Insights from mixing writers with open source

The OSGeo Foundation participated in Google’s first Season of Docs, where Google sponsored technical writers to contribute to open source projects. The Open Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo), is an umbrella organization for around 50 geospatial open source projects. I’ve contributed to a number of these projects over the years and co-mentored the two Season of Docs technical writers allocated to us.

Screenshot from the OSGeoLive distribution we’ve been documenting, available under a CC-By license.
During our involvement we discovered that, like many open source projects, we knew little about:

  • The state of our docs.
  • What we were aiming for.
  • What our priorities were.
  • The details of the challenges we faced.
  • How to improve.

We learned:

  • How hard it is to keep tech docs current.
  • Skillsets from multiple roles are needed to create good docs.
  • Open source’s docs and writing processes are immature when compared to software development.

It is an exciting problem space with high-value challenges ready to be tackled. It reminds me of the early days of open source before it became trendy with business.

What should tech writers work on?

Open source communities welcomed the chance to have tech writers improve our docs, and expressed a pressing need for it, but found it challenging to articulate what exactly needed fixing.

  • People explained that their project docs often hadn’t been updated between doc releases.
  • Some projects had noticed new features that had not been documented.
  • Other projects had issue lists—collating observed deficiencies—but had no systematic review.
  • Most observed that docs were created by developers with no formal tech writing training.
  • Many noted that docs written by non-native language speakers and would benefit from grammatical review.

But where should we start? We needed to decide on what we wanted, what we should work on first.

What’s the definition of good docs?

And then we realized that we didn’t have a good definition of “good documentation.” For our software projects, we have a comprehensive incubation process to assess the maturity of software and the project’s community, but we couldn’t find a similar set of metrics to define “good documentation.” So we started TheGoodDocsProject, to collate “best-practice templates and writing instructions for documenting open source software.” This helped us define what we were aiming for, and prioritize what we can achieve with our available resources.

Documentation audit

Once we knew what good docs looked like, we were then able to audit the status of project’s docs:

  • What documentation do we have?
  • Does it cover all the functionality?
  • Does it cover end-user needs?
  • Is the documentation any good?

We discovered that the quality, currency, and completeness of our OSGeo docs were immature when compared to the quality software they described.

It takes a village to raise good docs

In researching open source projects’ documentation needs, it’s become clear that crafting good docs requires multiple skillsets. Ideally, a doc team would have access to:

  • A developer with a deep understanding of the software being described.
  • A software user who’s able to explain the application within the context of the application’s domain.
  • An educator who understands the principles of learning.
  • An information architect who understands how to structure material.
  • A writer who writes clearly and concisely with good grammar.
  • A translator who can translate docs into multiple languages.
  • A DevOps person who can set up doc build pipelines.
  • A community builder, facilitator, and coordinator, who can inspire collective action, capture offers of help, and help all these different personas collaborate together.

Technical writers usually have a high-level understanding of most of these domains and their skills are often under-appreciated and under-utilized, especially if directed with a vague “just clean up the grammar and stuff”. The best docs typically have been influenced by multiple stakeholders, which can be partly achieved using templates to collaborate between domains, timeframes, projects and organizations.

Tools for documenting open source projects are painful

We experienced significant difficulties trying to convert between writing and software toolsets. We love the versioning of git, are frustrated by clunky Markdown interfaces, and want access to editing and review workflows of Word and Google docs, along with grammar and syntax plugin tools such as Grammarly. Translation tools such as Transifex are pretty cool, too.

If a project were to address this use case, it would be an awesome gift to the open source community. Having someone write an application which addresses this use case would be helpful. Maybe there is an idea in here for a future Google Summer of Code?

Achievements during OSGeo’s Season of Docs

We’re quite proud of our achievements during OSGeo’s participation in the Season of Docs. Our allocated tech writers have amplified the effectiveness of our existing documentation communities, and our documentation communities have amplified the effectiveness of these tech writers.

  • Felicity Brand worked with around 50 of OSGeo’s open source projects to update their Quickstarts as part of our OSGeoLive distribution of software.
  • Swapnil Ogale worked directly with GeoNetwork’s documentation team, auditing the breadth of docs, and their quality, setting up templates for future docs to work towards, and updating a number of the docs.

Further:

  • We kicked off TheGoodDocsProject—“Best practice templates and writing instructions for documenting open source software.”
  • In conjunction with the OGC and ISO spatial standards communities, we kicked off an OSGeo Lexicon project, to coordinate official definitions for terminology used within the OSGeo context. This will apply best practice definitions to prior haphazard glossaries.
  • We did a deep-dive analysis of the documentation challenges faced by QGIS, one of OSGeo’s most successful projects. Surprisingly, their biggest problem isn’t a lack of tech writers or complicated tools (although they are factors). The key problems center around:
    • Poorly capturing community goodwill and offers of assistance.
    • A lack of direction.
    • Struggling to keep up with a rapidly evolving software baseline.
    • Insufficient writing expertise.
    • A high technical barrier to entry.
    • Documentation and training being generated outside of the core project.
    • Awkward documentation tools and processes.

Season of Docs 2020

Does tech writing interest you? If so, check the Season of Docs projects for 2020 and consider taking part.

By Cameron Shorter, Google technical writer and geospatial open source developer

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