The soul of the Blue Obelisk

There has been a discussion on the Blue Obelisk mailing list about whether we should move the mailing list to Google to attract the less geeky community. I drafted a contribution to this discussion and then felt it would be worth airing more generally as there are some principles of the Open movement, the gift economy, etc.

On 5/29/07, Tobias Kind <tkind@ucdavis.edu> wrote:

However to get more spin and attract more people
the whole setup must be easy, otherwise it will be just an
exclusive geek club 🙂 And some users just want to lurk
around instead of subscribing to the mailing-list.

I have been thinking about the suggestion to relocate the mailing list and offer the following.
The BO was indeed founded essentially as a geek club – authors of software and data resources who realised they needed to work together to make sure they were interoperable and that the resources they shared (data, algorithms, etc.) were normalised. It acts as a convenient first place to post mail of general interest to this community – new major releases, common technical problems, values of data, etc. (Yes, we all subscribe to most of each others mailing lists, but not all). That aspect is still a core aspect of the BO – looking through past mails there is a vibrant collection of mails on the details of programs, data, etc.
My description of the BO is that it is a meritocratic gift economy (see Eric Raymond) – where people are valued for their contributions. These can be many-fold – as above and range from programs, data, draft protocols, managing wikis and lists, etc. This type of approach is very common in Open Source projects.
More recently the BO has started to promote the BO brand. Not yet very consistently – but the idea is that software, data, protocols and other resources state more publicly that they are “members” (whatever that means) of the BO. In that way people can get a feel for the quality (at least the intent) or interoperability and Open Data (the Open Source is a given that most people understand). There is also the feeling that when you are using resource A and want to integrate it with resource B then there are people in the community who would at least try to help in some way – this is not true of all Open Source where very often integration is solely up to the users.
There are also common difficult problems we all face. Very recently, for example, I have had a request to integrate CML into geochemistry and isotopes are a requirement. I know that isotopes are more difficult than they look and would certainly ask the community for suggestions when or if I ran into trouble.
I think the calls for different or added lists springs from the emerging “political” dimension in BO world. The motivations seem to be:
* we need more people to discover BO through a more exposed mailing list
* people are debarred from contributing because of the geekiness of SF mail lists.
I am not too worried about the second. BO is primarily about contributing resources. This requires SVN and there is no reason to move this from SF. So it makes sense for the mailing list to be on the same site.
The political aspect (“spin”) is worth discussing. Personally I see the most powerful tool for advocacy being useful running code, interoperable code, valid respected data, coherent algorithms, etc. When I moderated the XML-DEV list a major theme was to develop code that worked and standards that could be implemented (by the “desperate Perl hacker”). For me BO has many of the same features – implementation was the key thing. Now it is clear that BO has political dimensions – it is destabilising technology and I spoke on this theme at the Bioclipse meeting. Essentially if we get Bioclipse onto every scientific desktop and get BO software running for all major chemical tasks we shall destabilise the current chemical software economy. And for me that would be a good thing – it would allow innovations that we are lacking.
But the reality of the current situation is that we primarily need more developers – especially for testing, documentation, integration and dissemination. You do not need to be a geek to do some of these (especially docs, tutorials, etc.). But you do have to be able to use SVN at SF.
I am fairly confident that we haven’t overlooked large pockets of current Open Source chemical developers. Not all Open Source chemistry projects would describe themselves as BO members, but they almost certainly know of our existence and we work with them from time to time. We also try to make sure that we interoperate. So if we want to reach out to a wider community *of contributors* where will they come from? I can think of at least the following:

  • WP-like contributors. We have very good contact with WP-chem and are making sure that our products are interoperable (e.g. through RDF). It may well be that much of the BO data in the future comes through WP. This is a great way of bringing in school students, etc.
  • non-chemical software developers. This is a very important resource – from example Miguel Howard – a major guru of Jmol – knew no chemistry but has done a world class job of implementing the graphics. So yes, there is an exciting and really valuable role for non-chemical programmers.
  • educators. The BO resources are now of sufficient quality and breadth to make excellent teaching resources. A major offshoot of this would be tutorials and use cases.
  • industrial programmers. I still have a dream that the pharmaceutical industry will do something in the Open Source area. I talk with representatives on a regular basis. They all say how important open source is and they all want to move into to it. I know they *use* our software in considerable amounts. But they don’t contribute. We are very receptive to offers.
  • political evangelists (Open Data, Open Science). This is also an important and growing area. We have certainly some exposure here – e.g. at least 4 of us have been invited to Google/Nature FooCamp and we are active in Open forums, etc. Here again the strength of our case is the deeds more than the talk.

Should there be a wider dimension? I am receptive to new ideas. And I want more people to use our code. Is there a “non-geek” dimension that we should expand? I am not sure I can see it immediately, but maybe others can. What is essential, however, is that anyone proposing new ideas should be prepared to put in the work that helps them succeed – ideas by themselves usually don’t flourish – the BO is hard work.

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One Response to The soul of the Blue Obelisk

  1. Egon says:

    I resources are more 100% filled already with just the geeky part. In my blog there is some room for politics, but I have my hands full with just the geeky part. Regarding the exclusiveness… I think we could do better here… but if a mailing list is already regarded a barrier, I am not sure what else we can do… maybe virtual meeting in second life? That seems quite accepted among non-geeks…

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