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In free software, you're still not alone: the evolution of our weekly chats

by Deb Nicholson on July 29, 2020

We began our weekly chats in mid-March to give people a dedicated place and time each week to talk with fellow free software enthusiasts during the pandemic. During that first month, mostly we talked about what events were being cancelled and how frustrating it was that so many entities immediately embraced non-free tools for connecting remotely. We were also starting to contend with the financial effects of a global pandemic and some in our community wondered about job security and shared some information on who was doing layoffs and who might be hiring -- for remote work, of course.

Once the Copyleft Conf videos were posted in April, we hoped to sort of fill in the gap left by in-person events and so we hosted some chats based on some of those talk recordings. The talks we covered sparked some lively discussions about copyleft adoption and the effects of license choices for users. We discussed these presentations:

Then at the end of May, Black Lives Matter protests began happening every single day in the US as well as in many other places around the world. We thought long and hard about how we might support this long overdue moment of reckoning with systemic racism and violence. We felt we had a responsibility to look at how we might combat racism within our own community. We started with a fairly general discussion and worked towards more action-oriented topics as we went along. In the end, we hosted four discussions around racism and free software, including:

  • "How to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Free Software" -- This was an open discussion where people shared resources and talked about strategies for dismantling racism in free software projects and communities that have worked and some that haven't.
  • "How Racism is a Free Software Issue" -- Led by Molly de Blanc, in which "So you want to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo was heartily recommended.
  • "Allyship in FOSS and Beyond" -- Led by Ben Cotton in which participants shared a number of reading suggestions, many of which had already been compiled by the Chicago Public Library.
  • Finally, we watched Byron Woodfork's excellent talk from Strange Loop in 2017, "The Truth About Mentoring Minorities" and shared suggestions for participating in existing mentorship programs or starting programs within your workplace.
  • After the first Thursday in July, we hosted a "no topic" chat and noticed that the folks who showed up to that chat really appreciated the opportunity for no-topic chats. Most of the US is still limiting the size of public indoor gatherings, so we still don't know when we'll be able to do in-person FOSS events again. The virtual hallway track where we talk about installing free software on different devices, how to best advocate for software freedom, who might be hiring free software contributors and what's a good free software tool for some particular task, serves a very real function in the global, remote free software community. So, we've decided that we're going to be doing a topic on the first Thursday of the month and invite folks to share whatever's on their minds on the other Thursdays.

    Tomorrow's chat (July 30th) will be "no topic" and then on August 6th we'll have a topic again. Next week we're inviting people to talk about online resources for learners of all ages that either use or teach free software or otherwise support you -- or your child's -- development as free software user or contributor. The next chat with a topic will take place on September 3rd. Feel free to write to us with a topic suggestion and we encourage you to follow us on social media where we'll be announcing the topics and reminding folks about each week's chat, either on Mastodon or Twitter.

    All our public chats take place in #conservancy on freenode.net on Thursday afternoons at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC. The #conservancy channel is accessible via your IRC client. If you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page https://webchat.freenode.net/#conservancy and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." In free software, you're still not alone.

    Tags: diversity, software freedom for everyone

Software Freedom Work During the Pandemic

by Deb Nicholson on April 21, 2020

Most of us have already gotten many, many emails talking about how fast food chains, companies that sell sweatpants and soap makers are "here for you" especially, "in these troubled times." Some of those are heartfelt emails assuring you that their company is making donations to non-profits or that they are really, really, washing everything. Non-profits, while we are also "here for you" especially, "in these troubled times" generally have more to do during a crisis so we've been focusing on our work while going a bit light on our marketing.

Conservancy's communities have responded to the global pandemic in several ways. Firstly, we are all grateful for the global, remote free software community -- particularly as many key events are being cancelled or transforming into online experiences. Many of us are looking at how to better serve the people who count on us, either by improving the tools we offer or our support, or both. Here's a sampling of what our projects are doing during the pandemic.

Working Together

Etherpad recently rolled out video support. It was already in the works, but it couldn't be more timely as many, many more people look for remote collaboration tools that respect their freedom. We've tried it out with as many as six people and you get a collaborative space for document editing (minutes, statement, shared story, etc.) as well as a sidebar with everyone's faces reacting in real time — very nice!

