Innovation Sprint 2020: Design, test, learn, repeat

We reflected on the first two iterations of the eLife Innovation Sprint, and are ready to share our plans for the next.
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By Naomi Penfold (Sprint 2018 lead) and Emmy Tsang (Sprints 2019 and 2020 lead)

The eLife Innovation Sprint is a two-day collaborative event for developers, designers, technologists and researchers who want to support the prototyping of new innovations that leverage cutting-edge technology to advance the ways we share and do research.

The Sprint is part of the eLife Innovation Initiative’s mission to drive the development of open tools for open science and research communication. Through her work in 2017, Naomi heard many passionate researchers introduce excellent ideas for transforming how the latest science is shared, built upon and recognised. No matter how good their ideas however, all too often these researchers had no connection to product design and technology specialists, making it difficult for them to get the help they could have used in turning those ideas into reality. Naomi saw a need to connect these people, and provide the space and time that would allow them to translate their ideas into action – and thus began the eLife Innovation Sprint in 2018.

Having a closing event gives people space to decompress and switch modes: away from intense work, towards reflection and/or socialising.

Building on others’ work

So, what is needed to design a two-day event that would facilitate the development of open prototypes?

  • Participants need to get to know each other and their goals and ideas, quickly: the Collaborations Workshop's hack day introduced Naomi to the idea of personal introductions and project pitching through lightning talks (hat-tip to Raniere Silva for this!). Providing an open floor for introductions at the start of an event helps people to ‘break the ice’ and get used to contributing their voice in a new environment.
  • A set-up that maximises efficiency: since we were providing a space for people to physically work together for two days only, we needed to make sure we had as much prepared as possible before we all turned up on the first morning. For the 2018 Sprint, Naomi started a working document prior to the event, allowing potential project leads to view, share and discuss ideas with other participants. On the working document, participants could also request datasets needed for project work to be preloaded onto the Sprint's AWS databases. Naomi also put together a list of open tools that could be useful for developing prototypes for research communication. A worksheet based on the lean canvas was also provided to guide teams to turn ideas into prototypes and roadmaps.
  • A brave space: a Code of Conduct (CoC), based on those from other communities, was created to keep the event and its community safe. Naomi carefully planned different ways for participants to report CoC violations, built processes for the CoC enforcement team to handle reports, and provided training to empower the team. The Mozilla Festival inspired her to print the participation guidelines on big posters and put them up all around the venue– participants actually pointed at specific points on the poster to mediate a heated discussion during the Sprint!

    Naomi also learnt from the Sage Bioassembly the importance of being flexible and responsive to participants, to accommodate them in whichever way they wish to share their voice. (Hat-tip to John Wilbanks who led the way by amplifying Naomi’s tweets into that event’s room and then inviting a mix of participants to reflect on their experience as a way to end the event.) Consequently she introduced the end-of-event reflections session: by inviting a few people to offer reflections and then opening up the floor, everyone in the room was prompted to think about and assimilate what they have learnt and experienced. Having a closing event gives people space to decompress and switch modes: away from intense work, towards reflection and/or socialising.

The Sprint 2018 was our first, the prototype for events to come. From the feedback we received, the message was clear that what the participants valued most was the people in the room – the connections they made and the experience they shared. While not all Sprint projects last, the relationships formed while making them often do.

Sprint 2018 participants working. Photo credit: Orquidea Real Photobook - Julieta Sarmiento Photography.

When Emmy began organising the second Sprint in 2019, she benefited from the scaffolding left by her predecessor. She reflected on the feedback from the participants of Sprint 2018, Naomi's notes on learnings and outcomes, and her own past experience. Inspired by Leslie Chan's talk on knowledge governance, Emmy focused her energy on diversifying the Sprint: a healthy ecosystem around tools for research communication is one that everyone can participate in and contribute to, regardless of background, culture, career stage or expertise. Emmy wanted to connect folks from underprivileged communities with those from more privileged backgrounds, increasing the diversity of voices contributing to the design processes of new idea prototypes, allowing everyone involved to benefit from the connections and opportunities created.

