An interview with the Workshop on Sustainable Software Sustainability organisers
An interview with the Workshop on Sustainable Software Sustainability organisers
Cross-posted from the Better Scientific Software blog.
By Carlos Martinez-Ortiz, Shoaib Sufi and Peter Doorn.
The name of the workshop may sound a little odd, but it has a serious purpose. We interview the organizers of the 2021 Workshop on Sustainable Software Sustainability to learn more.
Question: What is the Workshop on Sustainable Software Sustainability?
Carlos Martinez-Ortiz: Our goals state that “the Workshop on Sustainable Software Sustainability (WoSSS) is a series of international workshops addressing the challenges of preserving, sustaining and sharing software for research.” In other words, it is an event to bring together people interested in research software, software preservation, legacy systems, infrastructure, and cultural heritage matters in the software sustainability space who wish to discuss the latest developments, future trends, and areas needing more funder and policy focus.
Q: Isn’t “sustainable sustainability” redundant?
Shoaib Sufi: We’ve had a lot of comments about that one; it almost feels like an inside joke. Maybe it is a bit redundant, but if you think about it, not really. When we talk about “software sustainability,” I think of what I need to make sure my software can live beyond my current project: maybe I need to find contributors, develop some form of infrastructure, or reuse my software in another project. But then the question is, what do I need to make sure that effort in itself is sustainable? Maybe I need someone to keep contributors engaged, or structural funding for that infrastructure, or a stream of projects that continue to reuse my software. So, the word "sustainable" in "sustainable sustainability" is about sustaining the effort, network, infrastructure, and projects that are pushing for and enabling greater software sustainability.
Q: How did the workshop series originate? What is its history?
Carlos: I think one of the main initiators was a colleague, Patrick Aerts: he used to work part time at the Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC) and part time at Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS) and now is a fellow at both Dutch organizations. The predecessor of the WoSSS workshops was the Research Software Sustainability workshop, organized by Knowledge Exchange, in Berlin, in 2015 (workshop report). Patrick saw that there was a continued and shared interest in the topic and decided to continue organizing the workshop. It became a biennial event with workshops in 2017, 2019, and 2021, organized as a joint endeavor by DANS, NLeSC, and the UK Software Sustainability Institute (SSI). The first two workshops were held at DANS in the Netherlands. In 2021, we planned to be in Manchester, UK, but ended up online because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Shoaib: In the wider context, the Grid and eScience initiatives of the 2000s led to deeper conversations in the decade starting in 2010 around reproducibility and human infrastructure to support software efforts in research. And as digital methods became more ubiquitous, the idea of sustainable software in research started to form. It was an umbrella term given to a range of activities and thoughts people were having about software in a research and heritage context. WoSSS was inaugurated at a time when the idea of software as a first-class research object was being formed.
Peter Doorn: The perspective of DANS was slightly different. Our mission is to keep research data available for reuse, now and in the future. The traditional data archiving strategy was to preserve research data as much as possible independent from their software surroundings. Of course, that approach has its limits, and researchers were asking more and more to keep their software alive for future reuse as well, in order to keep the data reusable. We soon found out that software sustainability is a different specialty, requiring additional expertise. From the outset we favored a European (or international) infrastructure for software sustainability, since valuable initiatives such as SSI and Software Heritage had already been formed. We promoted a European Software Sustainability Initiative (EUSSI), an informal gathering of experts exchanging ideas on a regular basis, which is trying to get projects working toward an international infrastructure off the ground. We did not want to dilute our focus on data, but we do want to contribute to solutions to keep software usable; and in order to do that, we needed to acquire knowledge about the subject. For DANS, the workshops were a tool to work toward these aims.
Q: Who are you trying to reach with this workshop series?
Shoaib: We cater to a broad audience. We would like to engage with a host of individuals contributing to or affected by research software sustainability: research software engineers, users, researchers, support staff, project investigators, funders, institutional representatives, communities, projects, infrastructures, the creative industries, the GLAM (or heritage) sector of galleries, libraries, archives, museums, and policymakers. They all have something to contribute, and we hope to create an interesting space for all the different voices.
Peter: It is encouraging to see that the interest in the subject has both widened and deepened if we compare 2015 with 2022. In the early 2010s, the awareness that we had a problem -- or, if you wish, a challenge -- was not yet broadly shared. Also in open science policies, we first saw a focus on open access to publications, which gradually shifted to include research data as well, and only recently have we seen policymakers and funders also start looking at software as a valuable research output. For instance, France has officially recognized the importance of software in its science policy. UNESCO has also been important: it was among the first to recognize and support Software Heritage.
Q: Where are you going with the series?
Carlos: We want to raise awareness of the importance of software sustainability. We want WoSSS to be a premier event for assessing the state of software sustainability internationally and a forum where people can discuss the problems they encounter in making their software sustainable, can work together in finding solutions, and can share those solutions with others. As long as software sustainability is not a common practice, there is scope for WoSSS to exist. We hope that the 2023 event will take place in person to help facilitate the extra community building that is possible, but we will think of ways to include remote voices. Of course, we acknowledge the emergence of other important groups concerned about software sustainability as well, such as the Research Software Alliance (ReSA), the community of research software engineers, or software working groups of the international Research Data Alliance (RDA), and we are reaching out to such communities where we can.
Q: What products or outcomes come out of each workshop?
Shoaib: We produce a report from each workshop. It captures the state of the art of software sustainability (and how to sustain the whole endeavor (excuse us for the play on words again)) according to those who attended. We aim for all of those who contributed to the presentations and discussion groups to be acknowledged as authors of the report to give them both an incentive and credit for their participation in moving the area forward and reporting on their work. The report details the presentations and discussions that occurred at WoSSS and summarizes key action points; what needs to happen next to improve the sustainable software space. An orthogonal outcome from people getting together to discuss a common interest and share new developments is sustaining or forming collaborations, which is extremely valuable. We are currently working on the report from WoSSS21; at the moment we are communicating with speakers and soon will send the report to our editors for the finishing touches. We hope to publish it on our website by the end of the summer, and we will be advertising it then.
Peter: WoSSS21 included a lot of coverage of Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR) software, open research, human infrastructure (e.g., formalized research software engineering communities in different countries), and the fact that generally more awareness and funding opportunities exist in the scope of sustainable practice. Regarding FAIR software, the FAIR concept was originally developed for research data, but already at WoSSS17 it was also discussed in the context of software.
Q: How can others engage, beyond just attending the workshops?
Shoaib: We have a slack channel (you can join by filling in this form): it is most active during the workshops and often appears dormant until the next workshop, but many responsive people are on the channel. We also have a Twitter account and a YouTube channel (which has a playlist of the talks and sessions at WoSSS21). By joining the Slack channel or following us on Twitter you will be among the first to hear about the publication of the WoSSS21 report and the next WoSSS workshop in 2023.
Carlos: In the organizing committee, we’ve discussed how to make these channels more active between workshops; a plan for this goal is currently a work in progress. We are open to suggestions. Anyone who would like to discuss deeper engagement (e.g., participation in the WoSSS23 steering group) is encouraged to contact WoSSS core team members Shoaib Sufi and Carlos Martinez-Ortiz of the UK Software Sustainability Institute and Netherlands eScience Center, respectively.