I recently got an email from a person I do not know who asked what open source NASA repositories would be good ones to try to contribute to. They were looking for projects to expand their coding skills in order to help their job prospects.
Instead of writing an email, I decided to write a blog post for two reasons. First, this is a question I would get when I helped run NASA's GitHub. It is not obvious how to quickly filter large groups of repositories to ones that are good for first-time contributions. Second, my advice is slightly different than the typical answer I've seen others give to this question.
The problem with the typical advice that get's given
The typical advice that gets given is to:
Find an open source project that is related to your interests.
That is good advice. However, in practice, it does not get you very far. The number of open source repositories is huge. Even if you are interested in a specific topic or repositories under a particular organization, there can still be hundreds or thousands of repositories, far too many to read through them all. Additionally, the percentage that are likely to be a good use of anyone's time to dive into and try to contribute is fairly small.
Most repositories are not actively being developed or not well suited to new contributors
Many repositories are released as open source....and then nothing happens.
They are more "published" than "maintained".
Some open source repositories are personal projects with no intention of taking outside contributions.
Even some that have a
CONTRIBUTING.md file, do so more out of custom than anything else.
Still others have a
CONTRIBUTING.md file, and would take outside contributions, but do not expect
anyone to contribute, so their documentation does not
make for a good experience for the beginner.
There are also repositories that are developed as needed when things break or change. They might not have a lot of activity, and what activity they do have is very much driven by internal events and needs. Between spikes of activity, a new issue might not be noticed or responded to for weeks or months.
There are also repositories that try to accept outside contributors but run up against the limits of their capacity. Taking on new contributors can be a lot of work. The benefit of outside contributions does not always outweigh the cost of managing them under circumstances when there may be more immediate draws on their time and attention unrelated to that open source project.
Ideal project for first-time contributions
The ideal project for a beginner is active. It has a lot of activity, and a lot of people who will
respond to your pull request fairly quickly. It also has contributions not just from a core
team that does lots of contributions but also a lot of people who only make 1 or 2 contributions.
These ideal projects also have good documentation and
CONTRIBUTING.md file that explains in detail what they want in issues and pull requests.
These criteria rule out the bulk of open source repositories in most large organizations.
NOTE: I am not saying that these are the only repositories that are good for first-time contributions, but they are reasonable criteria to use to filter the list of possible repositories down to a number a person could actually read through and consider.
Do not go to the organization's main page to find beginner-friendly repositories within that organization
If you are like the person who emailed me, you might want to see if there are NASA projects you can contribute to. You might therefore navigate to the NASA organization on GitHub.
470 NASA repositories on GitHub under the main
NASA org as of 2023-04-22. Most people do not
want to read through 470 repositories.
If you're instead interested in finding a project under
microsoft to contribute to,
then you have thousands of repositories to read through.
Repository search as better place to find beginner-friendly repositories within an organization
GitHub has a search bar placed very obviously on many pages, but more useful is the "Advanced search" page interface. It shows many of the parameters that can be used to search for repositories. More detailed instructions on syntax for query parameters can be found on the "search on GitHub" docs page.
NOTE: Once you figure out the search parameters you want, you can put them into the search bar on any organization's repositories page. This is not obvious, but the parameter search works in multiple search bar on GitHub, not just the advanced search page or the main search page.
Search parameters to use to find repositories well suited for contributions
Forks are higher when a repository has activity from pull requests outside the maintaining team.
stars are sometimes used by people who are interested in a project,
so it is another signal of a repository
potentially having a community.
pushed is used with an
> to filter out repositories that have not been updated in a while.
created can be used with a
< to filter out repositories that are active but just started.
has conditionals are used to filter out repositories that do not have a
CONTRIBUTING.md file or a
Technically, CONTRIBUTING content is sometimes in a README and not a separate CONTRIBUTING file, but it probably will not filter
out too many true positives by accident.
The values used for the
followers parameters are going to vary based on the popularity of the organization's code.
For Microsoft, you might use:
stars:>500 pushed:>2023-04-01 org:microsoft forks:>40 followers:>10 created:<2022 has:CONTRIBUTING.md has:LICENSE
For NASA, you might dial down the engagement parameters to:
stars:>50 pushed:>2023-04-01 org:nasa forks:>10 followers:>5 created:<2022 has:CONTRIBUTING.md has:LICENSE
Now instead of having to read through 470 NASA repositories, you can read through 52 if we use the query above or just 8 if we further filter repositories to just those that use Python. These are numbers that we could possibly read through.
Search for content and not just repository parameters
We might also add a search term to match strings in the repository name, description, or README. This can be done by putting the term at the front of the search box that has all the parameters.
For example, if you wanted to find repositories under Microsoft organization that met all the parameters above,
react stars:>100 pushed:>2023-04-15 org:microsoft forks:>50 followers:>50 created:<2021 has:CONTRIBUTING.md has:LICENSE
finds 13 repositories under the Microsoft organization that have to do with React and meet the other parameters
indicating they might be good for contributions.
This does not have to be specific to an organization
This approach also works outside the organization context. For example, let us say you are interested in contributing to a project that has to do with geology in some fashion and do not care what organization or username the repository is under.
You could modify the search query to not be specific to any org and include the topic
topic:geology stars:>30 pushed:>2023-03-01 forks:>5 followers:>5 created:<2023 has:CONTRIBUTING.md has:LICENSE
You could also not used
topic and instead search for the string
geology in the repository name, description, or README along with the other search parameters.
geology stars:>30 pushed:>2023-03-01 forks:>5 followers:>5 created:<2023 has:CONTRIBUTING.md has:LICENSE
The results of these searches has quite a bit of overlap with awesome-open-geoscience which lists out a lot of well regarded open source geoscience projects that people think are "Awesome" and others should know about. However, in these results, you're ignoring some of the projects in the Awesome list that are not as actively developed.
What to look for in repositories once you have a filtered list
Now that you have identified a handful of repositories that have files, activity, and engagement metrics that suggest they are active and have interest from the community, you can look at the repositories to see if they are a good fit for you. Here are a few indicators of a welcoming project.
First, are there any issues labeled "good first issue" or "help wanted" or "hacktoberfest"? You can read more about how to the "good first issue" tag and how to search for it on GitHub's Browse good first issues to start contributing to open source blog post. There's also a board of "good first issues" for popular open source projects.
Second, does the project have documentation? Is it easy to find? Is it easy to understand?
Third, if you look at the repository's "Insights" tab, does it have a distribution of contributors with people making 1 or 2 contributions and not just a core team making all the contributions? If you see this, it is more likely that the maintainers have experience working with newbies. This is not to say you will not be welcomed if only a few core contributors have made pull requests. In fact, they might be very excited and give you a red carpet welcome as their first open source contributor! Alternatively, you might get ignored. It is hard to predict.
Fourth, again looking at the insights tab, how consistent is development activity? If there are a lot of commits in the last month but none in the three months beforehand, you might submit a pull request just as the core developer focuses elsewhere and there is another several month long lull in activity.
Lastly, remember the original advice that everyone gives and find an open source project that is related to your interests!
There's a lot more to be said about finding open source projects to contribute to and why you might find that worth your time. Definitely worth searching for that information, but I am skipping it entirely here.
Hope these tips on how to find projects are helpful and save you time.