Conservancy also houses three (3!) version control systems. There's never been more demand for efficient tooling to manage remote, asynchronous collaboration. Git, Darcs and Mercurial are ready to help you work together, remotely.

Common Workflow language has been participating in biohackathons, more information on that work can be found here.

Remote Internships

Outreachy provided remote paid internships to work on free and open source software, inviting anyone who faces under-representation, systemic bias, or discrimination in the technology industry of their country to apply. The pandemic has exacerbated societal inequities such that people who have stable tech jobs are able to weather this crisis from the safety of their homes, while less resourced people are forced to choose between having an income and safety from the virus. And of course, it's not a great time to look for intro-level opportunities, let alone remote ones that could lead to a career with working on free software. Outreachy is looking to provide as many internships as possible in the coming May round to help bring more opportunities to marginalized people when they're needed most. Additionally, Outreachy has lowered the hours requirement for interns and mentors, to make the intership more accessible to those who have additional care-giving or just increased emotional overhead during the global pandemic. Outreachy typically has provided a travel stipend to interns. Because travel is no longer safe or recommended, the Outreachy team has decided to officially cancel all travel and pay all outstanding travel stipends, which they hope will help their alumns cope with this difficult time. The Outreachy team could use your help -- making the upcoming round bigger will be tough while some funding sources are contracting. We encourage companies to sponsor Outreachy interns, and anyone whose financial situation is not impacted by the current crisis to make an individual donation.

LibreHealth and Qemu are both mentoring Outreachy interns who will get paid to work on free software, remotely (as always) this summer. Boost, Coreboot, Godot, Inkscape, Qemu, Sugar Labs, Wine and Xapian are all taking part in Google Summer of Code -- another critical remote internship opportunity that brings new people in to the free software community. Disasters tend to exacerbate the impact of existing inequalities, making things hard for newcomers. Mentoring new free software contributors, and paying them while they work and learn, is more important than ever.

Control Over Our Computing

Many folks have been trying to get work or school software functioning on their home computers for the first time this past month and are newly grateful for the important interoperability bridges that Homebrew and Wine maintain. Wine just released updates and bug fixes a week ago, while we've been working with Homebrew to ensure that their paid contractors are well-supported with proper hardware during lockdown.

As we incorporate technology more intimately into our lives, with networked devices being a lifeline to work, school, friends and family, it's never been more important to make sure we control the technology we rely on. Our team is also continuing to work on GPL compliance, making sure that companies who use copylefted software keep up their end of the deal. Having access to source code and being able to modify the software on our devices can help us limit surveillance and other predatory behavior by companies who know that their customers have little choice if they want devices that provide a lifeline in this difficult time.

Finally, it can't always be all about work. As we enter the *second* month of lockdown in many places, video games are providing an important escape for people who are staying at home. Godot helps folks create new games without having to worry about proprietary licenses. With Conservancy's help, the Godot team has been using community driven funding to make Godot better and better.

We hope you're keeping well and staying healthy!

Tags: conservancy, Outreachy, software freedom for everyone

Conservancy's Remote Work Tools

by Deb Nicholson on March 17, 2020

Conservancy has been a 100% remote organization for over 5 years and is now a remote organization by design. We are dedicated to empowering users through software freedom and we always use free software tools to do our work wherever possible. As many folks are newly switching to remote work or collaboration as part of "social distancing," it seems like a good time to share the "free as in freedom" tools we use and tell you how they work for us.

Etherpad! It's a Conservancy member project and a handy way to write collaboratively. We use Etherpad all the time when we want to collect notes on something, write news items or blog posts (this post was written in Etherpad!) or co-author something with one of our member projects. We also use them to take notes and minutes in meetings, like our Evaluation Committee meetings and our Board meetings. We have a handy plugin enabled where you can enter your email address and be notified when other people are editing the pad, so that you can jump in when your co-authors are ready. You can use our instance or set up your own.

We all use various clients (Empathy, Pidgin, Conversations) to talk to each other on Conservancy's Jabber server during the work day, both from our desktops and phones. We use group chats to coordinate handing off work, to discuss news items or share links. It's perfect for when you need to talk individually or as a group but don't need to start a big email chain. We use email too, but for less ephemeral conversations.

