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About the Software we are using for this collaborative platform

6/10/2013 — still editing this but you can read my draft that is in progress — Chach

This collaborative platform is built using Mukurtu. Mukurtu is an installation of Drupal built with indigenous communities to manage cultural heritage.

It turns out that the way the software is designed works also for distributed open source collaboration when community dialogues are important. We have “workgroups” for sharing multimedia assets, and can organize content into multiple groups as necessary. Most groups are public, but a few project planning groups are for team members (mainly to focus on writing good content and not totally confusing folks who are new to our project.)

Drupal works well for this because it is a software platform designed for large, distributed organization collaboration — which is what we are doing when we talk about groundwater, water rights, or anything else that Californians happen to want to know about the health and reality of water in our State.

Since we are using Drupal, we can alter our entire platform later on to more helpfully support collaboration. We are starting out with a blog, calendar, basic contact information, background on the original California Water Atlas… and then also a bunch of groups.

Project Workgroups

The project workgroups that are on the site as of today reflect a brainstorm we did at EcoHackSF. We looked at the original Water Atlas and saw which kinds of maps they originally made. We also added some projects that have come up in discussions.

Thanks to an idea from Seth Fitzsimmons from Stamen, we also turned each map idea into a workgroup and made them all into discussion threads. At the very least, anyone interested in a particular project could leave a comment, or some ideas and suggestions about how to get any of these projects off the ground. We still need to tell the world that this forum exists, but at the very least it’s possible for folks to leave each other messages now.

Why we are using Mukurtu

Using Mukurtu also helps with some other goals. I have been the lead engineer on the Mukurtu project for the last 1.5 years, and want to make sure that the features of that project are all functional as promised. Feedback on the platform as a whole will go to the Mukurtu support community, and features of our site may go back into the Mukurtu platform either as tips/recipes, or as actual Drupal features as appropriate.

What this means is that we are strengthening a web archive platform that is built with indigenous communities to manage and share digital heritage content.

We believe this is an important choice. Not just because I was a developer on that project (I’m actually super tired of dealing with Drupal and have moved on to mapping projects like these), or that it saved me some time in making a web platform, or even because Drupal happens to be really good at social publishing…

The important and primary reason why we are using Mukurtu is because many of the Mukurtu communities are looking at Mukurtu as a tool for managing and archiving stories related to land and water management.

If our contributions to that initiative can help make a platform that supports how we communicate better about managing our ecosystem, regardless of our national status, then we all win and so does our land and water.

Also, it turns out that people keep using Mukurtu for water related projects. There was a group of scientists who used Mukurtu to document students studying ice in Greenland. And then there is a great group of teachers at a tribal elementary school in Omak, WA who are proposing an NSF project to integrate science/STEM learning with traditional knowledge about water. I hope they get their grant because they are inspiring and it is a fantastic school, and the curriculum the teachers are developing could benefit any school system where there is interest in monitoring and stewarding in the local watershed.

I should also mention that Mukurtu as a software project has a slightly different approach to openness. The software is free, open source & GPL. AND we are building a community of users so you do have to sign up and make a github account and then you can get the software. This is not the “forever-plan”… but the main reason for this is that the project has a fairly low budget and not a great deal of time to support it fully. So when people sign up, they get the full instructions and disclaimers about the software.

Here is what I have to say about openness: It is OK to really think about the implications of being open, and to take your time and be open in ways that feel healthy. There are closed source projects, and there are also projects that are so open that they are totally confusing. There are projects that are very “open” but if you do not know what you are doing, people might be mean to you. Which is stressful and unproductive.

We have been trying, with limited means, to encourage really friendly and helpful community. From what I have learned from being involved with open source communities for several years now, this is no small thing. I know a lot of humanist technologists, and the reason I worked on this project post-Code for America was because I believed that there had to be something in between open and closed… and this project was the only one I knew of at the time that dealt with this in between space. There is a Reciprocal Research Network in Canada that does a good job of this, and then also there was the Diaspora project which also dealt with alternatives to sharing.

This was particularly important because Mukurtu was specifically designed to be a tool for communities to manage and share their cultural heritage. Security and privacy are major and very important concern, because some of this information is potentially sacred and also because of history.

We wanted anyone using the software to be fully aware of all possible ways the software could be insecure – through misconfiguration, or errors on our part, or not using the software as intended. Since we are a small group, it made sense to personally connect with communities interested in the software. So far, this strategy has been working really well. Once we have a big enough community (and we are getting there) there might be enough of a network that folks will be able to support one another. Often in small forums it’s easier to just email or talk to each other, and we are still at that stage.

So that’s the story about that.

Our long term plan for this site

As a distributed collaboration tool for community projects… we shall see how it goes. We don’t know for certain if we will always stick with Mukurtu – but one nice thing is that we created the platform in such a way that we can easily export all of the content to CSV & a zip folder of media files… (well, except for comments) so we are not stuck. In a few years, we will probably hate our website and want to change it/rebuild it. Hopefully a community will grow around people making and upgrading Mukurtu and we will be able to keep using it.

One other thing we will be able to do will be to copy our entire site configuration in case some other state wanted to do the same thing. That’s just an idea right now, but it would not be hard.

Right now we are using Pantheon for hosting. That’s $25/month. It’s OK for the moment, and we will either fundraise to keep the site there or else move it to some sort of shared server for this project.

Where this software came from

I think it is important to tell the story of this software.

As I understand it:

Part One: Years ago, I attended a science museum conference because I used to work at the Exploratorium. I attended a lecture by Victor Steffensen who discussed a traditional knowledge recording project, and how his community in Australia was recording knowledge about the bush food. At that point in time, I had been absolutely frustrated by museum culture.

