Changing the world one byte at a time

It’s not too late to fill out the Planeteria user survey

The Planeteria user survey has been open for a week and I’m really excited about some of the suggestions and ideas that have come out of it so far.  Thanks to all of those who have filled it out!

The survey ends this Friday, February 15.  I’ll discuss the results in a subsequent blog post in case you’re curious to know what comes of it.

If you haven’t filled it out yet, please do it now, it should only take a few minutes.

Take the survey!


The Planeteria User Survey is now Live! (please fill it out)

I’ve launched a small user survey for readers.  If you’re reading this entry via Planeteria, please participate!

Depending on your answers, it should take only 5-10 minutes.

Note that this survey is different from the questions I asked in a recent blog post; those address the content of the Women in Free Software planet, whereas this survey addresses the website in general.  I’d appreciate responses to both if you have time; if not, please respond to this one.

I’m going to Pycon!

I just completed my registration for Pycon, a big conference for pythonistas which will be held in Santa Clara, CA this March.  I’m so thankful for the financial aid that made it possible for me.  I’m looking forward to getting to know more Python coders; almost everyone I have met so far in the Portland Python community is really cool and welcoming and I’m hoping that it extends to the larger population of Pythonistas who will be at Pycon.

This is will be my first Pycon, and someone pointed me to this very helpful beginner’s guide which gives some general conference-going tips (don’t forget to eat and shower. seriously.) as well as suggestions for beginner-friendly sessions at the conference.

I’ve signed up for a few tutorials; I’m a bit bummed to miss the session about scraping and public data hacking, but it conflicts with one that’s more directly related to my work on Planeteria, Rapid Web Prototyping with Lightweight Tools. It’ll cover two lightweight tools that I’m using for this project (Flask and Twitter Bootstrap) so I’m sure I’ll pick up some handy tips.  I’m also looking forward to rounding out my web dev knowledge with a database crash course.

As I’ve been active in the Portland Pyladies chapter, I’m looking forward to meeting Pyladies from other parts of the country at the Pyladies lunch on Saturday.  I also plan to check out the Ada Foundation’s feminist hacker lounge, which I actually learned about through the WFS Planet feed.

Finally, some folks in the PDX Python user group have convinced me to stay for the sprints.

There’s discussion of a meetup with bay area OPW interns as well; if anyone is interested who I have not yet spoken to about this, let me know.

Planet curation feedback request – tl:dr version

At the request of a fellow OPW intern, here is the tl:dr (shortened) version of my request.

Planets are used primarily in FOSS development communities to build community around a project.  They allow you to keep your finger on the pulse of what people are thinking about the project, as well as helping you get to know your fellow contributors better by reading some of their personal blog posts.

It’s important for the administrator/curator to pay attention to the balance of relevant content in a planet’s feed.  While a few personal posts can help contributors connect with each other on a  human level, too many personal posts can flood the feed and make it hard to find project-related content.  It’s hard for a curator to control the content of any individual’s blog.  Thus it’s helpful when the planet contributors and readers are the same group, and have the means and motivation to self-curate. is different than traditional FOSS planets because it’s easier to use for people who are not technically inclined. It has the potential to be used by groups working on different types of projects, or even broader interest groups and themes.  The Women in Free Software planet is an example of a group that’s a broader interest group.  It’s raised some questions about curation mechanisms for Planeteria in general, and for the WFS feed specifically.

As a WFS planet reader, please answer the following questions in the comments of my original blog post (and read that one for a more nuanced explanation):

Do you feel there are any blogs in the WFS planet that are consistently off-topic that you feel should be removed?

Do you feel there are any voices or general themes you feel are missing or underrepresented?

Would you like to have the ability to read only the OPW intern blogs at times, and read the whole feed at other times?  Or would a separate OPW internship program planet be more useful?

If we add tagging, what tags would you like to use to sort the WFS planet feed (besides OPW)?

