In 2012, Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley founded Growstuff, a website and multi-purpose database for food-growers to track what they have planted and harvested and connect with other growers in their local area. Growstuff is now two years old and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund API development, which will help outside developers of tools like a harvesting calculator to show you how much money you save by growing food or emailed planting tips and reminders based on your location and climate.
Skud uses open source software and related technologies to effect social and environmental change. She lives in Ballarat, Victoria, where she works on a variety of open tech projects for social justice and sustainability. Skud and I have talked in the past about how Growstuff is among the projects that Geek Feminism contributors have built on principles we brought to and out of Geek Feminism, and I’m kicking off the second week of Growstuff’s fundraiser by asking her more about this.
Q. Which communities is Growstuff modelled on, and what principles has it inherited from them? In particular, how have Geek Feminism and other social justice communities and your work within them influenced Growstuff?
Skud: When I started Growstuff, I’d been running Geek Feminism for about 3–4 years, and involved in a few other “women in open source” groups before that. This had led me to watch really closely as different open source communities worked on how to be welcoming and supportive, and to attract participants from different backgrounds and demographics. One thing I saw was that projects founded by women attracted women — no big surprise there I suppose! And, unsurprisingly, Growstuff has attracted a lot of women as developers: roughly half of the 40ish people who’ve made code contributions have been women, and we have lots who’ve volunteered for things like testing and data wrangling as well.
Initially we modeled Growstuff quite heavily on Dreamwidth, which has a majority of women. (Dreamwidth was one of the projects I focused on in my 2009 OSCON keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd.) I also took inspiration from the Agile software development movement.
Extreme Programming, which is the variant of Agile I grew up on, had a lot to say about having real conversations with people involved in the project, working at a sustainable pace, and using introspection to think about the process. I think some of the more recent versions of agile (like Scrum) have made it more business-friendly and, dare I say, macho. But to me, developing software the agile way is about working on the things that are most important, and about honouring each participant’s expertise and their time and energy they bring to the project. So Growstuff has a policy of working closely with our members, getting them involved in the project, and in some ways blurring the lines between tech/non-tech roles. Our choice not to use the term “users” is part of this; we use “members” instead because we feel like “users” distances the people who use Growstuff from the people building the code, and treats them more as consumers rather than collaborators.
Agile development methodologies are probably not what you were thinking about when you asked about social justice movements, but to me, my feminism and the way I work on projects are closely connected. I certainly find agile development (which I do with clients as well as on Growstuff) to be a more egalitarian way of working together than traditional/non-agile approaches.
Q. Your crowdfunding campaign will pay a developer, Frances Hocutt, to work on Growstuff’s API? Why is Growstuff moving towards a paid development model, at least in this case?
So far, Growstuff’s been built by volunteers. My work on other projects (mostly doing tech contracting for sustainability non-profits) has funded my work on Growstuff, and other volunteers have generally been funded by their own day jobs. Unfortunately, requiring people to volunteer their time not only means you’re relying on their rather variable availability, but those who are likely to have the most availability are generally relatively privileged. That means that the contributor pool will be demographically tilted towards those who happen to be the most affluent and time-rich. In the feminist tech community, we’ve been talking for a while now about labor issues in open source: Ashe Dryden’s The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community is important reading on the subject.
As a matter of principle, I want to be able to pay people to work on Growstuff. Maybe not all people all the time — it’s still an open source project, and our volunteer community is important to us — but I want our contributors to know that they’re not expected to go to extraordinary lengths without remuneration. That includes myself! I guess like many women I find it hard to ask for money for my own work, especially work for a “social good” that is so often undervalued and unpaid. It’s easier for me to ask for money on other people’s behalf.
Frances is exactly the sort of developer I want to work with on Growstuff. She’s come from a career in organic chemistry and switched to open tech. I got to know her through her co-founding Seattle Attic (a feminist hackerspace in Seattle, Washington), and through her Outreach Program for Women internship at the Wikimedia Foundation. By the time I met her I already knew she was a developer with a strong interest in community and collaborative projects, with the right combination of high level thinking, code, documentation and outreach. Her work developing “gold standards” for Wikimedia’s APIs (including the Wikidata API) seemed like a perfect lead-in to working on improving Growstuff’s APIs and helping people build things with them. When I heard she was looking for a short-term contract, I jumped at the chance to see if we could raise the money to pay her to work on Growstuff for a bit.
What principles and techniques could other software projects adopt from Growstuff? And how does Growstuff fit in — or rather, not fit in — to the current venture funded hypergrowth model of software companies?
We’re still trying to figure that out. Growstuff is structured as a sort of hybrid business/social enterprise: the website’s direct expenses are funded by memberships, while my work as Growstuff’s lead developer and organiser is funded indirectly by consulting on other projects. We don’t have any outside investment though we have received a couple of small grants and some support from a government startup program. We’re not seeking traditional VC investment, which makes us rather at odds with most of the “startup scene”, but I would much rather that Growstuff as a whole were funded by the community it serves, than by an external party or parties (investors, advertisers, etc) whose goals and values might be at odds with ours.
