Between 2007 and 2010, I started a community of practice for people who work with biodiversity information systems. At the outset of the project, I was not a member of the community. I did the project as a community of practice wrangler contracting to the Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System programme aka TFBIS. Now the community is established and I have become a part of it. Here are some reflections on my experience of starting a community of practice — and on why I will continue to work in the area of biodiversity information systems.
The Dataversity project established a community of biodata managers who collaborate to improve practices in their own organisations and across the sector. Dataversity has around 160 members, who are biodata practitioners from local government, the Department of Conservation, Crown Research Institutes and other government, non-government and private sector organisations. The community participates in an online forum and at regional and national meetings. Members of the community are now collaborating on at least two shared software projects that have emerged from Dataversity conversations.
Dataversity is now managed by a Steering Team that is linked to the Regional Council Biodiversity Forum. The Steering Team maintains participation and events such as the recent national workshop, carries out projects to improve biodata management and plans to develop Dataversity as the recognised voice for the New Zealand biodiversity and biosecurity data management community.
Community-Building in an Information Systems Context
Most TFBIS projects focus on creating a technical or informational resource, and are often followed by community-building around what has been produced. The Dataversity project was the other way around. The community was built, and then information systems began to emerge from it. As all TFBIS projects originate from and feed into the biodata community, the learnings from Dataversity are potentially applicable to all those projects.
It is difficult to isolate learnings that resulted specifically from the Dataversity project. What follows is more a reflection on an ongoing learning process.
An Iterative Process
A community can not be built in the same way that a collection is digitised or that IT systems are traditionally built. There is no specification and no linear process for assembling components. It requires an iterative process of engaging with community members to develop understanding, and then trying out interventions. It is perhaps akin to biodiversity management itself.
Dataversity began as the “local government biodata managers community of practice” project. It was based on a hypothesis that there was sufficient potential benefit to individual biodata managers, that they would go to the trouble of sharing what they know with each other. If this occurred, it would inspire others to do the same, and the resulting collaboration would lead to increased biodata capabilities of the sector, as well as of the participant organisations.
If you Build it, Will They Come?
At the outset of the project however, there was no clamouring demand for such a community. It had not emerged spontaneously from association among members, as had the Local Government Ecologists network or from a professional grouping like the Ecological Society.
The prospective participants were busy and reluctant to add to their workload. They were wary of duplicating existing communities or creating a useless “talk fest”. Some were wary that the project was actually setting out to build an over-arching database. Engaging their participation meant persuading them that sharing with others would ultimately make their own jobs easier.
Finding biodata managers in local government was often not straightforward. No council has a designated Biodata Manager, and many even have no distinct biodiversity function. Some biodata managers are in IT, others are in planning or policy and many are in biosecurity teams. It was often necessary to talk with a sequence of people before finding anyone who knew about biodata.
Keeping the Faith
Engaging participants in Dataversity required persistence, not only of action but of spirit. Doubt is the worst enemy of engaging people in a vision. To keep doubt at bay, both as a community-builder and among the participants, it is necessary to form and articulate a clear and compelling vision for the community.
The early stages of participant-engagement involved a lot of questions and listening. Gradually, ideas about what the community might look like developed. Naming the community Dataversity was a key step in this process. As momentum grew, the engagement process became easier.
Face to Face Meetings
The most effective intervention in building the Dataversity was holding face to face meetings, to begin swapping notes about biodata. Even at meetings within a single organisation, biodata managers often met each other for the first time. There was often enthusiastic participation in the conversations. This demonstrated what Dataversity was about better than any presentation could have, and got the actual work of the community under way as the community was forming.
As Dataversity grew, regular regional meetings were held, and were enthusiastically attended. The meetings typically began with introductions, which were followed by a generous break with food provided. The food breaks were always abuzz with conversations about biodata. It quickly became clear that people actually cared quite a lot about biodata.
The enthusiasm for participation increased further at the two national meetings. The first national meeting focused on building relationships and a shared understanding of the issues and requirements that existed for biodata managers. The second national meeting focused on wide ranging reports on biodata initiatives across local and central government, and on workshopping shared issues in smaller groups. Again, generous breaks allowed for informal discussion.
Most Participation is Invisible
The participants in these meetings often joined an online discussion group. Initially, a private online group was formed in an attempt to create a trusted space exclusive to the local government end-users of the project. This proved unnecessary and unhelpful. A public group was set up for anyone interested in biodata, and which enabled online participation to grow more quickly.
Although participation in the online group seemed sporadic and restricted to a few regulars, discussions at face to face meetings revealed that most members followed the postings with interest, even if they never posted themselves. There were also stories of phone calls, corridor meetings, and conversations at conferences suggesting that most of the activity within Dataversity was behind-the-scenes.
Grow a Core Group
Throughout the process of forming the Dataversity community, the small group of key advocates for the community were a valuable resource. This group had its origins as supporters of the original funding proposal. During the project it became a valuable source of ideas, contacts and reinforcement of the vision. As Dataversity has matured, this same group has led to the formation of the Steering Team, and the connection of that team into its institutional context.
Communities, Information Systems and Ecosystems
As the conversations about biodata systems have developed within Dataversity, there has been a clear direction towards a vision of independent biodata systems loosely linked by common standards to facilitate biodata management on a national and even global scale. The patterns within such a diverse network of systems are similar to those within a community like Dataversity and within the very ecosystems that biodiversity management is concerned with. To this extent, the processes for developing vitality in all of those systems are similar, and learnings from all of these domains can be drawn on to inform the others.