Planet curation: feedback wanted

(Update: I’ve made a tl:dr version of this entry)

The first few weeks of my internship have been busy, yet progress on the project has been slower than I had hoped.  As is just a small project (I’m contributor #2), there are many things about Planeteria that need work, and most of it falls on my shoulders.  I’ve been working on finding and reporting bugs, a redesign, a user survey (you’ll hear more about this soon!), and documentation.  Each of these tasks has required a lot of yak shaving, since I am learning how to do this as I go.

Today I’d like to focus on one issue that I’ve been grappling with as I get my toes wet in this project: planet curation.

Before I dive into curation, however, I want to provide some background. Being somewhat new to the open source scene, planets are a new concept to me.  I soon learned that they’re commonly used in the open source world.  As a feed of blog entries by people working on a specific project, planets help you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the project.

Normally, when a group decides it wants a planet, they will set it up on their project’s website, often using code from either Venus or PlanetPlanet.  Because it’s being used for software development projects, they have the technical knowledge and access to a server, domain, etc to do this.  Planeteria, on the other hand, allows anyone to create a planet with a few clicks, and hosts the planet right there on  This makes planets accessible to a much wider audience, for purposes beyond software development and even beyond the FOSS community entirely.  As I work on improvements to serve a broader community, it’s important to keep in mind its roots in open source software development, what makes planets useful in that context, and how that’s applicable (or not applicable) in other use cases.

All of the OPW intern blogs are fed to the Women in Free Software (WFS) planet, so most of us are reading the planet to see what the other interns are working on.  I’ve taken on responsibility for administering the WFS planet and quickly learned why it’s called curation and not just administration.  There is a lot of work and thoughtfulness required to make a planet useful to its readers.

Curators need to keep an eye on the balance between posts that are directly related to the planet’s project or topic, and posts that are personal in nature or otherwise off-topic.  One of the benefits of a planet in the context of FOSS projects (and projects in general) is community-building: it can help get to know other project contributors on a personal level, as well as learning what they’re working on and thinking about regarding the project.  This assumes, however, that the planet feed mostly talks about the project or topic of the planet, with a sprinkling of personal posts thrown in.  You wouldn’t want a project’s planet to be flooded with entries about what they ate for lunch, celebrity gossip, personal health issues, and baby photos.  If all the readers see in the feed is personal posts, then the feed is not very useful to them to learn what’s going on with the project.  Readers may stop using the planet entirely if this is an ongoing issue, and then the planet is no longer useful.

Maintaining this balance is tricky.  The planet curator can’t control the content of a blog.  If the blogger is making use of tags or categories, there is a way to grab just the feed of one of their tags or categories.  But if the blog doesn’t have a tag relevant to the planet’s topic, or assigns the tag that is being pulled into the feed to their personal entries, then the baby photos and celebrity gossip will still appear in the planet’s feed.  And this requires some effort on the curator’s part to determine which blogs are spamming the feed with irrelevant posts, determine if there’s a category or tag they can use instead, and update the feed accordingly.

I’ve already had a few conversations with interns and mentors about ways to make the WFS feed more useful to them.  Several people have requested the ability to view only the blog entries by OPW interns, or at least a way to easily determine which blogs are intern blogs.  This begs the question of whether to create a separate planet just for the internship program, or whether there’s value in continuing to use the WFS planet and creating other mechanisms for readers to determine which blogs belong to the interns.  As a short-term solution, I’ve set it up to display the OPW internship logo next to each intern’s entry.

One feature that could be helpful in this matter is tag-based organization.  Each blog in the planet could be assigned tags that identify common topics the blogger discusses, or what organizations the blogger is affiliated with.  Then the readers could choose to display only the entries by bloggers that have a specific tag.  However this still doesn’t guarantee that the specific entries will be related to those tags, as only the blogger controls what content appears in their feed.  Taking a step back, though, I wonder if tagging is simply a band-aid for a poorly curated planet.  This feature could result in readers missing out on the bigger picture, which is one of the benefits of a planet.  If readers always filter their feed to display only a small number of blogs, they might miss all the buzz about something happening in the broader community.  For example, I learned that many of the people I’m working with knew Aaron Swartz personally, and it’s helpful to know that they’re grieving as I work with them.

