Digital Manual Scoping Study involving FLOSS Manuals

Digital Manual Research Network – Franco and David

FLOSS Manuals was chosen as a case study for a scoping study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The research focus was the ‘Digital Manual’: a model of emergent multi-authored publication employing open source and co-creative practices. Clearly this is an area where FM is doing really innovative work.

I can break down what this academic ‘scoping study’ involved for those not familiar with the term. The study involved setting up a email list for an extended network of research partners, creating a project blog, recording interviews with members of the 4 case studies. Following this there was a 2 day research event. Day one brought together people from the case studies for a focus group exploring some of emerging issues. On day two this information was fed back to a wider research network of representatives. The job of a wider network was broadly to work out what areas benefit from further study and to suggest ways of doing it.

Although what we do is innovative and interesting, we are so focused on the practicalities of creating free manuals for free software rather than the analysis of that process, that until now it has been challenging for FLOSS Manuals to interact easily with the academic world. Also, there is a certain amount of grumpy pride in our community that we have been under-funded and over-worked compared to some projects in the worlds of Free Culture or academia. Would the meeting be like this video?

Not this time. Although FM has focused on production almost exclusively until now, there is a lot of reflection and information sharing to be done. Ideally this can be done with research partners.

Projects and issues associated with the Digital Manuals study

The questions of the Scoping study are online here – and here’s a summary.

The project … will explore authority, authorship and voice within this expanded domain of writing. It will investigate both the structures of power (e.g. hierarchy, heterarchy, peer to peer, etc.) within creative communities as well as the authority and power of the manual itself, within and outside these communities (e.g. the relationship of the ‘manual’ with current regulatory frameworks, such as Intellectual Property law and, in particular, copyright).

There was discussion on the first day from participants in the case studies. We were able to go into a good level of detail and reflect back the similarities and differences of the different approaches. Here are links to the projects being studied.

We started from a very open definition of what the Digital Manual was from the participants. Interestingly only really FLOSS Manuals had anything to do with a printed manual or a manual contained by boundaries (UpStage produces user and installation manuals for its software – being one example of how FM is used by another a specific, online creative community). We did have a common definition that a manual was a set of instructions on some level. There are videos here of the participants defining ‘digital manuals’

The view from the board room of the Art School

I don’t want to try to replicate the work already done by the project investigators, Penny and Smita. There are other blog posts which address the content of the meeting including Helen’s post on UpStage, and posts on Day 1 and Day 2 of the event on the Digital Manual blog. I’ll concentrate more on the process of the project. However, one of the interesting divergences between the projects was around the question of community. The Art is Open Source project didn’t see themselves as community builders so much as providing tools that could be dropped into different situations. The Sauti ya Wakulima project was specifically working with existing geographical communities. For UpStage, make-shift and FLOSS Manuals there is a very conscious process of building community. This involves recruiting new members, injecting excitement and discussion, providing encouragement and support, maintaining resources and doing this is a consistent way.

The second day involved the research network. I met some really interesting people and found out about some of the great projects they are involved in.

For researchers in this area, I imagine that there are many reasons why partnership research with FLOSS Manuals could be attractive. These include; access to observe first hand use of an innovative production technology, a diverse and active community of peer producers, the interaction between the Book Sprint and remote collaboration practices, the multiple outputs produced (specifically formless content production), the remixing practices, use of new, open formats for interoperability, the blanket use of open licences and an emergent and experimental and rapidly evolving culture of attribution.

I was interested in very early contribution from of the network members, Marc Garrett. Marc, brought up questions about the power relations of the project. He expressed a desire that the projects researched got something out of it themselves during and after the process rather than just being research material. There was support for this idea, but there was also an understanding that generally this is how these kinds of projects work.

Marc also expressed issues around trust. This seemed to relate to questions about, whether there are silent partners (not in the room) making decisions on whether to fund the project, whom after agreeing may decide to reuse the data/information as material for promoting neo-liberal agendas, against the original motives and contexts of why the work and peer researchers collaborated in the first place? Marc’s perspective came from a position of critiquing the infrastructural relations occurring between, researchers, institutions and the artists involved, and where the heart of the collaboration rested ethically. Again, the general consensus was that there was no fear of something like this happening.

Activities suitable for researching

cart before horse?

What activities and research models are available that progress the aims of FLOSS Manuals and will allow researchers to gain insights?

Our community is large and currently nearly 100% volunteer based. We need to make sure that any research programme that we enter has a tangible benefit not just for researchers and funders but for the FM community as well. We can’t let ourselves be diverted too much from the core activity of FM. No cart before horse.

Some of our immediate needs are;

  • Capacity building for FM Book Sprint practitioners (training, experience, funds and documentation)
  • Capacity building for FM community builders (training, experience, funds and documentation)
  • Capacity building for FM educators – moving FM beyond software manuals into the realm of task driven educational resources (networking and training)

After discussing around some of the possible activities about that would meet these needs with partners on the FM admin team we came up with the following.

  • A Book Sprint improving an existing FM manual – suggested manual UpStage
  • A Book Sprint creating a new manual for a software that needs a manual but lacks funds to create one
  • A Book Sprint creating a manual on the process of running a Free Software Book Sprint
  • A Book Sprint to document current FM community activities and to share skills and experiences
  • A working group of educators involved with FM network or partners working to document how to remix and re-use existing FM materials and to test and document interoperability with OER systems and communities

Comparing possible Research Methodologies

“My Post-its will take over the world – Mr Bond”.

To work out what fits best let’s have a look at different methodologies that are around for achieving this and how they might apply to FLOSS Manuals carrying out the above activities.

Participants Observation

Research partners observe the process, in this case the book sprints, without direct participation. This ‘observatory’ method may be particularly suitable for early research as the least disruptive way to witness the production process.

Action Research

The active role of researchers as participants may only work if our researcher partners have very similar understanding of aims to the FLOSS Manuals practitioners.

Our research partner could join FM action researchers to play an active role in a project with another software / documentation community. The goal could be to see what the Book Sprint process and experience from FM would bring to the other community.

Reflective Practice

We are a community which is in the process of widening the number of Book Sprint facilitators and community leaders. Reflective practice may be of great benefit in the middle to late stages of the this process. In many ways the Book Sprint process itself can be seen as a model of reflective practice.

Taking it forward

FLOSS Manuals wants to broaden our community of practitioners and share our skills in order to scale up the Book Sprint and community manual production model. Ideally, we can integrate these aims by playing an active role as one of the research partners in the Digital Manuals research project.