He was probably the first person in my life who I interacted with who was clearly a real genuine leader for the planet Earth. He talked about healing people and healing the land. He also talked about designing a video archive that was organized with tags, and with culturally appropriate access. This idea that you could access knowledge when you had reached certain milestones in life – like being an elder or having women’s knowledge… this was important.

Also, he told the story of his mentors who had, their entire lives, given tours to scientists and anthropologists… and they were 70/80 years old and no one had ever asked them what they really wanted people to KNOW. So they recorded it themselves. Victor helped them, and it grew into a huge indigenous media training project for youth.

What they wanted to record happened to be a their own 40,000+ year old lineage of traditional knowledge. To this day I have wanted to help protect our actual real human heritage because of this inspiration. Our culture changes so often, right? There are real things that we can know as humans that matter. There is so much we don’t know. There are so many ways of relating to each other, of being sensitive to Earth in ways that we were as intelligent conscious beings for millennia. This matters a lot.

After I met him, I changed how I viewed technology. I’m still trying to find every way possible to learn how to be a leader and how to work as people on Earth in ways that actually make sense to our human souls and interests in caring for other things.

Part Two:
So, years later, when I heard of a similar project that I could actually help with… I got involved.

The Mukurtu software (which seems to have some similarity to this other software described above) came about because a community in Australia got back a big hard drive of old photos from missionaries, who wanted to do the right thing and heal the past, and give communities back their stuff.

As many of us may know… dealing with a ton of photos on a hard drive can be a pain in the butt — if you are in a remote location in the desert, or even with a constant internet connection and full computer fluency. It’s a nightmare in nearly all situations.

So a very bad-ass and super fierce anthropologist (Kim) made a MYSQL/PHP platform happen to make sure this cultural heritage material would have a good home. As I understand it, she also studies open source “community rationale.” And she studies how people share information. I am not sure how she did this, but she wound up working with a community she knew well and they designed this software.

Then, it turned out that a number of communities in the Columbia river valley in Washington state wanted it, too. So Dr. Kim Christen @Mukurtu did her magic, with the help of a library Alex Merrill, to make the Plateau People’s Web Portal — which gave tribal control to share and revise stories. For example (and again apologies if I am mangling this description), historical photos of “Indian man on horse” might actually be totally incorrect, varying degrees of offensive, not even the right tribe, and really this is probably also someone’s Grandpa and missing the whole point of the real story of what was going on. Our public archives reflect this incorrect information and permanently mar our understanding of reality.

So, they made this web portal. It was a big hit. They got an IMLS grant to make it Drupal-ly (i.e scaling, friendly with libraries, long-term metadata for high-quality storage), and that’s when I got involved. I met Michael Ashley at BADCamp (who is at UC Berkeley in the Center for Digital Archaeology) through a former Exploratorium co-worker, Noah Wittman. I had just finished my fellowship year as an open government change agent for Code for America and needed a part-time job so that I could continue to do some of the community-focused work that I wanted to do without having to stress out about rent too much. (This is why I was able to live modestly for the last 1.5 years so that I could do more work to blend tech and the environment in new ways.) At that time, CivicActions had been working on this project – and I was thrilled to work with one of my best friends, Zoey Kroll, as well as Owen Barton & Fureigh.

Michael and I had talked about this idea of “community driven agile development.” He was into this idea, so I decided that I would give it a try because no one else I knew was willing to take the risk to try doing an open source software project AS A SOCIAL JUSTICE PROJECT.

The idea of “Community Driven Agile Development” originally came from the worker-owned Quilted technology cooperative. Quilted works with organizations to help them focus on what they really need with respect to tech. Raeanne Young and I had some really great discussions about this idea.(Also: Colin Sagan, Rocket !, Ben Mauer & Kiran Nigam.) We brought quilted and Golden Arrows in to create a theme for Mukurtu. And it is pretty.

The ways that we implemented this idea so far for Mukurtu have been the following:

  • Everyone who gets the software gets an installation package (but also we do a lot of work with respect to basic usage of Drupal and the platform, which is also a lot of powerful technology to master.)
  • A lot of meetings to talk with each community about needs for the software
  • We explain our process and the open source method of working on a little part of the project and contributing it back
  • We have a website that shows communities that are using the project
  • We have a support forum that helps to keep everyone communicating about ideas & problems.
  • We made dozens of free demo instances of the platform (using Pantheon) to organizations, so that everyone could kick the tires.
  • Hands-on community workshops at digital humanities conferences
  • Formed strategic collaborative partnerships with institutions

Getting the commmunity driven agile development going has actually taken a lot longer than anticipated, but this process is actually working. There are hundreds of communities organizations around the world that are very interested and now we can begin to work together.

For our Atlas project, we will do a version of the community driven agile development, using Mukurtu as a collaboration platform.

I would like to give a special shout-out to Connor Rowe, who has been tracking all of the Pantheon instances and all of the communications from everyone. He has really done the bulk of the work with respect to making it possible to form a digital network that will make this dream of community-focused open source development possible. Connor is awesome.

So at this point, there is a robust and very real & great community of people that support Mukurtu. And folks will become more able to use the platform and modify it to suit different needs. This is how it becomes a community-driven agile project. By agile we do not necessarily mean so fast that we can’t think… community work is slow… but we are building alliances to create new kinds of reusable technologies. The momentum continues to build.

So that’s the long story of where this software came from & why we are using it. I hope that in a year or so we can actually begin to share stories of how the software helped connect people, and to help us understand, protect and restore our water and related systems better!

  • Chacha Sikes
    Berkeley, CA
    June 10, 2013

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