Monthly Archives: January 2015

The State of ATUnit

An audio version of this article will be made available on SoundCloud shortly. You can follow Inatri on SoundCloud to be notified when the audio version of this article and others are made available.

Editors Note: Marie Markwell is currently a member of ATUnit’s technical committee, and was previously a software developer and User Advocate for Gratipay. Throughout this article, “we” refers to ATUnit.

ATUnit is a project with the goal of creating a funding platform by and for marginalized groups and activists. It was started as a response to the Gittip Crisis, which made many users feel unsafe using Gratipay (formerly Gittip). There has also, more recently, been problems with other funding platforms. However, I will leave discussion of those to other people, as I do not know enough of the details to feel comfortable discussing them at length.

Gratipay showed us many useful things: where some companies are too opaque, new approaches to welcoming contributions, and — unfortunately — what happens if you approach openness and transparency incorrectly, or are consistently misleading about how the company is organized. The conversations following the Gittip Crisis, initial conversations surrounding ATUnit, and the goals of ATUnit all come together to show us what a funding platform can become if safety and consent are prioritized: a service built by and for marginalized people which people feel safe relying on, and anyone who relies on it can have a say in how it is run.

There were many discussions around governance and general approaches to running a funding platform, and most of them seemed to come to agreement on certain things. A common theme was to make safety, consent, and comfort of both employees and users the absolute top priority, while explicitly soliciting and acting on their input. Another was to take the Open Company ideals of openness and transparency, and repurpose them as tools to achieve the aforementioned goals.

There have been ongoing problems with ATUnit since its inception, including trustworthiness, technical limitations, and a general lack of progress that came forth from those. My intent with this article is to bring them to everybody’s attention, so we can resolve them and make ATUnit become a reality.

Trust

One of the very first things ATUnit decided was that we wanted to handle governance first, to avoid many of the problems Gratipay encountered. We were discussing a corporate structure where control ultimately landed with stakeholders — regardless of any kind of committee, members would be able to say “no, I don’t think this is what we should do.”

Unfortunately, this never happened. While we did organize committees, we never decided on the overall structure, let alone actually put it into practice.

After a while, this lack of governance reared its head in: we somehow wound up with one person being “in charge,” who later simply handed over control to somebody else. This, really, should have been impossible. The most worrying aspect to me is not the people involved, nor the problems that lead to it — it is the fact that I don’t even know what amount of control was handed over. Somehow, a group that was intended to be more trustworthy and community-ran than what it is meant to replace had an unknown level of control given from one person to another.

This is, to put it simply, the single most important problem ATUnit must address. Nothing can be resolved until we know how we want to run the project, and start to actually do so.

Stagnation

The most painfully obvious ongoing problem with ATUnit is stagnation — after the initial month or two, activity dropped off dramatically. At one point, multiple months went by where I can find no evidence of activity. However, the details behind what caused this stagnation are even more problematic than the stagnation itself.

We decided to set up governance before code — and I must emphasize I still believe this was absolutely the correct call — but the research on governance all but stagnated months ago. This resulted in developers getting anxious. People eventually yielded, and a smaller group began to work on code.

Technical Decisions

When people started pushing forward on development, the Technical Committee (which I am a member of) had already decided on a technology stack for the main website: Haskell, using the Snap framework. Followed by seemingly-endless cries of things along the lines of “THAT IS A TERRIBLE IDEA AND YOU ARE GOING TO REGRET THIS VERY SOON.” We should have probably listened to them.

It seemed to make sense: we had some Haskell developers on-hand at the time, but they were gone for various reasons by the time development was underway. We were left with some people who kind of knew Haskell and some people who had never even looked at it.

The end result? Instead of working with solid technologies that developers understood, what we have is a Hello World application. On top of that, as of January 12th 2015, the codebase has not been updated since September 2014.

The Technical Committee needs to take a step back and look at the technology stack again. ATUnit needs to be built using technologies that we can actually get developers for now and in the future. Haskell has clearly proven not the correct choice here, even if it would make sense later on. This is a decision I was a part of, and it was wrong.

Organizational Tools

Setting aside the poor decisions regarding the technology stack for the main website, there are still other problems. There was, initially, a lot of movement between hosting. A self-hosted Trac instance that has, along with all of the information it contained (including meeting minutes!), disappeared. GitHub. Assembla. GitLab. We have never properly consolidated those and removed the old ones. Worse yet, even the issues open on GitLab — where ATUnit seems to be staying for the foreseeable future — are a bit of a mess. That can likely be solved at least partially by taking a similar approach to what Gratipay has done: a separate website (and corresponding repository) for things that are not related to the core website (e.g., PR, discussing company operations, etc), but it will require coordinated effort to do so.

As for the lost meeting minutes, we recorded those using an IRC bot. The bot responded to various commands, allowing us to build minutes during the ongoing discussion. It also, unfortunately, had a tendency to disappear very frequently. As of January 12th 2015, it has been missing for four months. I also cannot find any traces of any meeting minutes, and nobody seems to have any clue as to where they are. Even before the Trac server went down, the majority of the meeting minutes seemed to be missing. To my knowledge, the minutes from the first few days were ever actually finished.

Moving Forward

We are disorganized. Our tools are, at best, functional but poorly wielded. At worst, they were always broken, and now seem to have disappeared. This is fucking broken.

