Open Source & Feelings: Real World Examples, Real World Impact

Guest post by Thursday Bram

One of the big benefits of attending a conference like Open Source and Feelings is that most of the attendees have a good grasp of what’s going on around diversity and community-building in technology, letting us skip the basics and move on to more interesting discussions.

This summer’s conference was very good, with a wide variety of speakers bringing their own experiences to the stage. Videos from many of the talks are available online through Confreaks.

Open Source, Feelings, and Real World Impact

In particular, Open Source and Feelings featured a number of speakers working on the details of building accessible and inclusive projects, rather than just folks talking about good ideas. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for good ideas, but practical applications are nice to see in conference talks.)

Jennifer Tu’s talk stood out as a clear example of the real world applications of creating software with empathy. During her time building software for a doctor’s office, Jennifer participated in a discussion about what sort of information the office needed to collect, especially when caring for trans patients. When Jennifer embarked on the project, doctors asked just if a patient was male or female, with no explanation of how that information might be used. And, because that information had specific applications, the question had to be re-asked and answered in different contexts. For instance, the billing department needed to know what sex a patient had listed with an insurance company, while treatment teams didn’t really need to know what sex a patient had been assigned at birth as much as they needed to know what care a patient needs currently.

Major Takeaways from #OSFEELS

You know it’s a good conference when you start using examples and metaphors that speakers included in their talks immediately after the conference ends. Here are a few quotes and examples I want everyone to know about, whether or not you could attend Open Source and Feelings this year (along with one in-joke I want to explain.

Nicole Sanchez, GitHub’s vice president of social impact, gave the opening keynote. She focused on how inclusion stacks up against diversity, bringing more than twenty years of experience to bear on the topic.

Nicole discussed the stereotypical concept of diversity as a party: many people see diversity as ‘asking folks to come to the party’ and inclusion as ‘being asked to dance at the party.’ Sanchez offered up a better metaphor, though: “Diversity is coming to your party despite my bad experiences at other parties. Inclusion is being glad I came.” This metaphor resonates in a way that the more stereotypical concept can’t and I’ve used it perhaps a dozen times since the end of the conference.

In Courtney Eckhardt’s talk about conducting blameless retrospectives, she noted that “Human error is not a root cause,” and that “Complex systems have complex failures.” Both points are revolutionary in the world of computers, despite being well established in other engineering cultures. Everything around is the result of human decisions, but chalking failures up purely to human errors makes preventing future failures impossible.

Li’l Gay Piplup: This is the in-joke, in case you’ve been waiting for it. Piplup’s initial appearance was in Nicole’s opening keynote and the Pokemon showed up throughout the rest of the conference. Nicole took advantage of the recent launch of Pokemon Go to talk about the spaces we create using Pokemon. Most places are constructed so that Pikachu feels comfortable—Pikachu is used to define ‘normal’ for Pokemon. But Piplup isn’t the same as Pikachu. In the Pokemon universe, Piplup is a water Pokemon, while Pikachu is an electric Pokemon. They have different needs if they’re both going to succeed. Outside of the Pokemon universe, Pikachu can be coded with characteristics like male, able-bodied, or straight. Li’l Gay Piplup tries to fit in (and might even pass), but ultimately knows that a workspace designed for Pikachu isn’t Piplup-friendly.

The Pokemon comparison works for me on so many levels. Every Pokemon fan is onboard with the idea that every Pokemon has different needs (food, training, and so forth). Making that connection to real people seems harder for some folks, but Piplup is a good metaphor worth using.

This Stuff is Hard

Conversations around technology and emotion are hard. We try to balance innovation and empathy, with incredibly mixed results. But conferences like Open Source & Feelings create room for those conversations (as do a few other conferences, like Open Source Bridge, Affect Conf, and AlterConf). Not everyone gets it right, but as Kronda Adair said, “1. Try to do good. 2. Fuck it up. 3. Apologize 4. Try not to make the same mistake again. That’s the job.” I’ll be watching for plans for the 2017 conference.