The bigger-picture answer, I guess, is that 21st century western-style capitalism increases inequality. The rich get phenomenally richer, and the rest of us get screwed over. If someone offered me the chance to get super rich off Growstuff at the expense of our members and community, I sincerely hope that I’d be able to resist that temptation. Though to be honest, I think Growstuff’s insistence on copyleft licensing and other choices we made early on (such as not to serve ads) mean that nobody’s likely to make that offer anyway. I’ve intentionally set Growstuff up to be more cooperative than capitalist. The trick is to figure out how to fairly support our workers under that model.
I think it depends a lot on our members: people are used to getting online services “for free” in return for their personal information and marketing data, which is used to make a handful of people very rich indeed. Are they going to be willing to resist that easy, attractive evil and become more equal partners in supporting and developing an online service for their/our mutual good? That’s what we still have to find out.
How is food gardening a part of your feminism? (Or feminism part of your food gardening?)
I think the connection, for me, is through the idea of DIY — doing it yourself. My feminism is closely tied to my dubiousness about our current capitalist system. As I said, a system that concentrates wealth in a small segment of the population increases inequality. As businesses get bigger, our choices are fewer. I think growing your own food, even in a small way, is an important area of resistance: every pot of herbs on your windowsill means one less thing you buy from a giant supermarket chain. Incidentally, I feel the same way about building our own software and online communities! And I think that those who are least well served by the mainstream capitalist system — women, for instance, who are constantly bombarded by really screwed up messages about what we eat and how we feed our families, trying to sell us highly processed foods that ultimately benefit the companies that design and package them far more than they benefit us — have the most to gain from this.
How can Geek Feminism readers contribute to or support Growstuff?
Well, of course we have the crowdfunding campaign going on at present, to support Frances and myself as we work on Growstuff’s open API.
We’re always looking for people to join our community as contributors: testers, data mavens, coders, designers, writers, and more. Even just diving in to our discussions and weighing in on some of the ideas there helps us a lot — we’re always keen to hear from food-growers (including aspiring/potential ones) about what they’re looking for in Growstuff and how we can improve, or from people who’d like to use our data, to discuss what they have in mind and how we can support them.
Apart from that, just help us spread the word :)
More about Growstuff
You can learn more about Growstuff and its philosophy in the pitch video for the crowdfunding campaign (audio transcript follows):
Hi, I’m Alex Bayley. I write software and I grow vegetables in my backyard. I founded Growstuff in 2012.
More and more people are taking up veggie gardening all over the developed world, especially in cities. That means millions of new gardeners trying to eat and live more sustainably. People are growing food in their backyards, on balconies and in community gardens.
I started to grow my own food because I want to know where it comes from and that it hasn’t been grown with environmentally damaging fertilisers and pesticides. Like a lot of people these days, I worry about food that’s not local. The costs of transportation and the waste from overpackaged food are huge. I think it’s important that we have alternatives to the big supermarkets. And of course homegrown food just tastes so much better and it’s so much better for you.
Like most gardeners, I’m always searching online for information. Most of the growing advice I find isn’t suitable for my climate. I need local information, not something from halfway around the world.
Growstuff started when I met a guy called Federico from Mexico. He’s also a software developer and a permaculturist and he has trouble finding growing information for his local area. So he asked me if I knew of any open databases that had planting information about where to plant any kind of crop anywhere in the world.
We looked around and we couldn’t find anything. Some governments release open data, but it’s usually aimed at big farms. The stuff aimed at home gardeners was usually either just for one region or else the websites had really restrictive rules about what you could use the data for.
I’m a software developer so when I look at data I want to build things. If that data’s locked up where no one can use it that stifles innovation. Growstuff crowdsources information from veggie gardeners around the world. We gather data on what they plant, when and where they plant it, and how to grow it. We use this information to provide local planting advice back to our members and anyone who visits our site.
Growstuff is 100% open source and our data is also open. You can download it straight from our website and use it for any purpose, even commercially. But we want more people to use our data. We’re raising funds to improve our API which lets third party developers use Growstuff to build apps, mashups, tools, or to do research.
With your help, we’ll be creating a new version of our API with more features, building demos, and running workshops for developers. I’ve been working with open data since about 2007 and I think making food growing information freely available is one of the most important things we can do.
Whether you’re a gardener or a software developer or you just care about sustainable food please support Growstuff’s crowdfunding campaign.
Disclosures: in addition to working with Skud on the Geek Feminism project, I’ve worked with her when she was an advisor to the Ada Initiative, an AdaCamp staffer, and in several other capacities over many years.