Nudging the Door Open

Last week I presented one of the keynotes at the FLOSS UK Spring Conference in Edinburgh.  I had been invited to present as the organising committee were keen to diversify both the scope and the gender balance of their event, after a first call for papers brought in only male speakers.  Persuaded by the enthusiasm and commitment of the organisers, and after discussing the invitation with colleagues at the University, I accepted their invitation.  However after a second round of blind peer review again brought in only male speakers (thus illustrating the problem of blind submission in any domain that already lacks diversity) I began to get a bit apprehensive.  Normally I would politely decline an invitation to participate in an all-male panel and now here I was keynoting at an all-male conference.

I discussed my concerns with the organisers who once again were sensitive to the issue, keen to talk and open to suggestions.  And I was more than a little relieved when my inspirational senior colleague Melissa Highton, Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services at University of Edinburgh was invited to open the conference, and Christel Dahlskjaer, VP of Open Source and Digital Advocacy at Private Internet Access, was also added to the programme.

My talk was scheduled to take place on the second day, but I went along on the first day to hear Melissa’s opening address and Debian Project Leader Chris Lamb’s keynote.  I had expected female delegates to be in the minority, but I was a little startled to discover there were only three women in the room out of an audience in the region of around eighty people.  Melissa raised this issue diplomatically in her opening address which included a call for more diversity and inclusion in technology industries.

Although I get a little keyed up when I’m speaking in public I don’t generally get too nervous, however I was extremely apprehensive about presenting a non-technical keynote to an all-male audience of technical developers.  Particularly given that my talk, an over view of the Open Knowledge Landscape, highlighted the problem of systemic bias and structural inequality in a wide range of “open” communities.  In an effort to work up a little courage I did something I don’t often do; I called for back-up.  The evening before my keynote I tweeted…

To say that I was overwhelmed by the response would be an understatement, so I’d like to thank each and every one of you who replied to my tweet, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your support.

I also tweeted a thread of all the inspiring projects and initiatives that I had included in my talk, because if you’re speaking about diversity and representation I think it’s really important to give credit where credit is due.  The twitter thread proved to be really popular so I might do this again next time I’m giving a talk.

On the morning of my keynote I was encouraged to see a couple more women in the audience, maybe five in total?  But it was still pretty daunting to get up onto that stage.  The audience however were faultlessly polite and engaged, particularly when I spoke about structural inequality and lack of representation in technology domains and open communities.

I ended by highlighting the story of Bassel Khartabil and the Memorial Fund that Creative Commons established to commemorate his legacy, because I believe it demonstrates why it’s so important for all those of us who work in the broad domain of Open Knowledge to come together to break down the barriers that divide us.  I always find it difficult to talk about Bassel and this time was no exception. I choked when I tried to read a passage he wrote from Adra Prison in Damascus and I was almost in tears by the end.  However I make no apology for getting emotional over such an important story.

There was only time for a couple of questions after my talk, one about business models for openness and another about how the conference could become more diverse and inclusive without compromising the integrity of their peer review process. During the break afterwards, I was really touched by a young delegate from the University of York who said he had benefitted so much from working in open source software projects and using Wikipedia, and wanted to know how he could give something back to the community.  I suggested becoming a Wikipedia editor and gave him some pointers on how to get started.  And I also really enjoyed chatting with some Edinburgh Informatics students who were hugely enthusiastic about the University’s commitment to Open Knowledge. Although there wasn’t a great deal of activity around the conference hashtag, I was touched to get one or two really supportive comments from delegates.

All in all the conference was a pretty daunting event for me, but it’s one that I learned a lot from, not least how supportive my own Open Knowledge community is and how willing other communities can be to listen to new stories and alternative points of view.  So I’d like the take this opportunity to thank the organisers once again for inviting me to keynote.

Last word has to go to the fabulous Kelsey Merkley.

Exploring the Open Knowledge Landscape

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the FLOSS UK Spring Conference in Edinburgh.

I’m not a programmer.  I’m not a developer.  And I don’t contribute directly to the creation of free and open source software.  I originally started out as an Archaeologist but I now work in the domain of Open Knowledge and more specifically open education.  I currently work for the Open Education Resources Service within the Information Services Group at the University of Edinburgh, I’m a Board member of both the Association for Learning Technology and Wikimedia UK, and a member of Open Knowledge International’s Open Education Working Group. All these organisations are part of the Open Knowledge landscape and what I want to do today is provide a broad overview of some of the different domains, communities and cultures that make up this landscape including open education, open data, open textbooks and Open Access Scholarly works.  And I also want to explore the boundaries that crisscross this landscape and demarcate these open spaces, and ask who is included, who is excluded, and what we can do to make our communities more diverse and inclusive.

In the words of the late, great Maryam Mirzakhani, former professor of mathematics at Stanford University and the first female winner of the Fields Medal, who sadly passed away last year.

“I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields—it’s very refreshing. There are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work. It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.”

So that’s what I want to do today, to look at how we can cross the imaginary boundaries of the Open Knowledge landscape and connect our different open communities.

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