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you need a clear record of a task as it make its way through your organization. That's when Request Tracker (aka RT) is key. We moved a lot of our work to RT around eighteen months ago and it's been fantastic for clarity and productivity, especially when there are several different phases to a shared task.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) may be old school but it's easy to start using it because you don't need an account, and you can use web clients that don't need any setup at all. As a bonus, it's not much of a bandwidth hog, which is especially nice when your connection doesn't have a lot of bandwidth. Plus, you can always swing by our channel to chat with us about software freedom and adjacent topics.

Zulip is another chat service that we and some of our member projects use (our Outreachy organizers, mentors and participants use it, for example). Zulip is more modern by design than IRC, with emojis and reactions built in and does a good job of organizing different discussions. There's email notification when someone is trying to reach you directly, which is nice if you're not always on Zulip. It's also accessible via web or by installing a local client.

Asterisk helps us self-manage several phone lines and teleconference rooms. We hold our daily stand-up on the phone and schedule calls with member projects, volunteers, and contractors throughout the day, in different "rooms."

Mumble is a great tool for holding international phone meetings which can otherwise quickly become expensive for folks outside the hosting country. You set up a room and then everyone connects via the internet through their own machine, preferably with a headset.

Jitsi is a free software video calling tool for when everyone wants to get dressed and see each other. The Outreachy organizers often use this for their meetings and Karen and Bradley use this as a part of their remote Free as in Freedom recording set up. Jitsi is particularly helpful to propose as an alternative when others want to use Zoom. It can be really nice when you want to share screens or when folks want to be able to see each other. You do need a decent internet connection for video calling.

Firefox Send is a handy way to send files to people that's encrypted and that expires after you use it. This is useful so you can avoid using proprietary services that may be collecting information about the files you are sharing with other people. This works even with large files and requires no technical knowledge, local client or account setup to use.

These are weird and uncertain times. Tools are only a small part of making remote work effective. We're in this together and we're happy to talk about the remote work experience with you anytime. In particular, you can join us at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC on Thursdays in our IRC channel #conservancy on freenode, when we plan to be around to shoot the breeze.

Tags: conservancy, software freedom for everyone

In free software, you're not alone. Starting today, we're scheduling time to chat.

by Karen Sandler on March 12, 2020

Given the drastic reduction of travel, cancellation of in-person FOSS events and the many, many folks in the community who are working remotely for the first time, some of us are understandably feeling a little isolated. We at Conservancy know that community is a huge part of software freedom and luckily we already know how to come together remotely.

And so, I'd like to officially invite you to come hang out with Conservancy *virtually*!

Our IRC channel #conservancy on freenode.net is often an active meeting place, where folks already congregate for interesting conversation. Everyone is invited to join that conversation at any time. Starting this week, some of us at Conservancy will make sure to be around on Thursday afternoons at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC to chat with anyone who is interested. The #conservancy channel is accessible via your IRC client. If you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page, and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel."

Folks in the channel often discuss software freedom advocacy, the challenges of maintaining free software, new gadgets and free software licenses and other practical strategies to advance the cause. On Thursday afternoons, no special topic is necessary! Come for advice on remote work, thoughts about events that may or may not be cancelled, post jobs, find a friend for virtual proofreading, or just chit-chat about The Good Place [1].

I feel so grateful for the free software community, which I think of as my free software family. It's incredibly comforting to know so many people who are passionate about software freedom, and bringing justice and ethics to the technology that pervades our daily lives. We are building solutions to big problems that we can only do by bringing people together from all over the world and all walks of life to collaborate. One of the key sustaining characteristics of this is a strong social network we've formed in the process. When you are involved with free software, you have friends across continents and across time zones. We'll get through this crisis by supporting each other. See you in IRC!

[1] As always, please be mindful that the folks who are part of our global community different levels of comfort with sexual or religious topics. The channel is moderated and we won't allow anyone to be harassed or subjected to topics that are way outside of appropriate quasi-professional conversation.

Tags: conservancy, software freedom for everyone

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