The plan was simple: we’d create The State Decoded, and then we’d write the documentation for it. The documentation would be a big HTML file or something, and we’d include a copy with the download, and also host a copy on statedecoded.com. That’s a pretty standard model for open source software, and it seemed best to emulate what others did.
That was a terrible plan.
Documentation, as it turns out, is a lot like software. Documentation is a process, not a product. This realization wasn’t born of a single ah-ha moment, but instead out of the needs made obvious during the process of creating The State Decoded.
At first, project documentation was a few bare-bones notes on a GitHub wiki, so that folks would know how to install the software. But then we established a State Decoded XML format, for storing laws, which required a lot of documentation for internal use—that went up on the wiki, too. When we added an API to the software, that definitely needed documentation, and so that was another page on the wiki.
Things were getting unwieldy. As more people started contributing to the project, not only did more people need to understand how the software worked, but it also became hard to keep up with improvements to the code. It’s easy to understand how software works when you wrote all of it, but it’s rather harder when big portions of it were authored by others.
Perhaps most important, it needed to be easier for early adopters to try out The State Decoded before its v1.0 release, and that meant providing documentation that was sufficient for that task. Releasing software throughout the development process, in the open source style, means that documentation needs to be released throughout, too.
In short, open source software requires open source documentation.
There are some fine services available for hosting software documentation, but I didn’t have to cast around long to find a clear path forward for The State Decoded: GitHub Pages. Several people recommended it, so it seemed worth trying. GitHub Pages allows HTML and Markdown stored on GitHub to be published to a public website, using Jekyll, an open source project. As with any GitHub repository, others can make pull requests to propose modifications to those web pages, or be authorized to make any modifications that they like. When those changes are accepted or saved, they’re reflected on the public website. Thanks to third-party services like Prose.io, somebody need not even know how to use Git or GitHub, or even HTML or Markdown, in order to edit the documentation. This is a marked improvement over wiki-hosted documentation. GitHub Pages is GitHub’s
In the intervening few months, the documentation has been modified every time that a notable change was made, hundreds of times in all. That said, it’s still basically a dressed-up version of the wiki-based mess of a year ago. It needs to be restructured, ordered, and edited. But now it’s on a platform that facilitates those improvements, by making it part of my desktop development workflow.
As long as The State Decoded remains an actively maintained project—for years to come, I hope—it needs to have documentation that reflects that. That requires documentation that changes with the software, and that is part of the same ecosystem as the software itself. Hosting software documentation on GitHub and publishing it via Jekyll is the right path for The State Decoded, and I think it’s a route that other open source projects would be wise to follow, too.