Sustaining community cohesion and enthusiasm with a cadence of “sparks” and social activities

Photo looking down at attendees viewing various hardware demonstrations at the 2017 Gathering for Open Science Hardware in Santiago, Chile (CC0)

Brianna Johns (GOSH Community Coordinator) and Pen-Yuan Hsing (GOSH Community Councilor; Co-founder MammalWeb; Research Associate Open!Next project, University of Bath, United Kingdom)

Building and maintaining communities is a critical endeavor within both open source and environmental initiatives. Successful community engagement not only produces outcomes towards shared goals, but further generates a collective sense of belonging, collaboration, and agency.

We can see this success in various community science initiatives. Safecast, which has deployed over 5,000 devices in over 100 countries, utilizes a citizen science approach empowering thousands of participants across the globe to monitor their own homes and environments. Public Lab’s model of grassroots participation in the creation, implementation, and dissemination of open technologies allows for an environmental monitoring process that advances environmental and social justice. The Digital Naturalism Conference (Dinacon) invites local and international participants to each create their own projects while collaborating with one another and the natural environment around them. In this post, we reflect on two complementary approaches (“sparks” and social activities) to sustaining communities based on our experience in the Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH).

We consider “sparks’’ to be specific challenges and opportunities which rally and focus the community around a shared purpose. For Safecast and Public Lab, the original sparks were major environmental events — the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — which galvanized concerned citizens to develop and build open source hardware instrumentation for environmental monitoring. For GOSH, the original instigator for our community was the in-person “Gathering” held in Geneva, Switzerland in March 2016. This event convened GOSH as a global community of artists, researchers, activists, hackers, and hardware developers dedicated to making open science hardware ubiquitous by 2025. (Open science hardware (OScH) refers to all physical artifacts used during the scientific process — from laboratory instruments to artificial satellites — that come with the freedoms to use, change, study and distribute for any purpose without restrictions (from the Open Source Hardware Definition).)

GOSH is an instructive community to look at for several reasons. It is a hybrid community, a network, and a convening place, both in-person at its Gatherings and virtually on the GOSH Forum. It has a well-defined Manifesto defining its values to be democratic, equitable, and diverse on a global scale. Thanks to the Roadmap GOSH established in 2017, it also carries out concrete actions to push forward open science hardware use, such as policy workshops, while supporting the growth of the community by funding more localized regional OScH events. Perhaps most unique about GOSH is the “GOSH spirit” — a feeling of connectedness and belonging that many community members have described, and is well documented in the GOSH Events Framework and this series of community profiles. But how do we maintain community enthusiasm and cohesion after the sparks of these Gatherings, which could be several years apart?

Sustaining this feeling of connectedness and belonging has been a challenge, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The GOSH Community attempted two approaches to overcoming this. One is new sparks suitable for a virtual format or support for localized initiatives. They included institutionalizing GOSH governance through the election of a Community Council, the hiring of a community coordinator, and the establishment of funding programs for regional events and collaborative development. These all allowed for many of the actions and goals set out by the GOSH Roadmap to be carried out, rallying community members around a call to action.

Alongside this, several social activities were established, including community calls, open hours, and book club meetings, which were all online and provide a lower-stakes environment for community members to engage with one another. Here we define social activities to mean mechanisms enabling community members to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to one another, and allow for enthusiasm to last between sparks. Despite moving to a completely virtual format for the past four years, the GOSH community has remained as engaged as ever. In the past year (2021–2022), the community has seen a 70% increase in signups to the forum, a 55% increase in daily engaged users, and a 45% increase in forum posts. With the help of “sparks” and social activities we can see how enthusiasm to participate in the community persisted.We’ve seen how these social activities can act as a springboard for continued engagement in the GOSH Community. For instance, we have had GOSH community members whose first interaction with GOSH was the community calls become even more involved by running for a seat on the GOSH Community Council.

We believe it is this cadence of intense “sparks” and relaxed social activities that can allow for communities to push forward collaborations and achieve their goals, all the while sustaining the community. And now that in-person events are slowly becoming viable again, our funded regional events are reporting back to the wider community to maintain that sense of community. And we are also creating new sparks such as the upcoming Gathering in Panama in October 2022.

As we reflect on maintaining this sense of community, we recognize two challenges going forward. One is the perennial problem of ensuring sustained funding to support established initiatives over the long term, rather than prioritizing novel projects. GOSH has been very lucky to receive financial support to hire a community coordinator and fund regional events and collaborative development programs. We see an opportunity here for different communities to share our knowledge about obtaining support for sustainability. The other challenge common to many communities is that with changes in leadership and participants, how do we record, archive, and pass down informal and collective knowledge to avoid reinventing wheels? In recent years, there is a trend for “digital gardening” as a way to organize one’s daily learnings for long-term knowledge retention. Can this be adapted to the community level? What can we learn from other institutions such as NASA for effective community knowledge management?

When building multi-dimensional communities around environmental monitoring and open hardware, this is what we’ve learned that should be implemented:

That said, the GOSH Community has given us a glimpse into the trade-offs between opportunities and challenges that rally a community (sparks), and mechanisms for maintaining connectedness and belonging amongst community members (social activities). The intertwining of these sparks and social activities allows for communities to stay focused, sustain member engagement and enthusiasm, and foster new collaborations.

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Journal of Open HW

Journal of Open Hardware, an Open Access initiative run by the Global Open Science Hardware community and published by Ubiquity Press.