The ones we leave out

Sara Safavi
May 20, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

Last week I spent three-days-and-change in St Louis MO, attending FOSS4G-NA 2018. I got home Thursday evening, and Friday morning woke up needing to write something.

For context, this was my 3rd FOSS4G-NA , and 6th FOSS4G-something. I gave talks and/or taught workshops at each of the above. I was Program Chair of FOSS4G-NA 2018 until I stepped down from the role in February 2018 (if you liked the keynotes in STL this year, you’re welcome). I was on the program committee for FOSS4G-NA 2016, and closer to home I’ve organized or helped organize too many local geo-events to count. I write open-source geo-software, I evangelize open-source geo-software, and I teach open-source geo-software. All this is just to say: I’ve been here a minute. I’ve put in my time, as I know many of you have as well. I love this community, and I’m proud to be a part of it. But we’ve got some problems.

A note — I’m deliberately addressing this to the “open-source geo community”: I don’t care if you say that’s OSGeo, FOSS4G-*, OSM/F, all or none of the above. You know who you are, and where to draw lines & place labels is a debate I’m not here for. The issues I see cross lines, and solutions can be applied under any label.

The problem with conferences

Conferences, community events, and related gatherings are a known quantity in the tech world. I readily admit that open-source geo community events are my favorite ones to participate in. Most of us would probably say a conference offers some combination of professional networking and development, along with opportunities to share what we know and do, and most of us probably agree that these reasons are what draw us together. But somewhere along the way, it feels like we’ve gotten sidetracked.

We’re dazzled by t-shirts that we ultimately shove into Goodwill donation boxes or use to wash our cars. We’re distracted by the “free” beers we receive in exchange for the $750 registration fee our employers ponied up so that we could spend a week of escapism reliving college. And at the end of it all we’re told that an extra $50 for a gala ticket is “spare change”, and we believe it.

Our mission has drifted.

On FOSS4G-NA 2018

Feeling left out in St Louis

Last year, I was asked to Chair the Program Committee of FOSS4G-NA 2018 because, as the person who approached me put it, they “really needed a woman” to do the job. I let myself chalk that line up to language barriers, but in retrospect should have seen it for what it was: an attempt at diversity-washing an otherwise homogeneous affair. And so for six months, on nights & weekends, I was the woman they needed who did the job.

LocationTech staff, on replacing a chronically absent (male) volunteer with a new (female) volunteer

When a conference leaves part of its target community out, either through ignorance of the existence of those left out, or belief that the left out part is so insignificant as to be irrelevant, it leaves a mark. And when the paid organizers for a conference perform inclusion in public, but are actively against inclusion in private, it hurts.

Another LocationTech staff, on attendee responses to a “dietary restrictions” conference registration form field

Ultimately, I stepped down as Program Chair of FOSS4G-NA 2018 because of that hurt.

To be clear: the person I asked to take my place is an excellent human who did an incredible job of putting together a wonderful program, and someone who bears no responsibility for the conference’s faults. The unsung heroes of FOSS4G-NA 2018 are the volunteers like this person who did the heavy lifting behind the scenes. The troubling conversations I had — those above, and many others — were all with paid LocationTech staff, not the volunteers.

The ones we leave out

My experiences leading up to and during FOSS4G-NA 2018 made me finally realize that, as a community, we’ve got a problem. We’re so used to doing things the way we’ve always done them, but it turns out that the way we’ve always done things tends to leave a lot of our best folks out. For a community built around the idea of software that anyone can contribute to, it feels wrong not to make sure anyone who wants to participate, can.

Code sprinters at FOSS4G 2016. I’ll save you from squinting: I’m one of 6 women in this photo

So who are we excluding from our conferences and community events? For starters:

  • non-drinkers or people who avoid alcohol in professional settings
  • anyone who can’t afford the cost of attendance — and doesn’t have an employer who will foot the bill
  • anyone who is unable to follow a tech talk by hearing alone
  • parents who lack a support network or the financial means to travel without their kids
  • underrepresented minorities, women & non-binary folks; essentially anyone not already a member of the predominantly-white-and-male old boys’ club of open-source geo.

