Public Lab Research note

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[Meta] Silos and opportunities to Share

by pdhixenbaugh |

"I didn't know you were working on that!"

"We're interested in that too!"

Silos. There's a great tendency for people to self-organize in tight knit groups to get work done. It makes sense: small groups encourage focus. It keeps distractions low, and fosters interpersonal trust, which helps us efficiently work together. Work groups get stuff done.

The negative side to work groups is getting siloed. That's when, by working so tightly with your group, there's a tendency to not find out about the work other people are doing in their own tight-knit groups. When I think about the work I do at Public Lab, I think about the riffle, and I think about water quality, and it occurs to me that I don't know what's going on in the other project areas. And I'm not sure I'm sharing what I'm doing much either.

Why does this matter?


Silos happened a lot at my university, especially among environmental and sustainability projects. This was especially noticeable since we had an old silo at the campus entrance. At the time, I was in one of the environmental clubs, and had an on-campus job working for the school's Sustainability Coordinator. We decided to host an event at the start of every semester to bring everyone together, to brainstorm solutions to common problems, to share what we were doing, and to learn from each other.

We found that people were surprised. While they were working in their group to solve a problem, another group was working just as hard on the same thing, in their own silo. We shared stories, experiences, and created inter-group bonds, so that as we went back to our own projects, we were that much more effective at what we were doing.

Here at Public Lab, we have had annual Barnraisings, now regional barnraisings, and other events that do this for those that can go -- get everybody in the same room, and have time to share, unplanned conversations, and opportunities to get to know each other. Now that Public Lab will be doing regional barnraisings, this is our chance to lay some thought down for the future:

How might we

  • Return to center; the big picture
  • Share our work and work process with each other
  • Benefit from the exchange of ideas and stories
  • Strengthen each other as a community, working towards a common goal, in different areas

Some ideas @Liz and I had: Public Lab could summarize what goes on at regional barnraising, for all to share and talk about. We could have a yearly big online talk, with everybody. If any of us have presentations prepared about our public lab stuff, we could recycle/reuse them for the community. And a public lab interview series/podcast might be a neat thing to try ;)

This could be the chance to write an idea down right here. Or to start thinking about it, for a greater discussion in another context. I'm curious if anyone else wants to learn more about what others are working on, and who feels like they have their finger on the pulse of what else is going on. (Tell me your secrets!)

publiclab meta organization


Isn't that what research notes are for? Aren't research notes how we keep up with each others' activities? If research notes fail to accomplish this, it might be due to:

  1. People doing Public Labish things fail to post research notes about them, or
  2. There aren't many people doing Public Labish things.

If number 1 is true, then a solution might be related to:

  1. Making it easier to post research notes, or
  2. Making it more rewarding to post research notes.

Lots of thought and energy has been devoted to both of these things, but there is probably much more that could be done.


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I think there are many ways people exchange information, build ideas together, and while research notes are great, they don't necessarily cover the full gamut.

I agree emphatically that we should keep working to make it easier/more rewarding to post notes!

I also really +1 the idea of in-person and real-time (if perhaps online/phone) ways of exchanging ideas and working through problems. Both are needed.

The drawback to online posted content is its ability to engage people, and the challenge of reducing barriers (as Chris points out) -- and of course lots of other things like navigation, or completeness, etc etc. The challenges of in-person or phone-based collaborations is getting that to also leave traces -- to contribute to a growing knowledge base in the long term.

So, just to +1 the general interest in different ways of convening and knowledge sharing.

We are slowly making a bigger deal of the weekly Open Calls, too. Perhaps that's a venue on a more regular basis:

Weekly at 3 ET, and today's is focused on Hurricane Harvey.

Hi Patrick, I'm glad you brought this up and made space to talk about it. I actually think this is more about organization than anything else. I agree with Chris that research notes are supposed to be a medium through which to keep up with each other's activities, but I also think that it takes a lot of patience to sort through research notes to see which ones are relevant to each other, which ones include a lot of information or a creative new idea, etc. One idea that has been floating around a while is the idea of having "research area review groups" where a group of self-selected folks would periodically (quarterly? biannually?) read through all of the recent research notes and wikis on a given topic or broader research area, and compose a short summary of the collective work, highlighting particularly compelling work and synthesizing the body of work that makes progress on a given project. The idea is that each research area review group would have a wiki they'd update, that would be interlinked with the relevant topics and methods wiki pages. What do y'all think about the idea of research area review groups?

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