Jutta Buschbom

Statistical Genetics, June 22, 2020

At the beginning of June, I attended an US-based conference in the biodiversity sciences that, on relatively short-term notice, had transformed itself into a digital event. Being based in Europe, this transition enabled me to attend the conference. The meeting was very well-organized, interesting presentations and plenum talks reviewed the current situation and discussed solutions. Lively discussions arose that were well-structured and -moderated. In several unconference-style sections these were complemented by shared documents, in which the participants could add their view-points and thoughts. I very much enjoyed and profited from the opportunity to participate.

At the same time, the conference was my first encounter with Zoom and, in addition, used Google Drive. I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback that the biodiversity community, not only the organizers, but also the participants in general, used and reported on using infrastructure and software from the dominating IT-players to such an extent, apparently without a second though. It might be a European “thing” to see those IT-companies rather critically.

Several colleagues at the conference spoke out for solidarity with the black-lives-matter movement and minorities, and against social injustice and inequality. As professionals close to the tech sector, we have the opportunity to express this solidarity hands-on, by supporting socially- and ethically-aware IT-infrastructure and software, and consciously moving away from the big IT monopolists.

ICT infrastructure

The CEOs and founders of the major IT companies are these irrationally-rich old white men, who are epitomes of inequality. Their sole existence seems to distort social processes towards power-inequalities far across societies and one wonders if democratic checks still have any meaning in their realm of wealth.

In our daily and professional choices, I believe, we can quite effectively stand up for and improve social equality and justice. In the beginning, it might be a bit more work to get to know alternative solutions and providers, but in the long-run, I have found, there are many advantages of cooperating with smaller companies that provide data storage, computing, cloud and web services, as well as, infrastructure for digital communication. These can be a local (minority) person as web-hoster/hostess and admin for your cloud-solutions on their own server farm or rented space/hardware, who you actually can talk to. They might provide you with the invaluable tip about connectivity, data upload, etc. that saves you so much trouble and time. Or it might be a specialized service provider somewhere in California or across the world, who provides you the combination of ethics, culture, functionality and professionalism that you are looking for. Interestingly, smaller providers don’t seem more expensive, once all the hidden costs are accounted for.

It can be an up-hill process to convince institutions and central ITs to pursue and offer alternative solutions, even if only in parallel. Yet, at the same time, democratic processes at these institutions are undermined by a lock-in to license fees. When 80% of an annual IT-budget is per see blocked for “essential” license fees, democratic discussions and consensus decisions between all involved departments and parties about the budget’s use are cut short, even if designed with the best intentions. Instead whoever has the best connection to the institution’s head or access to external funds, will be able to determine what is implemented. It is one of the many small ways, in which power imbalances trickle down and equality, as well as, democracy are undermined.

Maybe even more importantly, as biodiversity scientists we need to add to the “dusty, crumbling” specimen before us another layer, the one of meta-data and become aware that we are working with economically and socio-politically critical information. Biodiversity information, especially in a historical context providing time-series information, needs to be handled with responsibility and a maybe unfamiliar high level of care.

Not only is environmental crime a white-collar industry with multi-billion profits annually. Information about historical and current distribution ranges and observations of (over)exploited species and natural ecosystems should not be allowed to get into the wrong hands. IT security is not a nice-to-have.

Equally important, biodiversity data and information have local to global socio-political impacts. Impacts that are going to increase with the unfolding biodiversity crisis. We are the ones with the empirical data that can show global to local losses and trends in biodiversity. Handing over and trusting our biodiversity data and information to global players, with economic goals that are more or less widely incompatible with the protection of biodiversity and not sufficiently checked by demographic processes, seems questionable, if not outright counterproductive.

Free and open-source software

One of the positive learning experiences for me since the beginning of the pandemic has been, that suddenly I (and I wasn’t the only one) realized how much preexisting open-source and digital rights-aware software and infrastructure already exists for digital audio- or video-conferencing and online-collaboration. In Germany, NGOs quickly setup or made available for free instances for home office and for staying in touch in March. By now, these open-source solutions for digital communication and collaboration are offered, in addition, by commercial providers of web services at a much larger scale.

Initially and for a while, open-source alternatives were the unreliable, limited and difficult to handle little siblings of the standard software solutions. However, over the decades this relationship has changed (if not reversed in some cases). Today there are many open-source, community-based and actively developed software projects, which provide professional and production-quality solutions and work environments. This not only as the backbone of the internet, but also for us as end-users at our versions of personal computers and devices at home and at work.

When was the last time that MS Office got a major code-base or security overhaul, a sensible rework, an improvement or expansion of functionality? On the Mac, grammar and spelling are as crabby as ever. The same is true for import and export functions – try to embed a pdf or even a specifically for the limitations of Word produced png created by R or Inkscape in a MS Word document on MS Windows; and when you think you got it, open it in MacOS. To me it sometimes seems that the big monoliths have fossilized. And yes, the quirks and bugs of open-source can drive you up the wall. Yet, often, there is an active user community and somebody has already found a work-around and/or entered a bug report or feature request.

A transition to open-source infrastructure needs time. If we start now, at the end of this year, in 5 or 10 years, we will have progressed. Over the past twenty years my work environment has gradually shifted towards open-source. Party, because I wanted to expand my expertise, partly I was looking for additional functionality and partly, because the institutions that I worked at could or didn’t want to pay expensive license fees.

And yes, there was the thought that open-source is ethically and socio-politically the right action to take and support. A small personal decision that endorses advancement and growth of us and our societies on our way towards justice and sustainability. Silly and idealistic – or realistic and hands-on?

My contribution to the conference was mostly produced by open-source software. The presentation was created with the Latex-packet Beamer. The figures were produced using PGF/TikZ (Latex), Inkscape and Gimp. For the prerecording I used the OpenBroadcasterSoftware for the first time. Firefox provided the browser to contain in zoom. My open-source alternatives for digital communication and its infrastructure are Thunderbird, BigBlueButton, Nextcloud, WordPress and LimeSurvey. Still, not all of my work environment is open-source. I am still using MacOS, MS Word/Endnote and a bit of Excel. However, recently I had to download LibreOffice for a new collaboration.

If we are serious about global social justice, equality and the protection of biodiversity, our choices of ICT-software and -infrastructure, as well as, the ways in which we use them, will make an important difference.