Book Dashes: Collaborative Community Events

In this guest blog post, Arielle Bennett-Lovell (a 2019 CSCCE Community Engagement Fellow) reflects on the third Turing Way Book Dash event, which took place 20-21 February 2020 in London, UK.

What is the Turing Way? 

Science today is moving at an incredible pace, but preventing people from building on your work by making it impossible to replicate has almost certainly cost us years of progress. The Turing Way book project addresses this reproducibility crisis by collating community resources around how to design and carry out robust analyses that can be reused by other researchers in the future. 

Conceived by Kirstie Whitaker at The Alan Turing Institute, and managed by Malvika Sharan,  the book itself is currently hosted online and built using Jupyter Books and GitHub. Over 80 contributors across the globe built the book, through remote collaboration, workshops, and in-person events. These Book Dashes bring participants together in person to work on pieces of the book simultaneously for a full day. The third Book Dash for the Turing Way was held on 20-21 February 2020 in London, UK, and I was lucky enough to go. 

I was intrigued about attending the Book Dash both from the perspective of supporting an open science initiative but also examining it through the lens of a community professional: how did the format work? What did we need? Would it fit other purposes? How would we create a micro community during the event and what would happen afterwards? 

Experience of the Book Dash as a first time participant

The British Library in central London has an airy atrium when you first walk in, with creamy stone, solid, red brick and bustling tour groups. Underneath the human sounds, the hushed weight of millions of books, journals, magazines, and other literature powers the hum of conversation and anticipation as you walk further into the building. At the entrance to the Alan Turing Institute, housed within these walls, stands an original enigma machine (designed by the institute’s namesake) in front of double doors.

Having made a spur of the moment application to participate in the Book Dash and with limited practical experience of GitHub, I was extremely nervous when I arrived at the Turing Institute. Thankfully the first afternoon was all about introductions: to the project, to the other participants, and to GitHub, HackMD, and Markdown. People who were new to GitHub didn’t leave for dinner until the facilitators had walked us through how to use it for the project (and had us make our first pull requests). 

One thing I was less nervous about was meeting everyone – Kirstie and Malvika hosted several pre-event calls to allow successful applicants to meet each other, break the ice, and discuss possible plans for the event. They also identified people interested in working on similar projects during the application process and made sure during the course of the afternoon to introduce them to each other. Solid preparatory stages both online and in-person helped set intentions for the events and prepare us to dig in straight away during the limited timeframe of the Dash itself. They also meant that we had to tear ourselves away from planning when it was time for dinner!  

After a fantastic dinner and a series of lightning talks covering everything from the fastest steam train in Britain to coding and cross stitch (complete with a take home souvenir project), in the morning the Book Dash began in earnest. Working on a new chapter on ethics with my group and furiously listing all the ways to make meetings less terrible was one of the most productive work sessions I’ve ever had. Project groups ranged from ethics and research compendia to translating existing content into different languages and tackling some of the technical maintenance of the project. The air buzzed with quiet concentration and frantic scribbling on whiteboards as we sketched out ideas. 

It wasn’t all writing, however. The Book Dash had its very own illustrator onsite to visualise the concepts being discussed and developed (you can see the final versions of the illustrations here). Adding an artist to the event initially felt a bit frivolous to me, but I quickly realised the benefit of a different medium for articulating our Dash thoughts and ideas. Having a chat with Sam from Scriberia about the stereotypes vs the reality of successful collaborations, and how much goes unnoticed or appreciated, not only helped shape my ideas, but also produced one of the brilliant illustrations on the day.

The Dash itself was absorbing – 4pm comes around quickly when you’re that focused – and I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t the only one: our group feedback during the wrap up and celebration was that we wanted more time to work in the micro-community that had been created by the Dash, a clear sign of a successful event.

What next? 

Collaboration Cafes are ongoing, with everyone welcome to join – given the ongoing pandemic lockdown most projects are focused on remote work and online event resources and guides but there’s also larger projects afoot to refactor the project structure. Keep an eye on The Turing Way Twitter account (@TuringWay) and sign up for the newsletter for more details. 

The community is also planning an upcoming “Merge Day”, where projects and chapters started during the Book Dash will be incorporated into the main Turing Way book online, as a way to give everyone a wrap up deadline to aim for. 

What can community managers take from the Book Dash? 

Book Dashes offer a format for condensed collaborative working on a shared project – they’re a fun way to bring people together and I expect that the format will be readily adapted for the era of online collaboration as well. If you’re planning community handbooks or other large pieces of community knowledge building as part of your program, hosting a Book Dash is a great way to get a lot of work done in a short time frame and build a sense of community and camaraderie between participants.  

However, while one-off events are great for bringing people together, it’s worth including the follow up needed as part of your planning when you first start thinking about events, something which will be key to the success of the Book Dash in building the Turing Way long-term. Often people come together for something, have amazing experiences, then go their separate ways and the momentum they had while working on the project is lost, leaving them in limbo. Having a follow up strategy from the beginning, and communicating this to participants, helps to conserve some of the energy from the original event and can even pave the way for subsequent projects or meetings. Alternatively, I’d recommend working with participants to agree on projects that can be completed during the Dash with minimal work afterwards to help them go live. That way you can have concrete output from the event, which is useful for building future participation and stakeholder support. 

The Turing Way Book Dash also offers a model for how to plan for an inclusive, open event that helps to bring new and established community members together to produce both a shared experience and specific outcomes. I was really impressed with the thought that had gone into making the event welcoming and accessible for people across the community, and I’ve listed just some examples of this below:

Ahead of the event:

  • Clear code of conduct and reporting lines in case things went wrong
  • Financial support for people who needed to travel or access childcare
  • Discussion of other accessibility needs before the event as part of the application process

On the day:

  • Decompression room available for quiet time
  • Space for pronouns on name badges
  • Red lanyards for people who didn’t want to be photographed
  • Sticky note help system for people stuck with GitHub 

In addition, using “dash” to describe the event moves away from the tech-associated “sprint” terminology, opening it up non-coders who still have a lot to share, even if they feel they don’t have much explicit coding experience.

Book Dashes: one piece of the community program

Dashes and one-off events offer exciting programming models to help build communities through working on a shared project. Done well, these less technical events can pull together a wider cross-section of participants and produce some really incredible outputs that benefit the whole community. However, careful thought needs to be given to preparation and follow up to get the most out of work the events themselves take to run. In fact, it’s worth planning them as mini-programs in themselves to really maximize the benefits of such a time intensive approach, but the effort is, in my opinion, worth it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Arielle Bennett-Lovell is the Coordinator for the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge and a CEFP2019 CSCCE Fellow. She’s interested in open science, community building, biotech, and supporting scientists across academia and industry to do bolder and better research. You can find her tweeting occasionally at @biotechchat.

RESOURCES

Check out our resources pages for more CSCCE-curated resources on running events and hosting online communities.

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