In the context of a large open-source project’s planet, most or all of the Planet’s bloggers also reading the planet, and will notice if they’re spamming the feed (or be nudged by a cohort) and self-correct.  This self-correcting mechanism works well if there is an established community that communicates in other channels.  But what about a planet that is not focused on a project that has its own IRC channel (or several), but instead is focused on a topic of interest?  The WFS planet is somewhat grey area in this respect.  It includes the OPW program participants, who have an IRC channel and email list by which we can talk to each other, but it also includes blogs of other women in the FOSS community who (I’m pretty sure) are not aware that their blogs are included in this feed.  There are some pretty big names, which makes for great reading, but because they’re leaders in the field, I’m not sure that they would have the time to read the feed even if they knew their blog was part of it.  There are also several organizational blog feeds and a couple blogs with numerous authors (such as Geek Feminism), which means the authors are several steps removed from this planet, and are thinking of a much broader audience than just the WFS planet readers.  For those blogs, the self-correcting mechanism is lost, which makes more work for the curator.

Here’s where I would appreciate some feedback from the WFS planet readers (hello!):

Do you feel there are any blogs in the WFS planet that are consistently off-topic that you feel should be removed?  Any voices or general themes you feel are missing or underrepresented?

Would you like to have the ability to read only the OPW intern blogs at times, and read the whole feed at other times?  Or would a separate OPW internship program planet be more useful?  If we add tagging, what other tags would you like to use to sort the WFS planet feed?

I’ve discussed Planeteria with a few people over IRC in the OPW channel.  However, not all of the WFS planet readers are OPW participants, so please respond in the comments here instead.  If there’s enough interest, I could set up a WFS planet IRC channel to provide a way of communicating with the other readers and curators about the WFS planet.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

My Project

This week is the first week of my GNOME OPW internship.  I’m honored to have been selected as a participant and I’m especially excited to dive into my project.  This will be my first formal contribution to an open source project, hopefully the first of many.

My internship project is to make improvements to, a blog aggregator.  Those involved in the internship should be familiar with this site since the interns are required to blog and our blogs are added to the Women in Free Software planet.

My degree and professional experience is in online communication, so I’m approaching this project from a communication/media perspective.  My existing tech skills are in website design & development; while I still have a lot to learn, I know enough to dive in without a steep learning curve.  My three major goals for the project are to:

  1. Improve the user experience for Planet users and enable subscribers to build community.
  2. Help people better understand the value and potential of the blog aggregator tool; how other people use it, how they might use it.
  3. Generate support for the project (donors, contributors, users).

I’m starting with a redesign that will modernize the code and make the site more aesthetically appealing for visitors.  I’ll be using Twitter Bootstrap, which has a couple of advantages:

  • It uses responsive design, which will make the site easy to read on mobile devices as well as larger screens.
  • It’s already tested for browser compatibility!  This is great because I don’t have a PC or Linux machine (yet) to test the site on, and from what I understand the various online services that do it for you are not very accurate.  It would be good to test it anyway once it’s complete just in case, so I’m open to suggestions on ways to approach this.  Perhaps this project is the excuse I need to finally install Ubuntu on my Mac, but I’d prefer to avoid Windows if at all possible.
  • It’s super easy to get started, as they’ve done a lot of the CSS, HTML, and Javascript for you.  It feels a bit like cheating.

I’m also hoping to survey current users to identify and prioritize features to add.  Personally, I’d like to find a way to integrate more social media / microblogging, since blogging is on the decline and microblogging is more commonly used these days (as discussed recently by Stormy Peters).  I am also interested in finding ways to enable the users to interact with the content in a way that helps generate more discussion.  Perhaps something like Reddit’s up-voting system where readers can identify which posts they found most interesting/engaging/useful to help other readers quickly choose which articles to start with if they don’t have time to read all of them in the feed.

Do you use one or more Planets?  If so, what improvements would you like to see?