Score one for JISC open development

I started working for OSS Watch in January of this year. I was brought to the team to supplement their already extensive knowledge of all things open source with my own take on open source development outside education.

After a short period of bedding in I was sent out, with other members of the team, to consult with projects. These consultations continue today and are probably our most effective support tools. Almost ten months into my involvment with OSS Watch I’m starting to see genuine results from some of the early consultations.

WebPA, largely driven by Nic Wilkinson, have been steadily building a community support structure for their project. In the last few weeks things have really started to take off for them.

Here are some annotated quotes from the project blog, I think these quotes show how the project has developed and could (make that should) be used as a model for all projects wishing to go an open source/open development route.

I never imagined that choosing the potential licence that we would use could be so difficult. This is all leading up to the writing of the consortium agreement and the future open source release of WebPA. 2 January

Sort out our licence and IPR position early.

We have also managed to get some very basic presentations together as an introduction to the project…. Our other major mile stone is getting a JISCmail list. 17 January

The WebPA Project has started to disseminate further afield in ‘DLib’ magazine. 8 February

Make sure your potential community is aware of you and can communicate with you from day one, sure they won’t come flocking to your door yet, but creating a brand is the first step.

Yesterday we had a very informative meeting with Ross and Rowen from OSS-Watch. 7 March

All this to do and two open source books to read! 23 March

Do your research, building a community led project is not hard, but it is quite different to any other kind of project structure and it won’t happen overnight for you. Understanding best practice and figuring out how to apply it to your work is the key to success.

As with everything related to agreements and IPR, there is a distinct lack of understanding as to the amount of work that needs to be completed. There is also a distinct lack of understanding as to why this can be so important to the project and its potential success. 24 April

Recognise that you don’t know everything and get advice early (yes that is another shameless OSS Watch plug 😉

Just to make sure that we are getting our moneys worth out of OSS-Watch (not that we pay) I asked some colleagues here at Loughborough if they would like to join the WebPA team for a couple of hours and sit in. Everyone who attended to find out about Communities has given positive feedback. People have said that they wished they had been able to give more time to attending the afternoon session, to find out more. 10 May

Always help those who help you and give credit where it is due (thanks Nic, I’m sure none of our readers realise I’m quoting this one merely to plug OSS Watch 😉

It has also highlighted to the WebPA team some of the routes that the project can take as exit strategies or (a better term) project sustainability from when the funding runs out. 10 May

Plan for sustainability as early as is practical. OSS Watch encourage you to consider it during the bid phase, we are, of course, here to help with this. The sooner you start planning for it the more likely it is to happen.

However, this is now giving me a headache! I have made it overly complicated. 15 May

Keep it simple. Make it do what users want it to do and nothing more. Keeping it simple not only helps you, but it also helps anyone coming to the code as a potential contributor.

After a fairly swift poll of the project partner and the other potential pilot the opportunity to use LDAP arose…. The first problem I encountered was… 25 May

Be open about issues you are facing and how you intend to address them. By now you have a small audience, someone out there may have the answer, or may stop you making the wrong decision.

The only concern I have here is that WebPA are doing this in their blog. It should really have happened in their mailing list since the intention should be to encourage contributions of all kinds. People can only comment on blogs, they can’t create new posts so their contributions are limited to the topics you choose, what if someone wants to ask an unrelated question? You need to create a culture of posting to the publicly archived mailing list.

But hey, I’m not going to criticise – doing it in the blog is better than not doing it at all (and Nic was also posting regularly to the mail list as well).

who is our community and what exactly will the wiki be used for? 7 June

Don’t use technology simply because it is “cool”.

a wiki is not the correct tool for discussion to be carried out on. We have a mailing list, which anyone can join and the achieves are openly available. Hence the mailing list is the correct tool and a wiki an incorrect tool. 7 June

Use the right tool for the right job.

In this process we hope to get more institutions to host WebPA for their academics. From this we hope to build a community of users. 15 June

Look after your users first, without your users there is no project. From your users your contributors emerge.

Yesterday I attended a workshop run by OSS-Watch on building communities. For us as a young open source project it was really useful to get the opinions of the community that we work within but never really think of as a community! 21 June

Anyone tired of the OSS Watch self promotion in this post?