And many others.

What are we going to do about it?

Honestly, the first steps towards building a better, more inclusive open-source geo community are going to be easy. We’ve set for ourselves such a low fucking bar that it won’t even take a jump to get started, only a step. Even so shifting the status quo is going to take intentional effort. Here are a couple ideas, but this is by no means an exhaustive list:

  • Implement — and enforce — a Code of Conduct
    Just do it. The reasons & benefits are well-documented elsewhere; this is a great template if you’re not sure where to start.
  • Offer childcare options
    Primary caretakers of dependent children face inequitable hurdles to fully attending and participating in conference activities”. This is a fact that weighs especially heavily on women and single parents. PyCon is one of many examples of how to do this right.
  • Reduce the booze
    Though I enjoy a good beer, plenty of my friends do not —and for many of them, events that are alcohol-centric are totally inaccessible. Networking events and organized socializing should focus on people, not drink tickets.
  • Lower costs & add more scholarships
    If you could give up a “gala” event in exchange for more people unable to otherwise afford the sticker price being able to attend, wouldn’t you?
  • Expand the reach of your content
    For community members who are unable to attend an event, video streaming and/or recording of talks is a massive boon. For attendees who aren’t able to benefit from audio— live captioning is amazing, and results in searchable transcripts too.

“But all that costs money” you say — and yes. It does. So does free beer and open bars, gala parties and branded swag. Change your priorities. And if you are, or work for, a sponsor: you have the power here. Advocate for change.

“But I’m not an organizer”

Great! Organizing a conference or similar event is a thankless job, and it’s only a minority of our community that ever wears this hat in the first place. Any real, sustainable change is going to come not from the burnt-out few who’ve run a show or two, but from literally everyone else. Some things you can do to make a difference from where you are:

  • Advocate for those who might not advocate for themselves: if you’re in a position of relative privilege, and notice someone who isn’t — don’t assume someone else will come along to give a voice to their issues.
  • Commit to only speaking, teaching, or otherwise contributing to events with a Code of Conduct. Letting organizers know that this is important to you will make it important to them.
  • Ask for it: if you’re attending a conference, simply asking for information about childcare, facility accessibility, food options, scholarship funds, and similar can make a huge difference. It may be as simple as an organizer not considering an issue to exist, much less to be something worth addressing.
  • Reach out & invite in: so many are being left out just because we’ve forgotten to explicitly welcome newcomers. Sure, we’re an “open” community — but heck, even I‘m going to self-select out of a code sprint or a breakfast meeting when I peek in and see a room full of unfamiliar faces and established cliques.
  • Put your money where your mouth is: if you find a bug, know how to fix it, and have the means to do so — guess whose job it is to submit that patch.
Will Cadell stepping up to fix a longstanding bug

Growing up

Moving away from our default “this is how we’ve always done it” habits is going to produce some growing pains. But plenty of other tech communities are beginning to notice the empty chairs and the missing faces, and they’re starting to do something about it in their flagship events too. SOTMUS is doing it. PyCon is doing it. JSConf is doing it. GopherCon and DjangoCon are doing it. Heaven help me, even ESRI UC is at least giving lip-service to doing it. There’s no reason we can’t make an effort too.

Because in the end, the fact is: the rest of us, the ones getting left out, are already here. We’re building the things, writing the things, using the things, teaching the things — and if you choose to ignore the fact that we’re part of this community too, then that’d mean a whole lot of human effort that this fundamentally contribution-driven community will never benefit from. And that’d be a damned shame. I have faith in the open-source geo community, though: it can grow up, and it can be better. Let’s do this.

Sara Safavi

Written by

software engineer building geostuff

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