CSCCE Open-Source Tools Trial Recap: Using GitHub to facilitate community activities

On Wednesday, 30 August 2023 we held the first of our new series of five Tools Trials focused on open-source tools for community-building. The series is funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and is intended for anyone interested in exploring open-source tools – including community managers who’ve never tried them before! 

In this first trial, we focused exclusively on GitHub – one of the go-to platforms developers use to share and build open-source software. At CSCCE, we often say “meet your members where they are,” and for open-source communities, that often means you’ll find them using GitHub. 

In this blog post you can find the recordings of all of the presentations from the call, as well as a summary of some of the (really interesting) discussion that took place both in the Q&A at the end of the call and in the chat and the shared virtual notes doc. Over the next few weeks, CSCCE staff will also be collaborating with the presenters to create a tip sheet that distills some of the key takeaways from the call; especially technical tips and tricks to help you explore implementing some of these GitHub-based community solutions. 

A brief introduction to this series, and to GitHub

At CSCCE, we work to support community managers in a range of organizational settings, and via our community of practice we offer free and often highly responsive programming. When online convening became the only way to gather during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,we decided to host regular Tools Trials where we could explore various online platforms together. 

Three years on, this latest Tools Trials series is focused on open-source tools and communities, in part due to requests from our members. To kick off the first trial, CSCCE’s Emily Lescak (who is taking the lead on organizing the series) took a few minutes to share a brief overview of Github terminology that people would need to follow along.

As always, we used a shared Google Doc to support the facilitation of the call, which was particularly helpful to gauge the level of GitHub expertise in the virtual room. As we anticipated, the 40+ participants indicated a range of comfort with the platform, and so the presentations you can watch below offer general suggestions and strategies, some technical tips and tricks, and pointers for where to go to get more detailed instruction on getting started with GitHub. 

Using GitHub to support community calls at rOpenSci

Our first speaker was Yanina Bellini Saibene, who is Community Manager for rOpenSci. rOpenSci convenes users and developers of R packages, including supporting a software peer review process to vet submitted packages with scientific applications. rOpenSci’s members are generally very active on GitHub, and by using the platform to facilitate suggestions for community call topics, Yani is able to capitalize on their existing technical familiarity. In her presentation, she also demonstrates how she uses both a public (community-facing) and a private (staff team-facing) repo to administer this piece of community programming – creating a balance between inclusive member engagement and “not showing every pot and pan in the kitchen that’s used to make the meal.” 

Using GitHub as a community blogging platform for Data Umbrella

Reshama Shaikh, Director of Data Umbrella, then talked about how she uses a combination of GitHub and a customized Jekyll theme to source and host her community’s blog. Data Umbrella is a community for under-represented people in data science, and their members have varying levels of comfort with GitHub. Reshama’s presentation lifted the lid on how to make a reader-friendly blog that community members can easily contribute to. 

Supporting community collaboration with GitHub at The Turing Way

Wrapping up this first trial, Anne Lee Steele and Danny Garside shared some of the ways they use GitHub’s features and integrations to support their community members in contributing to Turing Way guidebooks. In particular, they highlighted three bots that help them automate some of their processes. 

Some emergent themes and discussion points

Secret upskilling

During Anne and Danny’s presentation, the phrase “secret upskilling” reverberated through the chat – the idea that by using GitHub as a convening place, they are socializing their members on how to use the platform in such a way that they will feel more comfortable using it in other settings. Some participants noted that this is also the case when community managers empower their members to give presentations or contribute by creating new community resources. 

Creating public and private repositories – and checklists and templates

Yani’s presentation prompted a conversation about the value of creating both public repos for the community, and private repos for community managers to use as a guide for their internal workings, to document internal processes, and for activities that require some degree of privacy (e.g., the repo related to rOpenSci’s code of conduct). She showed how important checklists are for her when she’s planning a community call, and how templates make it easier to standardize workflows and community requests. Workflows that are in private repositories are shared with the community using the #Community Manager Tools tag on rOpenSci’s blog. The blog format allows for greater detail (and screenshots!) to help community members to understand their processes. 

Community managers as critical infrastructure 

After the three presentations concluded, we opened the floor for general discussion and Q&A. Since many of the more technical questions were addressed by speakers in the virtual notes doc, conversation turned to the human factors at play in open-source communities. One participant raised the important point that while all of the communities we featured today prioritize kindness and inclusion, that’s not necessarily true of the broader open-source community. And another pointed out how the variability in member expertise might impact their onboarding pathways and the types of scaffolding they might need to get started.

In both cases, having someone in the role of Community Manager is key. Speakers and participants shared some examples of how they support new users in learning community norms, both technical and social (e.g., by screen sharing as a new member submits an issue). And we reflected on how the work we do is intentionally moving the needle in an effort to change the broader culture to be more welcoming to those who have traditionally been excluded. The critical community management role, however, is often undervalued, and finding adequate funding for long-term community management positions is still challenging in many sectors.

Advocating on behalf of scientific community managers is part of what we do here at CSCCE. If you’d like to support us as we continue to provide a free community space for STEM community professionals, please consider donating.

Coming up in Tools Trial 2

We hope you’ll join us on Wednesday, 13 September at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC for the next Tools Trial in this open-source-focused series, which will build on the use cases and skills highlighted in this first Trial (although you don’t need to have attended the first one to join the second). We’ll hear from Maneesha Sane, Jesse Johnston, and Toby Hodges of The Carpentries about how they use GitHub to organize sessions for CarpentryCon and HedgeDoc for collaborative note-taking and drafting blog posts. 

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Resources and further reading

Watch this space for the new CSCCE Tech Tip Sheet we’re creating to consolidate information from the first call! In the meantime, here are some of the resources shared in Tools Trial 1: 

More about the use cases that were discussed

For new GitHub users

More about rOpenSci

More about Data Umbrella

Creating a community blog on GitHub

More about The Turing Way