Working in The Open: Reflections on The Ways and Whats of Research

In mid-October, as part of an Open Leadership Training with Mozilla, I and my fellow fellows spent a week learning about how Mozilla “works in the open.” Now, month later I am beginning to sketch out some reflections on how that training (or that seed planting) seeped into the porous substrates of my research framing. Eroding, cracking, bleeding, igniting, and pooling in my mind. The result of which is mostly questions – what a perfect outcome for a researcher. As always, I am not looking to answer these questions, or to solve any problems they suggest. What I want is to let them guide me as I continue to understand the contextual dynamism of my positionality as a researcher and to inspire me to look in different directions and assume different positions.

Ways of Working
“A critical practice of care [open research] would insist on paying attention to the privileged position of the caring [researching] subject, wary of who has the power to care [research], and who or what tends to get designated the proper or improper objects of care [research].”1

I began by adapting—lovingly remixing (to use openness parlance) the above quote from The Politics of Care in Technoscience1 to explore how I might map values in openness with values in feminist theory and specifically with care ethics. The training begins by listing ‘The Ingredients of an Open Project,’ among them ‘a great idea’ and ‘a project leader’. These two ingredients felt problematic to me and I wanted to explore how and why. Aside from the singularity of these ingredients, I was also looking to acknowledge the stakes when owning the power position and privilege of being a/the project leader, researcher, organizer, documentarian, data collector, communicator, designer…an invitee into a community.

The training material reminds the reader that “delegation is about you sharing agency”2 which initially I loved, but through this reflection I wonder how we can take this idea a step further away from this transactional and hierarchical framing—is agency mine to ‘share’? How can we challenge not just corporate or academic power hierarchies, but those which we bake into a project by our choice of ingredients?

Next, I chose to reflect on who (and later what) gets designated the ‘proper’ or deserving object of research or collaboration in an open project. Concern for ‘representation’ is present in many quantitative as well as qualitative methods beyond those which aim to be open, collaborative, or participatory. Across the board, “what gets counted counts,”to borrow a phrase from Data feminism.

So, looking back at our ingredients for an open project, we also see listed ‘an audience or community in mind.’ Meaning, the project leader chooses what ‘counts.’ This power is something we can challenge; we can ask what a model of open research would look like when a community seeks out a researcher/organization, for example. However, this power can also be channeled to “investigate and even nurture the marginal, for here alternatives to normalizing discourses are often most visible”4 as suggested in Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design.

This may not always be easy, we are constrained by the communities that actually want to work with us, who we have access to, and the ethical implications of collaboration. As Data Feminism explains, the power of participatory work is that it makes the personal political. However, data do not always benefit communities by being more representative, there are instances where representation can lead to further marginalization, danger, or exploitation. The training states that “no matter how you do it, you can think of working open as a way of working that invites outsiders–those who might otherwise have little or no part in project work, creation, and decision-making–to become insiders in those aspects of the project.” I agree with this value, but I suggest that when viewed through a lens of feminist values it becomes clear that it does matter ‘how you do it’—it matters a great deal in fact.

Whats of Working
“Working open is a way to incorporate user [more-than-human]-centric thinking in the design and creation of your project.”2

Returning to the question of what the subjects of research and collaboration are, I started to ask what contribution, collaboration, and embodied knowledge non-humans might add to an open project? The training material explains “when you are “working open” you use the power, knowledge, and skills of a diverse community of volunteers (called “contributors”) to accomplish something that a single person or a small team couldn’t do alone.”2 So, what knowledges and skills might a soil sample, a raindrop, a sneaker, or a circuit have? And how can that contribution help accomplish something that myself or a small team of human contributors cannot alone?

Matters of technological proliferation, care ethics, and design have always been entwined in matters of sustainability and global exploitation. However, in recent years as genres such as post-anthropocentric design gain momentum it is timely to bridge this way of thinking with openness values. How can more non-humans be included is open or common projects aimed at ‘collaborative survival’5 or interspecies resilience?

According to Arturo Escobar, “adaptation and resilience will have to be revisited to the creation of grounded, situated, and pervasive design capacity by communities themselves who are bound together through culture and a common will to survive when confronted with threatening conditions, not by global experts, bureaucrats, and geoengineers who can only recommend the business-as-usual approaches.”6


  1. Aryn Martin, Natasha Myers, and Ana Viseu. 2015. The politics of care in technoscience. Social Studies of Science 45, 5: 625–641.
  2. Mozilla Open Leadership Training.
  3. D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren F. Klein. Data feminism. MIT Press, 2020.
  4. Shaowen Bardzell. 2010. Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’10), 1301–1310.
  5. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015.