Adam and Astra - New Alumni

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 26 August 2018

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Created by Kamaljith K V (CC BY 2.0)

This September, Adam Hyde and Astra Taylor graduated from the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship programme to become Alumni. It has been an honour to join them over their three-year journey, and we have learned a great deal from their experiences.

Adam Hyde began his Fellowship with a keen understanding of the problems lying at the heart of the scholarly publishing process and an idea that promised to solve them.

Science and research are key to the advancement of human knowledge. But it can take months - or even years - for important studies to flow from conclusion to manuscript, and no one can benefit from research results while they languish in a production pipeline.

Under the umbrella of the Coko Foundation, Adam planned to establish and expand a community-based framework and a suite of open tools to liberate an academic publishing industry held back by locked systems, archaic processes and unwieldy workflows.

“It’s all gone really well,” says Adam. “We had a mental model of how this was going to work, and the surprising thing is, it does.

“We started building the book product, then got the funding to work on the publishing product…now there are seven systems built on PubSweet, four journal systems, two micropublishing systems and a lot of interest from very large publishers.

“We are building a community. Our whole process is collaborative - not just designing products and developing workflows, but organising a whole community and becoming trusted facilitators.”

Adam has not only broken down a set of inherently problematic systems, but also introduced new ways of thinking to academics, researchers, administrators, funders and publishers.

Those working in the midst of the scholarly publishing can now see how something as banal as improving a workflow can push scientific research out into the world faster. It can even help them form a better understanding of the content they produce and increases the reliability and reproducibility of academic studies.

On a personal level, Adam feels he has gained a lot from his Fellowship.

“It wasn’t just about the money,” he says. “With what I’m trying to do, you have to sacrifice a lot because you do it alone. The Foundation is so important in terms of support. I felt like I had allies when no one else got what I am trying to do.

“It has given me validation, I’ve calmed down a lot and developed a more mature outlook. I feel like I’ve been through a period of emotional growth as much as professional.”

Adam begins life as a Shuttleworth Alum in a good place. The Coko Foundation is sustainable for the foreseeable future and he has plans to continue bringing about long-term, deep-rooted change in academic publishing.

“The next step involves setting up a new lab, to help simplify Coko,” he says. “Scholarly publishing is changing. And the chances of change on a massive scale are improving.”

Astra Taylor became a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow in 2015 to establish and grow The Debt Collective, a platform defending the rights of debtors in the United States through education, advocacy and direct action. As she graduates to Alumni status and continues to build this vital movement, she can look back on her Fellowship with enormous satisfaction.

More than any other Fellow, Astra has opened our eyes to the privileges, legalities and systemic flaws that work against swathes of society. She has peeled back the layers to redefine our ideas about predatory lending and the commodification of indebtedness. And her work has had a significant impact on the lives of thousands, who are now collectivised, empowered and enabled to challenge and overturn debts.

“At the start, we never guessed we would win hundreds of millions of dollars of relief for student debtors,” says Astra. “In the first year, we had a modest goal of submitting one dispute for every state in the US - it turned out we sent over 10,000.

“It unleashed a rulemaking crisis in Washington DC and the clarification of the federal law, so there was an amazing momentum. It took off in a way we didn’t anticipate.”

That’s not to say it’s been easy. No one has created such a radical set of debt dispute tools before, and it takes time, resources and a lot of experimentation to unlock purposefully opaque systems from the grassroots up.

A new tenant in the White House proved something of a millstone, too. Almost immediately after the 2016 election, the government began rolling back the new student debtor rights achieved by The Debt Collective.

“When you are dealing with politics, things ebb and flow,” explains Astra. “There’s progress and regression. We learned a lot from active campaigning and engaging in the lobbying process, but we also had to recognise the limits of these tactics.

“This platform is not contingent on the debt dispute tools we built, or on us being able to win additional rights,” she continues. “Instead, it’s focused on helping people enact the rights they actually have on the books, but are bureaucratically impossible at the moment because the powers that be make it so difficult.”

Despite significant challenges, Astra has broken new ground in helping debtors understand their financial conditions and challenging predatory lending at all levels. She has demonstrated power in mass, calm movement, and continues her work as a thoughtful pioneer driven by righting wrongs and social injustice. Her work in questioning the power structures of finance and money has also given the Shuttleworth Foundation much to think on for the future. But what next for Astra?

“What’s next? The platform is truly, finally, actually done. I’m out of the warm, supportive embrace of the Foundation. Now, we have to go out into the world and prove the utility of this tool.

“I have a film coming out next month, so will be doing a lot of travelling. It’s also a chance to do community engagement stuff for The Debt Collective. The evidence shows it is working and collections are being removed. But we need numbers … people aren’t organised. The fight isn’t over.”

We wish Adam and Astra well as they start writing the next chapters of their personal and professional stories, and wholeheartedly welcome them to the growing community of Shuttleworth Alumni.

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