JSFoo: round the year submissions

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Destigmatizing Open Source Through Lessons in Mental Health

Submitted by Julia Nguyen (@fleurchild) on Thursday, 11 January 2018


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if me is an app to share mental health experiences in a safe space with loved ones. It’s a free open source software project that strives to be welcoming to all contributors, non-technical and technical alike. Increasing access to mental health support draws many parallels to increasing open source engagement and inclusion. Through efforts to implement internationalization, improve test coverage, and conduct usability research, Julia Nguyen shares how the lessons learned in making the app more accessible to marginalized communities made for a healthier contributor community, and vice-versa.


As open source maintainers, contributors, leaders, and students we should all be thinking about how to make our communities a better place for everyone. The diversity and inclusion challenges that we presently face in open source can be better approached when we think about what it means to destigmatize mental health for everyone. This forces us to think about the world outside our privileged tech bubbles, and frame diversity and inclusion through unfamiliar perspectives including marginalized communities, developing countries, and non-English speaking societies. In turn, more usable, accessible, and robust software is built.

I delve into the technical and non-technical challenges we had to overcome in order to implement internationalization, empower our developers to improve test coverage and conduct effective usability research.

Internationalization (i18n) is a perfect example of collaboration between technical and non-technical folks. In this area of the talk, I highlight best practices for preparing your app for i18n and creating a process where people can work on translations. I also share the fascinating challenges of translating a mental health terminology to different languages, and its significance in the communities they are accessed in.

Test coverage is necessary for sustainable software, and it shouldn’t be compromised even in an open source project. As a project that attracts beginner developers, the challenge is educating and empowering these developers to write well-tested code. Test-driven development with pair programming has proved to be an effective way to build a developer’s confidence with testing. Encouraging new developers to participate in code reviews is also an effective way to learn a project’s best practices.

Conducting usability research, let alone effective usability research, is difficult in open source software. How do we encourage people to try out our app given the sensitive subject of mental health? Mental health also means very different things to different cultures, which poses the challenge of designing a universally understood and empathetic user experience. Building a strong and healthy contributor community has helped with understanding how to conduct effective research.

if me is a mental health communication app that allows people to share their mental health experiences in a safe and private space with loved ones. We are a free, not-for-profit open source software project written in Ruby on Rails, React, and PostgreSQL.

I started the project in 2014 as an undergraduate student studying computer science at the University of Waterloo. During this time, I started writing and giving talks about my struggles with OCD, depression, and anxiety.

The idea for if me came from my experiences being a Vietnamese-Canadian struggling with mental illness and having conversations about it with my family. A main focus of our project is to increase conversations in communities lacking mental health education, including minority, immigrant, and English as a Second Language (ESL) communities. Our site is translated into multiple languages including Spanish and Portuguese. We plan to continue to expand our translations.

Through a commitment to constantly improve contributor outreach and documentation, we have become a welcoming, inclusive, and beginner-friendly open source project. As someone who felt intimidated to contribute to open source and later more intimated to identify myself as an open source contributor, I am passionate about bringing more diversity and inclusion to open source. Diversity and inclusion in open source also include welcoming non-technical contributors. We have contributors who help with user testing, social media, and our blog.

As an organizer of Write/Speak/Code SF, I founded a series of recurring events called Open Source Hours for women and non-binary folks to contribute to beginner-friendly open source software projects committed to diversity and inclusion. We’ve featured the AMP Project, Hoodie, Brave, CodeBuddies, and of course, if me.

if me wouldn’t be if me without the incredible communities that help us reach more contributors, including Model View Culture, WoCinTechChat, CodeMontage, CodeNewbie, Hacker Hours, OS4W, Contributor Covenant, OpenHatch, Write/Speak/Code, MH Prompt, OSMI, Everybody Has A Brain, Brown Sisters Speak, and Tessera Collective. In 2017, we were part of Rails Girls Summer of Code and mentored a team of two amazing mothers from Melbourne, Australia.

Speaker bio

Julia Nguyen is a software engineer, writer, and speaker from Toronto. Julia is the founder of if me, an open source mental health communication app. She organized mentorship initiatives at the University of Waterloo Women in Computer Science Undergraduate Committee. She is the lead organizer of Southeast Asian Ladies in Tech, and organizes meetups for the San Francisco chapter of Write/Speak/Code.

Julia is driven by the sociological impact of technology – how it shapes and redefines culture and identity. She has written for publications like Model View Culture, Shameless Magazine, and AJ+. She’s a speaker for Prompt, a community of people in tech who give talks on mental illness. She has spoken at various conferences and meetups like QCon, Curry On!, Self Conference, Tech Inclusion Conference, and Dreamforce.

I have been publishing articles and giving talks at conferences, meetups, and everything else in between since 2014. My main subject area is mental health in computer science education, the tech industry, and in open source.
The main lesson I have learned talking about my experiences in these three different, yet similar communities are that the necessity for mental health support is constant and pervasive. Mental health isn’t just mental illness – it’s part of being human. The more we acknowledge the role of mental health in our communities, the more we can support individuals, retain and support underrepresented groups, and build an authentic culture of inclusion. In open source software, a culture that is open to mental health allows contributors to make effective, long lasting contributions.

Relevant Talks

In 2017, I gave a lightning talk for the Code For Good Week Kickoff at SFHTML5 on if me’s history and the importance of community leadership in the project. Code For Good Week is an initiative by Girl Develop It SF to promote contributions to open source projects with meaningful social impact.
The same year, I gave a technical talk called “Two Households, Both Alike in Dignity: A Not-So-Tragedy of Refactoring Front-end APIs” at Curry On and QCon NY. Told through all five acts (in gif form) of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the talk is about the challenges I encountered with tackling technical debt while adding Apple Pay support to perk itemization at Indiegogo.

I also gave a lightning talk called “i18n + if me” at Open Source Show and Tell at Google Launchpad SF. The talk highlights the importance of increasing access to mental health support through language and the amazing women who worked on the internationalization project. It also shares best practices on implementing i18n in Ruby on Rails.

In 2016, I gave a keynote talk at Open Source Bridge called “Exploring Mental Illness Through Open Source”. Told through my journey in creating if me, finding contributors, and retaining contributors, the talk about cultivating diversity and inclusion in open source communities. “Destigmatizing Open Source Through Lessons in Mental Health” is a sequel to this talk. It explores applying the lessons in destigmatizing mental health to sustainable open source communities.


  • 1
    Zainab Bawa (@zainabbawa) Reviewer 8 months ago

    This proposal is not directly relevant to JSFoo. We will find another forum to place this proposal.

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