We cannot make consistent progress until governance is sorted. We also cannot afford to have it organically build up around the technologies we use — we need to take an iterative approach, with the ability to improve or outright replace tools that are not working.

I do not care if we wind up using the solutions I mention in this article, but we need to fucking own these problems and fix them if ATUnit has any chance of succeeding. As it stands now, I fear it won’t.

Continuance

An audio version of this article is available on SoundCloud.

As is our style, I would like to write a short follow up to the article Genesis by Marie Markwell. It may seem a bit redundant for the staff to expand upon an introduction article, however I believe there are a few things to be said and I wanted to take the first feedback article as an opportunity to say them.

Intentions

First of all, thank you so much for your support and feedback. Projects like this are difficult to gauge initially, so your continued support and interest has only strengthened our resolve and given us an indicator that there is a space, and an audience, for writing about the complex nature of human/company interaction. Obviously this subject is not everyone’s cup of tea, but given how often we rant about these issues, we do have a passion and interest in presenting long-form writing on these topics and others. That said, the staff would like to apologize for the clumsiness of the launch and continued delays.

As stated in Genesis, we plan on releasing Audio versions of the articles alongside the text version. This was the source of the first delay, as the article was ready on Monday, however, it was not complete without that audio version and hence it was delayed until Audacity decided to co-operate. I understand that to some people this may be an insignificant problem to delay the launch of website and the publication of an article, but we believe the audio version to be of equal importance to the text version. I assure you that as we get into the groove of things, things will get smoother and the quality issues with the audio version will be ironed out.

That said, I would like to reiterate our intentions. Genesis was about explaining high-level ideas and giving a general overview of what we intend to be. As alluded to previously, the purpose of this publication is to provide a place for discussion of the (often) problematic business interactions and provide potential solutions to these problems. These interactions may be public interactions such as business-customer relationships, issues of governance, and issues of internal politics and policies that may affect the perception and health of an organization. Hence, we want to lead by example, experimenting in both an alternative governance structure and different mediums to express our ideas.

Governance

I also wanted to expand upon the discussion of our governance model and how Inatri actually functions as an organization. Building on the lessons learned by Gratipay, ATUnit and other projects, Inatri will operate as a worker owned co-op. We expect this method of governance to be fluid and dynamic, changing with the needs of the organization as well as feedback gathered. The short-term goal is to create the simplest, workable co-op set-up possible and then iterate upon that model continuously. We plan on actively soliciting feedback from staff, readers, and contract-based contributors, and this will have an effect on the governance of the organization.

Exploration of Alternative Mediums

The medium of audio was discussed above briefly, however, this is not the only medium we wish to experiment with. Audio versions of the text articles are only one of the ways we wish to utilize audio. We have plans of running a podcast that would sum up the week’s discussion and perhaps provide a jumping off point for further discussion. One of my more ambitious plans is to create a podcast for a round-table format discussion, similar to what you’d see if you watched The Agenda, however, that would require much more time and resources than we have currently. We also have plans to integrate other mediums in order to further our discussions. As some of articles deal specifically with software and website interaction, there are plans to experiment with those mediums in order to provide examples as to how a problem could be solved elegantly and quickly.

Genesis

An audio version of this article is available on SoundCloud.

Inatri is a publication centered on the problems marginalized groups face when interacting with companies. This is about the technological problems and constraints faced when those who don’t fit society’s definition of “common enough to worry about” try to use websites, interact with customer support representatives, or even get a fucking job.

This is about customer support switching to using “sir” to address me, after they look up my account information.

This is about systems that ask for your gender but really just want to know what pronouns they should use.

This is about the online and paper forms that actually want to ask about your gender, but present “male” and “female” as if they were the only two options.

This is about informing the world about these kinds problems and how we can handle them.

These obstacles often permeate all levels within a company—websites, support-call scripts, customer–employee interactions, and employee–employee interactions.

Sometimes it isn’t just individual interactions that are broken — it’s that your entire governance model is problematic.

Working with Authors, Handling Copyright, and Paying Contributors

A very small group of people are doing a lot of the initial writing and editing without payment. This is very explicitly not going to be the case moving forward, and I will be paying people for writing and editing articles as soon as it’s possible—no exceptions. And when I have the funds to do so, I will retroactively pay those who I couldn’t pay initially. Once I can pay people for their contributions and I’ve sorted out all the legal details, I’ll be looking to bring on more authors and editors.

People will be paid for their work. They’ll retain the copyrights to their work, and they’ll solely be giving us permission to publish it.

Articles will be written by those affected by the subjects at hand. Information on contributing—including any ongoing themes, as well as information on payment rates—will be on the contributing page.

Planning Ahead

Articles will be published every Monday and Friday afternoon (Eastern Time). We currently have articles planned through the end of February. If you would like to write an article once funding is resolved, please visit our page about contributing. Audio versions of each article will be made available alongside their text versions.

Currently planned articles will open with discussing the state of funding platforms, including an update on ATUnit (an open-source funding platform with diversity as its organizing principle) and my thoughts on how I would like to see the project move forward. Posts following that will continue our discussion of how openness and transparency can be thought of as tools rather than end goals (an issue that was first raised on Model View Culture). We’ll also delve into some of the problems that transgender and non-binary people commonly face when they use online services.

You can support Inatri on Patreon.