  • Emmy worked with partners to support participants from under-represented communities, offering travel, visa and childcare support for 23 participants. She also learnt from Sprint 2018's visa application experience (we did not quite get it right that time) and moved the application timeframe forward by one month, to allow sufficient time for visa processes.
  • Learning from diversity and inclusion efforts in the openness space (thank you Mozilla Diversity and Inclusion in Open Communities, CHAOSS and OpenCon), Emmy started a Diversity and Inclusion Working Group for the Sprint, to help diversify the Sprint at the design and organisational levels. The group assessed diversity data from similar events/communities in the space to set diversity goals for the Sprint, and created processes to achieve them.
  • Learning from the Carpentries, she created an A-W guide to make accessing participation information easier and added a walking tour to facilitate informal interactions between participants (hat-tip to Malvika Sharan and the CarpentryConnect Manchester 2019 organisers).

A healthy ecosystem around tools for research communication is one that everyone can participate in and contribute to, regardless of background, culture, career stage or expertise.

Towards the end of the 2019 Sprint, Naomi and Emmy sat together for the Sprint 19's podcast to reflect on their respective experiences in organising the event.

Emmy particularly liked what Naomi said regarding shared goals:

“I think it's really important to know your goal for any programming, whether it's an event or something else, and then, also know the goal of all the other people that are involved. So as the organizer of the Sprint, your goal is to get people to work together and to collaborate. You're asking the people who are coming here to make something and they have their own personal goals they’re bringing to the room. I'd really like to challenge all community managers to find what the shared goals are between organisers and participants. Once you know that shared goal or goals, design for it. You do not need to pick up a hackathon format and repeat it as is if it doesn’t work for you. Instead, be bold and find different bits from different formats – pull them together and invent new things to create something that works for your shared goal(s).

Naomi learned how Emmy sees her role as a community organiser: facilitating a teaching moment, which may mean that goals are not always transparent to participants upfront. Emmy reflected that “there’s something magical about embarking on a journey and not knowing 100% what you’ll learn and gain. Interactions at the Sprint, both this year and last year, are very organic and these moments will transpire to participants when they think back on it later on. It’s rather unquantifiable but once they get that click, it’s something that will influence them for life.

Heading into planning the third iteration of the Innovation Sprint, Emmy asked:

  • What is eLife’s goal for running this Sprint? Has it changed since its inception?
  • What are our participants’ goals? How do we find out and make sure that we can establish shared goals?
  • How do we design for these shared goals?

The Sprint is an experiment that started with us, and is continuously evolving as participants tell us their thoughts, and as we participate in and learn from other events and initiatives. We’d like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the changes we’ve made to the Innovation Sprint in 2020, and hope that you will join us to help us test out this latest iteration.

I'd really like to challenge all community managers to find what the shared goals are between organisers and participants.

A step beyond research communication

eLife is committed to working with the worldwide research community to promote responsible behaviours in research. Within our Community Ambassadors programme and the communities and grassroot initiatives that our Research Culture team have worked with, we saw a lot of ideas and projects aiming to battle the sometimes toxic, competitive aspects of the research environment, address a lack of mentorship and support, promote collaboration and reuse, and reward responsible research behaviours. Many of these social problems could benefit from a technological solution and a collaborative event like the Innovation Sprint.

At the same time, from the projects worked on at the 2019 Sprint, it was clear that our community was passionate about transforming research culture, beyond just fixing research communication.

