Attending SSI Collaborations Workshop remotely

Patrick McCann
Thursday 9 April 2020

Like most other people, the Research Computing team is now working from home. However, last week I took remote working a step further by attending a conference from my home office.

The Software Sustainability Institute‘s (SSI) annual Collaborations Workshop was due to be held at Queen’s University, Belfast. Even before of the current social distancing regime, it became apparent that a physical meeting would not be possible, and the event was moved online (the plan is to hold it in Belfast next year).

Collaborations Workshop delegates usually make use of Slack and Google Docs, with the addition of GitHub for the Hackday; this year, use of those tools was ramped up, with the now-ubiquitous Zoom added to the mix to facilitate talks and discussions.

Through the clear communication of the Code of Conduct (in summary: “Be Kind.”) and explicit acknowledgement of the likelihood that delegates may not be able to give their full attention for the whole of the event, the usual friendly, sociable tone of the Collaborations Workshops was maintained. Icebreakers, talks and discussions all worked very well via Zoom, with remarkably few technical issues. That’s how it looked to me, at least – no doubt that was down to a lot of hard work by the organisers.

I believe the SSI will be making video recordings of many of the sessions available online. It was interesting how the lockdown influenced the content of many of the talks and discussion, as well as the medium. I chaired a discussion on community building at institutions, which moved from a focus on physical events (people like free food!) to online communities, seeking to draw on the experience of distributed online communities e.g. those around open-source software projects.

At the end of the first day I took part in a session led by Dr. Alexander Konovalov, of the School of Computer Science here at St Andrews, on Code4REF. Code4REF is a product of the hackday at the 2019 Collaborations Workshop which provides guidance on adding research software to Current Research Information Systems (CRIS) such as Pure a necessary step towards inclusion in the REF, and something which fits into a broader movement towards recognising software as a research output. His presentation also touched on the hidden REF initiative.

During the hackday, I worked with Jon Massey of the University of Bristol and Lucian Oprea of Figshare on incorporatign Behaviour-driven Development into Jupyter Notebooks; it was again notable that several of the teams worked on ways to support online communities and events in light of the lockdown.

The event worked very well, better than might have been expected seeing as the decision to move online was only taken a few weeks before. Again this is testament to the hard work of the organisers and the way in which the delegates engaged. However, I missed much of what happens around the organised sessions at a physical event – the chats during breaks, being introduced to new people, the conference dinner and, especially, the pizza to kick off the hackday on the evening of the second day. I look forward to attending the Collaborations Workshop 2021 in Belfast in person.

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