Maintainers III: Meet the Track Leaders

This post is by The Maintainers Co-Director Andy Russell.

As we near the May 13 deadline for proposals for Maintainers III, I have been thinking about how far this conference has come.  For Maintainers I and II, the “program committee” was Lee Vinsel and me, and our fictional assistant “Robert Tuttle” (which was the name we assigned to the gmail account that collected proposals and cvs). Our planning for logistics was limited to the room and catering offices at Stevens, some swag, and remembering to pick up the scoreboard from the athletics department (we used their giant red clock in lieu of asking people to serve as session chairs and keep time).  

This time, it’s different. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Jessica Meyerson, we’ve got an amazing venue in Washington, DC, the Kellogg Conference Hotel at Gallaudet University. (We haven’t figured out if we’ll be able to borrow scoreboard clocks again…)  But perhaps the most remarkable and rewarding aspect of planning for Maintainers III has been the opportunity to work with the leaders of the “Tracks” for the conference focused on software, transportation, and information maintenance. I’d like to say a few words about these amazing individuals and the vision they have for their tracks.

First, the software track. Over the past year or so we have noticed an increase in scholarly and practitioner interest in the maintenance and sustainability of open source software--Tidelift’s initiative to pay the maintainers and the Ford and Sloan Foundations’ joint call for research on digital infrastructure are only two examples. A formative moment for my own education around this issue came at APIdays Paris in December 2018, an event organized by software track Co-Chair, Mehdi Medjaoui. In Paris, Mehdi introduced me to a crew of dedicated software maintainers, and expressed his own interest in joining the organizing team for Maintainers III.  At the same event I met software track Co-Chair Don Goodman-Wilson, who calls himself a “recovering academic” who now works at GitHub. Don is focused on “discovering the best ways to support the maintainers of open source software,” which is one of the reasons why we were thrilled to invite him to organize the software track with Mehdi. For the most part, they envision the software track as a series of unconference-style conversations, organized around topics that attendees propose.  I really like the way that Don framed his invitation for participation over on the Maintainers email list:

There are a lot of places where we could use your experience and expertise. Are there lessons from other disciplines that could be applied to software maintenance? What’s different about maintaining legacy software vs open source software?  Do you know of interesting case-studies we should be aware of? Do _you_ maintain software, and have a story to share? What existing institutions exist that could be extended to cover software, or that might have resources for software maintainers that we aren’t aware of? Does open source as a practice have the deck stacked against it, and maybe we need to fundamentally rethink the way we approach open, collaborative software creation for the public good?

The second group of track chairs I want to highlight are working on the transportation track for Maintainers III.  In many ways, transportation is the poster child and arch-metaphor for the problems of infrastructure maintenance that are routinely in the headlines, such as bridge failures, pothole-filled roads, the elusive massive bipartisan federal spending package, and the annual shame of the ASCE Report Card. We’re very fortunate to have Co-Chairs Tabitha Decker (Deputy Executive Director at TransitCenter in New York), Raquel Velho (in the STS Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), and Carole Voulgaris (in the Civil Engineering Department at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo) heading up this track. They have developed a compelling vision for the kinds of interactions they’d like to foster, and the kinds of questions they’d like to put on the table.  Tabitha is keen to facilitate conversations that connect academics with advocates and policymakers so that academic work “can inform policies to make cities fairer.” She’s especially interested in submissions that “center the perspectives of users and practitioners (e.g. bus and train operators, planners who design and maintain transit networks and/or streets, etc), examine the consequences of uneven and inaccessible transportation systems, and/or that feature methods for measuring transportation equity.” Carole has expressed complementary interests, particularly when it comes to the question of “how we pay for the maintenance of our transportation systems.” Moreover, Carole recognized that the Maintainers III conference is uniquely situated to foster conversations across our thematic tracks. As she put it, “I imagine that these questions are also pertinent to the maintenance of other systems, like information and software. Maintenance is great, how do we pay for it, and who should pay for it?” Raquel emphasizes that she’s interested in hearing from academics, policymakers, practitioners, and activists who can put “unheard stories at the front and center of our conference.” Raquel also has challenged us to imagine how innovation and maintenance can operate in a partnership, particularly to serve marginalized and excluded communities.

The third and final group at Maintainers III is the information maintenance track. Here again we have an extraordinary group of three co-chairs who have deep experiences in archives, libraries, publishing, and interface design. Juliana Castro is, among other things, the founder of Cita Press, a feminist open-access press using web design and illustration to revitalize public domain texts by women. At Maintainers III, Juliana is keen to see discussion around “the role that interfaces, interaction and multilanguage information play in maintenance.” She’s also eager to help build a diverse, exciting and playful program this year,” which we hope will include “academic and non-academic proposals, performances, workshops, dances, and papers!” Hillel Arnold, Assistant Director and Head of Digital Programs at Rockefeller Archives Center, participated in Maintainers I and II (his paper on Woody Guthrie and the Maintenance of Folk Music was amazing).  He’s keen to explore how “the maintenance framework can help us reframe and revalue labor across industries and sectors.” And, like several other track chairs, he’s eager both to curate the panels within the information track and, at the same time, to  learn from participants in the other tracks and plenary events about “how to collectively build power which addresses the challenges faced by maintainers.” Chela Scott Weber, the third co-chair of the information maintenance track, is a Senior Program Officer for the OCLC Research Library Partnership. She has broad experience in archives that span the industrial and digital ages, from the Henry Ford and New York Transit Museum to the Microsoft Archives. Chela’s vision is for MIII to be a place for “a broad array of information maintainers to reflect on their work,” a goal that is very much in step with the growing consensus that information maintenance is an area that’s vitally important, yet under-recognized and under-studied. She also notes that she has a “keen practical interest in wardrobe maintenance and repair, so if you want to talk sock darning or compare sashiko stitches, I'm your girl.”

I hope this brief account of these amazing people provides a sense of the experience we’re planning for our tracks at Maintainers III.  We are so grateful that they have joined us, and we’re excited to see their visions for the conference come to fruition.

It probably goes without saying that the final ingredient to make their vision a reality is… YOU!  So please, submit a proposal or reach out to the track chairs if you have questions or ideas about a session or submission.  And please mark your calendars and plan to join us in Washington for Maintainers: registration rates are posted, and registration itself will open in June!