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Standards-development sans a standard

In a recent discussion at Berkman an interesting thread started discussing standards development and how to approach it, or if to approach it at all. What follows is my hastily written response to the following remark:

Why should I care about standards at all? In the early stages of a technology, maybe I should just invest my limited energy into creating a great system that has high levels of adoption — leveraging that market position later to drive the agenda on any future standards and interoperability conversations.

So, I think that in cases such as the one being discussed that drafting a standard should start late in the process, but, the best practices in standards development should be done from the start of a project. To explain what I mean, here are some thoughts and examples of organizing/managing a project so that it is designed to coordinate and collaborate on standards without necessarily adding too much overhead.

Assume a distributed team of volunteers

Make sure you have a simple and concise explanation on a web page that states: the name of the project and what the project is trying to accomplish; how a person can get involved in working on the project; and link to a public discussion mailing list where the project is actively being discussed.

And, then actually go ahead and use that public discussion mailing list. Even if you have a team of employees sharing an office with white boards, I still say, make sure the notes get sent out to the discussion list.

One of my favorite examples of establishing rules for collaboration comes from Richard Fontana’s copyleft-next project, which is called Harvey Birdman Rule — my favorite part of the rule is subsection 3: “Except in extraordinary cases, private telephone calls, private teleconferences, private in-person meetings, and private email communications shall not be used to discuss substantive development of this project. Should such private communications nevertheless occur, participants in such communications are expected to publish summaries of any relevant discussions in a manner or medium accessible to the general net public.”

Organize your source into logical version control repositories

There are lots of examples on where this applies, such as protocols, APIs, etc. But, let’s start with a simple data model example. If you know you are going to be collecting some data into some internal database or model, it often makes sense to go ahead and move that entire data model into its own repo. It might be something as simple as a JSON file with some tests. But, by separating it out into its own repo, you are going to make it easy for others who want to discuss and collaborate on just the data model (or future standard to be), to do so without having to do it in the context of the rest of the software you are developing.

Create a /data directory

These days, the White House’s open data initiative rules require government sites to have a /data directory on their sites, but the first place I ever saw one was on Aaron Swartz’s The original project was very different from what it is today, so you’ll need to use the wayback machine to see what I mean.

I also think that the old project’s git repo is a fabulous model for organizing things (read the README file) in a way that both allowed people to quickly develop stuff while also making it easy for people to go in and just grab useful parts of the project they need to do their own crawling, scraping, parsing type work — I continue to use it from time to time 🙂

Create a targeted “newsletter”

One thing I see a lot of people do is spend a lot of time early on in a project looking for people and projects that are doing work in their space. But, then  after they get started on a project, they stop pro-actively reaching out to those people and projects. This is unfortunate, because it means you have often gone through all the hard work of finding these people and projects and making an initial contact, but, you don’t end-up reaping all the rewards of that hard work.

While opt-in announcement lists and whatnot are good to have, I think it’s still good to continue push occasional updates out to the people you’ve identified as “interested in possibly collaborating or cooperating in the future,” and to tailor an update email to just them. You can even add them to an announcement mailing list or create a special mailing list — it doesn’t matter how you organize it so much as you continue to “go to them” instead of just expecting them to come to you.

Later on, it might even be that this special list of people might become the public discussion list when you begin the formal standards development process.

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First steps

Update: After spending six months researching the need for such a project or org, I decided against pursuing it. One key factor was the fact that holistic healthcare is a general societal issue that is not a project so much as it is some ways in which health systems must adapt to modern approaches to both technology and the sharing of information. 

Over the past couple of years I have been looking for my next interest or hobby. Perhaps even something I can throw myself into fully. Something that could even become a next career step. What I thought I was looking for was some sort of concrete project, organization, or business I could create. But, what I found instead was an entire topic and field of human endeavor to become passionate about: fitness.

Fitness is missing in Free Software & Free Culture

For over a decade I have been doing activism and work around free software, free culture, and free educational resources. But myself, my friends and my colleagues in the free and open source software and education world have not made fitness a priority.

There are a lot of new wearable technologies coming onto the market (such as FitBit and UP devices) and countless smartphone apps (C25K, anyone?). But these are all proprietary and there are no good free software alternatives. The free and open source software communities need to begin addressing this head on.

Likewise, since the 1970s there have been a tremendous number of fitness tutorials, books, sites, and videos created. There are even a lot of fitness-related online communities with bulletin boards and mailing lists. However, almost none of this material is freely licensed. Fitness culture needs to be a part of free culture.

Similarly, almost all of the major sites that allow you to create and share free learning resources are focused almost entirely on the topics of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). While this has been an important focus over the past few years while these sites are growing and breaking ground—I think they have reached a level a maturity and wide-spread acceptance that they are ready to be populated with the topics of fitness and health education.

A lot of opportunities

The lack of fitness-related technologies and materials in the free software and free culture space is a problem worth trying to solve. One that I believe I could dedicate the next phase of my life working on. However, there are, in a sense almost too many opportunities!

In just a few minutes of brainstorming, I came-up with a pretty long list of projects and activities I would be excited to work on. Here are just a few items from that list of things I would like to do:

  • Bring together coaches, players, physical therapists, and nutritionists to produce quality tutorials, videos, and resources on everything from stretches and drills to muscle building and rehabilitation.
  • Collaborate with schools and libraries and connect them with anything that makes moving fun and relevant.
  • Understand the legal, technological, and social barriers that exist around fitness education.
  • Blog about everything from life-hackers and habit strategists to radical PE teachers and the not-so-radical initiatives and partnerships.
  • Collaborate with all of the content and curation sites out there and fill them with fitness education materials; and encourage production of good quality materials on sites like,,, on MOOC platforms, and everywhere else I can find.
  • Become a solid contributor to Wikipedia Health & Fitness Portal and other digital platforms and outlets that serve all of humanity.

So, what’s next? You tell me.

I don’t know exactly what my next steps will be or when I can or will take them. I still have so much to learn. And, before I get started on any one large project, or begin narrowing my focus, I want to make sure I spend time surveying the field.

What sites should I be looking at? Who should I be talking to? What should I be reading? What do you want to see created? Any help or advice you can give me as I begin figuring out my next steps on this new adventure is greatly appreciated!

My first steps in my plan is to being using this blog as place to share my progress in the research phase of my new journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you all.

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