications we were able to maintain activity in multiple channels without going mad.

One thing to learn from this experience, is that community development, where the goal is to foster far-reaching impact, involves constant work to diversify the modes of contribution, collaboration, and communication.

Impactful Community development is building an arsenal of tools that meet communities where they are. It means engaging them in activities that suit their workflows, and not just precedent preferences of the existing community. It means developing a code of conduct and a process to enforce and update it, to accommodates new issues and new community needs. It is constant labor and you’re never done! But if you commit to continuous iteration and empathy, you’ll have success in developing quality connections that open you to new “leaders” in communities you’ve yet to fully integrate, and making sure those folks are valued and supported leads to better and more accessible initiatives.