Digital Storytelling for Culture Change

- Malvika

This post is the case study from my participation at the Mozilla Open Leaders Cohort 7 from January-May 2019

Project Page: Bio-IT Community Blogs

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

Project background

Digital storytelling is a tool that allows people to share certain aspects of their personal stories. The digital equivalent of traditional storytelling can include any electronic (non-physical) media such as blogs, audio, motion videos or stills that help individuals to tell their story or present an idea.

[Source: Digital Storytelling, also see: Web 2.0]

Improving culture

The Bio-IT community blog infrastructure aims to create space for the diverse members of the STEM community to highlight their personal stories, scientific work, insights, and open dialogues in the form of blog posts and interviews. Everyone has a unique story to share. When combined with academic expertise, passion, motivation, social background, and personal struggles, these stories create authentic connections. With the tool of Digital Storytelling, I want to create relatable contents by involving as many voices as possible, especially of those who are currently underrepresented in my community.


The members of informatics communities that I engage with come from diverse backgrounds and identities, and they share different academic and research interests. They participate in the community as informatics learners, trainers, educators, resource-developers, problem-solvers, decision-makers, knowledge-sharers, supporters and occasional visitors. A large proportion of this community is life scientists and novice bioinformaticians, who make an important part of our learner’s community, but often don’t know how they can contribute beyond their participation at our training events. In contrary, our members who are the technical experts and core developers are more motivated to contribute to decision making and development of community projects. There is a clear divide between learners and active contributors. In addition, many members who are currently missing or not actively participating in the community are women and members of other historically underrepresented groups.

With this project, I wanted to actively and consciously involve as many diverse members as possible to gain their perspectives and share their stories. I chose digital storytelling as a tool to enhance visibility of our members and improve their engagement within the community by identifying low barrier opportunities for their participation.

About me and my work

I am a Community Outreach Coordinator at the EMBL Heidelberg. I manage outreach and community engagement plans for the Bio-IT project to develop and foster a community of EMBL researchers interested in computational techniques. Bio-IT is a community initiative, which aims to build, support, and promote computational biology activity at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg. Bio-IT community members are scientists who share a varying level of interests and expertise in bioinformatics and help each other by sharing their skills, experience, and tools with others. This project is a platform for skill development and knowledge exchange with an aim to build a sustainable and highly collaborative community of bioinformatics users in EMBL and beyond. My Mozilla project is built around my work in the Bio-IT, but is not limited to the members of Bio-IT.

Image by @tchompalov on Unsplash

My Open Leadership Journey

After OL6 many of my colleagues who had participated in the Mozilla Open Leaders shared their personal experiences on Twitter (tweet from Berenice Batut) and how much they had benefited from their participation. After reading their testimonials and the checking the complete program, I knew that I would gain tremendously by participating in OL7.

Why culture track: I wanted to learn the theories and practices in community building, therefore culture track seemed to be a best fit. I come from research background and I don’t have any formal training in community management, which is a huge part of my job.

Expectation: I expected to gain the formal understanding of how to develop effective strategies for an Open Community.

Goal: The main goal I set for myself was to identify ways to engage with the members of my community. My specific aim is to create opportunities for those who are currently underrepresented in my community.

Key understanding and accomplishments

“Open Leadership in open communities is often about taking the back seat, creating space for the community members to be heard, to collectively make decisions, and to shape a culture that is nurturing for them.”

The main goal for this project was to improve representation of those who are currently underrepresented in the community.

The initial steps were to understand the specific community goals that could be achieved with my Mozilla OL project, who will be affected/impacted by this, what resources are available to support these goals, and what additional resources can be developed or adapted in the project to ensure its sustainability.

The study plan of the OL7 culture track, complemented with the personal discussion with my mentor allowed me to set my vision and mission, personal and professional goals, and project roadmaps in the first few weeks. With my participation in the Mozilla OL, I gained useful insight into my community that were sparked by the “compare and contrast” assignments. They helped me tremendously to draw important insights into the strengths and weaknesses of my community.

The following elements have helped me in accomplishing my open leadership and open culture goals towards involving diverse voices in my work:

  1. 📈 Community Assessment Survey (started in February, need to give a final push)

This survey was conducted to support the ongoing work in Bio-IT towards developing equitable strategies by identifying needs of the individual members for training, consulting and other bioinformatics resources. The data collected in this survey will be useful in identifying member groups who are currently underrepresented and what support is needed to engage with them. This survey helped us see the impact of our training and social activities organized for our members on a regular basis. It also allowed our respondents point out the exact bioinformatics needs from the community.

  1. 👯‍♀🏳‍🌈 International Women’s day: ‘TheyForShe’ Networking and Skill-Building Event (local effort)

On 8 March 2019, with the support from the members of Bio-IT, Staff Association, Equality and Diversity Committee and LGBTQ+ committee at EMBL Heidelberg, I co-organised a skill-building and networking event under the title “International Women’s day: ‘TheyForShe’ Networking and Skill-Building Event“. With this event, in addition to expressing our gratitude towards the women researchers and colleagues, I created a platform to involve ‘non-bioinformatic participants’ who are generally missing from our community. This event was attended by ~70 participants from both scientific and non-scientific domains at EMBL. From a number of short skill-building and networking session, participants could select which session they wanted to attend, without affecting their normal workday schedule.

  1. 📭Launching of the the Community Blog Platform (digital effort)

As a main component for the Digital Storytelling, I launched the Bio-IT Community Blog Platform, inviting contributions from our community members. The content development for this platform will take place during the Mozilla sprint. I have already reached out to a number of members, with a special focus on the members of underrepresented groups. We will start documenting their stories in coming weeks.

“Open culture allows decolonization of knowledge.”

Next steps

My immediate next step is to participate in the Mozilla Sprint in order to collect and publish useful content and stories of our community members. notably, these stories will help me identify who is currently missing (or are underrepresented) in my community, and what resources and opportunities will create more engagement from them. It will be crucial to reflect on equitable strategies in the community by personal interactions or alternative ways to gather such information. All these will enhance our understanding of values and rewards that every member can gain from the community, and improve our policies/guidelines that will facilitate their participation.

Other tasks directly related to my Mozilla OL7 project that will still keep me involved for next months:

Staying connected

Special mentions

I was exposed to new information, resources, people and community that taught me a great deal about the Open Community of Practice (by default and by design). There were many gems that I picked up on the way, but two practical theories particularly stood out:

Finally, my mentor, Caleb, kindly offered (agreed!) to be the first person to be interviewed and kickstart my Mozilla Sprint Project. His interview will be posted soon.

“[Open Leadership] is not about what we can do, but about what we do to change the culture.” - Caleb Kipkurui, Mentor Mozilla OL7, Researcher/Educator in Kenya


Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License by Malvika Sharan

Cover image from by @socialcut on Unsplash