We therefore decided to broaden the scope of the 2020 Sprint, to actively recruit participants and projects with the goal of redefining the ways we do and share research. We would love to see project proposals addressing one of the following 7 themes (more on project proposals below):

  1. Support reproducibility in research
  2. Reform research evaluation practices
  3. Promote diversity and inclusion in research
  4. Improve publishing practices, e.g. preprints, equitable access and discovery
  5. Facilitate research collaborations
  6. Create a healthy research environment, e.g. mentoring, mental health
  7. Encourage transparent and constructive peer review

Understanding shared goals

How can we better understand our participants' goals and expectations, and identify shared ones? Through participating in the Biohackathon-Europe in 2019, Emmy learnt about the call for projects process, where the organisers ask participants to team up beforehand and submit project proposals (hat-tip to Jen Harrow and the Biohackathon-Europe organisers). The Biohackathon organisers then published the projects prior to opening registration to the rest of the community, giving other participants a clear idea of what they can contribute to at the event.

While she realised that this application format needed to be tweaked to work for a more nascent community like the Sprint's (see the Equity in participation section below) and that project ideas that have yet to be developed, Emmy thought this approach may be worth a try.

Sprint 2020 project proposal submission and general application process timeline.

We are therefore splitting the application process for the upcoming Sprint into two phases: in the first phase (March 18–April 14), we ask all potential project leads to submit project proposals. We will then assess and publish these on April 27, and at the same time begin to invite general applications from participants who want to contribute to projects.

Submitting a completely new project idea can be daunting: how will you formulate a good proposal, and where will you find co-submitters to back you up? We have designed the submission form so it will guide you through the key elements to consider in designing the project. If you don't know how to reach out to collaborators, we would love to help you amplify your idea (tweet your ideas with #eLifeSprint). We will also pair you with other submitters with similar ideas, where applicable.

  1. Submit a project proposal

Finally, we have run a webinar to answer some of your questions– please see our notes and recording.

Equity in participation

Emmy reflected on her efforts last year to diversify the Sprint and the helpful feedback that she has received from participants. While she has brought people from diverse backgrounds into the same room, there are opportunities to facilitate better interactions and knowledge exchange between participants, so that everyone can better contribute to the design of the prototypes and the community as a whole.

At the same time, knowing that the people one meets and the connections one make are the biggest assets of the event, Emmy wanted to make sure that everyone could benefit from that. She aspired to create more deliberate onboarding procedures, particularly to empower newcomers to this space, to help them build the confidence to contribute as well as share a sense of belonging.

For this, we need help from more experienced Sprinters and community members, who we hope will act as mentors to guide newcomers through the event. Mentors will conduct a video call with their mentees prior to the Sprint, and meet and check-in with them during the event. In return, we offer mentors training opportunities and a chance to give back to the community. Prospective mentors and mentees can both indicate their preference to mentor/be mentored during the project submission or general application phases.

Participants at the 2019 Sprint. Photo credit: Jess Brittain Photography.

No organiser is an island

The design process for the eLife Innovation Sprint 2020 is at the very beginning – in the coming months, Emmy will be thinking in more details about how to equip project leads with leadership skills, facilitate prototype design for projects in the wider research culture space, ensure everyone’s voices are heard, sustain the event’s output, and more.

Sprint 2020 will not be perfect – that is never our goal. We want to continuously learn, test, evaluate and improve, and we want to continue this co-creation process with everyone who would like to join us. Please let us know your thoughts by annotating this article (clicking on the blue speech bubble in the menu bar towards the top of the page, on the left-hand side), or emailing innovation [at] elifesciences [dot] org– we would love to hear from you.

We have learnt from each other and many others in this process: Naomi took parts of other events and adapted them to build the first Sprint, and Emmy has kept some of that while extending some other aspects of the event. Naomi reflected on her experience of watching that evolution, “it’s very rewarding to step back, and, without any effort on your own part, have someone come in and improve something that you care so much about.

These exchanges have truly been two-way learning experiences. We would love to close this post by acknowledging the many contributions from all the fantastic event organisers from whom we learnt, and without whom the Sprint would not be what it is today. We would also love for anyone who is planning their own event to take the parts we have tested, modify and improve them – we would be thrilled to share our experiences and thoughts.


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