The Ada Initiative: Looking Back and Looking Forward


The Ada Initiative isn’t quite one year old, but with the project embarking on a new fundraiser and as 2011 draws to a close, it seems like a good time to check in on the project. Much of the focus in 2011 has been on bootstrapping, but 2012 is looking like a very good year for the Ada Initiative.

The initiative, named for Countess Ada Lovelace (widely acknowledged as the first computer programmer), launched in February. Its vision? “A world in which women are equal and welcome participants in open technology, open data, and open culture. We want women writing free software, women editing Wikipedia, women creating the Internet and women shaping the future of global society.”

Ada Initiative LogoThe initiative ran a successful seed campaign that closed in June to raise money to bootstrap the organization and plan projects. The Ada Initiative started its first general fundraising drive on December 1st.

Ada Initiative So Far

So what has the initiative accomplished so far? Valerie Aurora, executive director of the initiative, says there’s quite a bit. “This year, we conducted two surveys of women in open technology and culture, helped over 30 conferences adopt an anti-harassment policy, and organized our first women in open tech/culture conference (AdaCamp Melbourne). We wrote a first draft of a guide to resources for helping women in open technology/culture, Ada’s Advice, which we hope to publish early 2012. We’re in the planning stages of a career development community for women in open tech/culture, Ada’s Careers, which will not only help women get jobs they want, but also help our sponsors find and hire more women.”

In addition, Aurora says that the initiative accomplished one of its specific goals: “We’re now known as the go-to experts on women in open tech/culture. When When a company or organization needs advice on how to handle a tricky public relations situation involving women in open tech/culture, fast (e.g., a sexist incident at a conference), they can call us and we can give them specific, concrete advice based on extensive real-world experience.”

A lot of the first year has been spent on the boring, but necessary, stuff. Matt Zimmerman, who’s on the board of directors for the initiative, says that a lot of the focus the last few months has been on making the initiative a legal entity.”

“This requires a surprising amount of administrative work, which isn’t very rewarding in itself,” says Zimmerman. “However, it’s an important first step toward becoming a long-term sustainable organization, and based on what we’ve heard from other organizations which have gone through this process, it’s gone very well for us so far.”

Aurora says that she and Mary Gardiner, Ada Initiative’s director of operations and research, have gone “from zero to sixty in learning how to found and run a non-profit.” Not that they’re new to that sort of thing, since they’ve each had prior experience running other organizations, but Aurora says that founding an running a U.S. non-profit was more complex than anything they’ve done prior. “And I include the Linux VFS in that statement.”

Beyond Open Source

Though Gardiner and Aurora were both heavily involved in the FOSS community before the Ada Initiative, the initiative is meant to focus more broadly on “open technology and culture.” Gardiner says that the project will ramp that up in 2012. “Obviously one of the key early steps is getting to know other communities better, and finding out from them what support they need. Our first concrete initiative in this respect will be AdaCamp Melbourne, an unconference that focuses on.women in open technology and culture generally rather than open source specifically.”

Gardiner says that they’ve already had interest in AdaCamp Melbourne from Australians that are involved in hackerspaces, digital liberties activism, and wiki culture. In addition, they’ll be following the Melbourne event with AdaCamps in other areas. “The next one will likely be in the USA to coincide with Wikimania or another large open culture conference. In the longer term, if there’s sufficient interest, there will be an AdaCon, a full-scale conference on the same subject.”

Real-life events, and their anti-harassment policies have been a big focus for the initiative. When asked about conferences that have adopted policies, Aurora says that all major Linux conferences are covered as well as most open source conferences.

But they’ve also had successes outside the open source community, and it’s important to note that the anti-harassment policy doesn’t preclude all potentially objectionable content. “The Open Video conference had a policy, which was doubly interesting because they also had a frank and controversial talk about pornography by Cindy Gallop, which had a well-written warning for people attending making it clear what to expect and that it was okay to leave if they were uncomfortable. Several sci-fi, fan culture, and geek cons have adopted policies and I’m interested to see if that spreads farther.”

Aurora also notes that the policy can be changed, and she’d like to see a version that works even better for open culture events. “What I’d really like to see next is a version that works better for open culture events, like blogging, fan fiction, and activism, where sexuality, pornography, racism, etc. are important and valid topics of discussion. With tech conferences, it’s easy to say, “Just don’t go there because you’ll probably screw up and it’s unnecessary anyway,’ but we need something more complex for open culture conferences.”

2012 and Beyond

The Ada Initiative cites the FLOSSPOLS study from 2004-2006 that indicates that few women participate in open source. It’s no doubt still true that fewer women participate in open source, but one hopes that things have changed somewhat since that study was released.

Zimmerman says that he hesitates to make a “simple judgment” about any changes in attitude towards women in open source “because my impressions are highly subjective.” However, he does acknowledge “there have definitely been some steps forward, such as the adoption of anti-harassment policies (something the Ada Initiative has helped to realize). I think there’s also been an increase in public discussion about the issues facing women in FLOSS communities in recent years, but it’s hard to say because I’m attuned to it.”

Gardiner says that the initiative wants to do a “high quality updated investigation” into women in open source. “Because we aren’t social scientists ourselves, once we have funding for such an investigation, we’re hoping to partner with a research organisation to collaborate on the study design and execution.”

For more on the initiative’s plans, check out the post on “what we plan to do with your donations” and the event calendar. The initiative plans to put together a career development community for women in open tech, as well as a “first patch week” to help women write and submit a patch to FOSS projects.

If you’d like to donate, head over to the sponsorship page or check out the supporters mailing list.