Using GitHub for Open Collaboration on Text Docs

On August 19 & 20, my colleague Tanya Kelley and I will be at OpenSym 2015 in San Francisco presenting some results from our recent research on projects that are experimenting with using GitHub to facilitate open collaboration. (This also builds on our work on the use of GitHub in Canadian public administration).

GitHub is a software code-hosting web service principally used for software development, but is now being used to include all manner of digital products. New  non-code uses of GitHub reveal how the site provides a platform for social collaboration on a range of digital artifacts, and we think this has big implications for the future of open collaboration, especially in the public sector (something we’ve written about before).

Other open access platforms for collaboration certainly exist, including wikis, co-editing platforms like Google docs, and centralized file sharing repositories like SharePoint. However, GitHub includes unique features such as built-in social networking functions, back-end data capture and reporting, and principles of distributed version control and openness because it’s built on an underlying Git architecture.

Our research brings together observations from seven cases where GitHub has been used to facilitate collaboration among a number of co-contributors to non-code outputs. The cases are highlighted in a screenshot video that supplements the poster and more detailed abstract. The presentation will be at the OpenSym 2015 Opening Reception and Poster Gala to be held at the offices of the Wiki Education Foundation on August 19.

A couple of findings of note:

  • For the new user, GitHub poses a really steep learning curve that limits contributions. It is a difficult platform for new, nontechnical users to learn and is not well suited for text-based collaborations. We have tried to address this in the past by developing simplified tutorials and experimenting with alternative uses, and
  • Stewardship of the process is vital, with guidance required from a core leadership team in order to maintain direction, an active contributor group to maintain momentum, principles to guide participation and process, and a clear incentive structure to promote group sustainability.

While we think the barriers to use are significant, the strengths of GitHub – its openness, transparency, versioning and accountability – are the core of its value. An ambitious goal would be to adapt the GitHub architecture and features with a revised user experience more suited to document collaboration. But a sobering overall observation is that GitHub as it currently exists is not a suitable platform for open collaboration on text documents.


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