This leaves one route to go down, which is to change attitudes. Whether this is the best course of action only time will tell 21 June

If current practices are failing and you think you may understand why speak loud and clear. Don’t be arrogant, don’t tell “them” they are wrong, just lead the way and those who agree will come and help. Those who don’t agree will challenge you and will help you ensure that you have considered all options, thus you are more likely to choose the right path.

my next delve [into Sourceforge] was to set up a list for feature requests and set up the few other lists for people to use when the project moved forward again. 6 August

You absolutely must have an infrastructure that allows your community to engage with you. It doesn’t take long to do and once done it actually makes project management much easier, even if you don’t have a community yet.

there are people out there trying to change both the system and the cultures, mainly thanks to the work of Randy Metcalfe, and now Ross Gardler, and the lads [and ladies] at OSS-Watch (http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/). Due to them I no longer feel isolated as they have set up a community which is thriving. 14th September

HeHe – Nic really knows how to get the best out of us at OSS Watch.

Have we a break through, have I finally stopped talking to my self on the JISCmail list? 21 September

Building a community is slow, it can be frustrating, it can be lonely, but it is worth the effort. Keep reading…

I am in the process at the moment of supporting a number of institutions with their own installations of WebPA. 8 October

I released a version of WebPA as a download on Friday 5 October 8 October

I have in the past twenty four hours been asked about the projects plans to develop integration modules for a particular VLE. 16 October

The road map document lets the projects community members see where the project is intending to go for the next phase of work… In order to ensure that the community needs are reflected… 22 October

Understand your users, engage with your users, satisfy your users, make it easy for users by providing early downloads. Without your users your project will not be sustainable, the more users you have the more likely you are to find a sustainability route.

This leaves me to add the information to the trackers myself. At the moment this is okay, as there are not to many requests. I am encouraging the users to use the sourceforge system, so every time I email back with the solution I endeavor to include tracking information, as well in, the hope that at some point they will use the system. 8 October

As the number of users grows, so will the demands on your support activities. You must train your users to use the proper channels so that the support load can be spread across the community.

Remember users are usually the best people to support other users. Create a culture in which users who got free support from you are willing to give free support to others. Failure to do this means that you will eventually become a victim of your own success and will never have time to do development work.

it [driveby contributions] is a way of building a project where people can contribute the small element they need to and then leave the project. Unknowingly I facilitated this type of action 26 October

WooHoo!!! A contribution from a third party – well done WebPA – all that hard work on community development is starting to pay off.

Speaking personally, I had taken this kind of contribution for granted until I read this post. It just hadn’t occured to me that people didn’t realise this is the most common kind of contribution in an open source project. I’ll make this explicit in all my future work.

If you don’t undertand why these small contributions are important consider this WebPA case. It was a small bug that would only occur in a specific configuration in the authentication system so it was unlikely WebPA would find it.

If this bug went unfixed, how many potential users would try to use the software but give up because they couldn’t log in to their initial installation? Since every user is a potential contributor, each lost user is potentially a lost contributor. Furthermore, each lost user could be a lost paying customer for Loughborough or A.N.Other should they offer a paid product or service based on WebPA. In other words each lost user results in a decrease in your chances of reaching sustainability.

These small fixes are the lifeblood of an open source project not only because they ensure a higher numbr of satisfied users, but also because having had one patch accepted the contributor is more likely to submit another, then another and another. Eventually you have a new developer to vote into your project and you are on your way to sustainability.

One piece of advice we were given was to make a demonstrator and make it available to potential users to see what the software is about. Well this was realised at the end of October. Within this first week we have had a phenomenal response. 1 November

Make it as easy as possible for users to evaluate your software. If someone tries an online demo and likes what they see they are far more likely to spend the time downloading and installing your software. If your software is not a webapp then create a series of screenshots and/or screencasts (actually they are useful for webapps too).

We are now up to date.

WebPA has done an incredible job of building a community support structure around their code, they are even starting to see genuine community activity.

Will all this effort make the project sustainable?

I don’t know, it is far to early to tell. Building sustainable communities takes a long time. For example, see this graph of activity on The Apache Software Foundations mailing lists which shows that it took around four years before the Apache community took off.

Although it is too early to say whether WebPA will reach sustainability I will say this: if the users continue to appreciate the value of this software and the WebPA team continue to proactively support them in this way the chances of reaching sustainability are very high since all options are now available.

WebPA I salute you.

If you think your project could benefit from OSS Watch’s advice please contact us – we are JISC funded and so won’t cost you anything (UK HE and FE only I’m afraid).

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