[OSGeo-Discuss] Evolving FOSS4G [was: FOSS4G 2013 Nottingham Update ]

Adrian Custer acuster at gmail.com
Fri May 10 10:31:25 PDT 2013

Hey all,

Congratulations and good wishes to the organizers of FOSS4G 2013, and 
many thanks for all the hard work. I'm sure the attendees 
(unfortunately, probably not me) will benefit greatly. This critique is 
not actually directed towards you; it is towards all of us and probably 
really for 2014 or later.

We need to evolve FOSS4G to make it more effective at doing all the 
disparate things it is attempting to accomplish. The dissatisfaction 
expressed in the original mailing list thread, which I have shared for 
years now, reflects a tension that is becoming increasingly deep.

The FOSS4G community has grown up. The feel in Lausanne was of a hacker 
conference, a bunch of young developers and users building and learning 
from each other how to make and use software for a better tomorrow. 
Users, developers, everyone was on an equal footing. By Barcelona that 
feeling had changed; there were 'presenters' and 'audiences', the 
commercial side was strong. Formal recognition came primarily to those 
'presenting'; certain projects or companies were visibly 'blessed' 
mostly because they were either the first movers or were within the 
OSGeo umbrella, others were excluded or simply absent. As a consequence, 
the conference was more professional and was was probably more effective 
at presenting each project that gave a talk but it lost a lot as well, 
it had less community feel, was less whacky, favoured the commercial 
over the free-time projects, was more exclusive.

This is obviously partly that we have all changed. 'Free software' is 
now fully legimate, 'Open standards' are increasingly the accepted norm, 
software exists for most of our basic needs with new stuff is coming out 
all the time.

However, if organizers want to build a FOSS4G which builds communitarian 
spirit as well as being professional, which gives center stage to mature 
products but invites the whacky as well, which brings in everyone rather 
than blessing winners and excluding others, FOSS4G needs to evolve its 

Easy to say, the question is 'how?'. Well, first, let's get a better 
handle on the tension, the why, then I'll throw out some ideas about how 
to address it.

Who are the FOSS4Gers?

We are a mixed bunch and probably each of us is a mix of these labels. 
However, I build up mythical single purpose 'geo-actors' to be able to 
get a list of different needs. I surely have missed some labels as well, 
but have hit many and thereby have gathered a diverse list of principles.

The Geo-doers, those actually doing stuff with the software, 
infrastructure, and data developed, like activists and scientists, want 
to present their work and learn about the work of others. They want to 
inspire with their work. They want to discover new tools and methods.[1]

   => Geo-work needs global public exposure to inspire everyone

Geo-community members are really geo-doers in a community. They also 
want to meet the members of their community face-to-face, make plans for 
the future and discuss or resolve issues. They probably want to welcome 
new participants. They probably also want to learn of other projects, 
related efforts, new tools.

   => Geo-communities need public exposure to inspire and recruit
   => community mingling is a top-level activity

Geo-developers want to touch base with one another, talk within their 
projects about plans and issues, hack a little. Developers want to touch 
base with other projects, learn what is going on, find synergies. 
Developers want to get an overview of the state of the landscape, who is 
doing what, what cool new thing is going on. Developers also want to 
evangelize their projects; get good exposure to the general public.

   => Geo-projects need public exposure to inform and recruit
   => developer mingling is a top-level activity
   => coding workshops are one type of workshop

Geo-learners come in many flavours There are the geo-neophytes who don't 
know what any of this is about and want some kind of overview. They 
probably need a talk on 'Spatial Data Infrastructures' which talks about 
all the pieces of the geo* puzzle: Desktop clients, Web Clients, Web 
Services, Databases but also Spatial Analysis, Spatial Infrastructure, 
Spatial Hardware, ... a global overview.

   => geo-neophytes need, at the very start, an introduction to 'what is
      geospatial' and 'what of geospatial is being presented at FOSS4G'

There are the geo-newcommers who come with some vision of what they want 
to learn. They either start with an idea of something they want to *do* 
or of some tool they want to do their thing with. The former need to be 
pointed to the tools they can work with, then both need to get a chance 
to learn to use the tools.

   => one type of workshop targets these users, workshops that show how
      to get started and where to go learn more
   => these folk deserve an 'introduction to the Live-DVD' perhaps split
      by domain

There are the core users who want to get better at what they do, and 
learn how to use their tool better.

   => a second type of workshop targets these users, workshops that
      go in depth into a specific product.

Geo-deployers want to share war stories, how they got stuff done within 
political, bureaucratic, commercial, and technical constraints. They 
want to learn from the experience of others.

   => geo-deployers need in depth talks which cover the complexity of
      different deployments

Geo-vendors and Geo-buyers want to present their solutions or discover 
solutions which can be obtained to meet their needs. They have or seek 
full fledged solutions to specific needs. They might want to offer a 
quick introduction to their software to those who are interested.

   => all attending presenters should get a chance to present in front
      of all attending seekers.

   => follow up is a top level activity; all presenters should have a
      'booth' even if that means there is a booth for 'everyone else'
      perhaps because they could not afford to pay.

   => on the fly organized mini-workshops should be a top level activity

The Geo-absent are part of the community as well. There are many who 
can't afford to come, some who chose not to come, others who don't know 
FOSS4G exists. Many are doing kick-ass work. They should be included.

   => the exposure of the absent should not be neglected.

Can one conference work for all these different geo-actors? Probably 
only with mixed results but organizers should at least consider what 
kind of experience each of these labels will have.

So, if I were organizing a conference, (and thankfully I am not, that's 
crazy hard, kudos to those that do), I'd do stuff like:

* Start the conference by talking with, not to, the attendees:

Recently, FOSS4G have started in passive mode. "Let's get a great 
speaker" seems to be the design. Fuck the keynote! The people of 
interest are those in the room, and those that could not be there, not 
the speakers however great they might be. So I'd get the attendees to 
meet the attendees.

I'd get them to stand up in groups (early morning exercise is good for 
everyone). Let's meet the youngest and the oldest, the first time 
commers and the old hands, those working on databases and those working 
on the distribution of blue flowering plants on the steppes of the 

Then I'd get a random sampling of shout-outs. Get 30 people to stand up 
and each state in 43 seconds what3 they play in the geo-field. Then I'd 
get the whole room to provide one minute solutions, pointers to 
projects, people, talks along similar lines. Start with some forewarned 
people to get the speed going, then pick on random newcomers.

The goal is build solidarity, build networks, learn names of some people 
and some projects.

* Start the conference with a 'State of G and FOSS for G,'
   along with an intro to the conference

This is a hard talk to give but there are several people who could do 
it. Basically it is an overview of the geo-world (*not just OSGeo!*) to 
get a sense of where we are in 2013 and what of that is at play. Then it 
addresses how FOSS is playing everywhere in that space. Finally, it 
presents what aspects of G and FOSS4G and workOnG are being presented in 
the conference. It is a history lesson, a lesson on current politics, a 
lesson on the state of developer tools, infrastructure, open data. It 
will be wrong, no matter, it will help everyone organize their thinking 
about what kind of work is going on and what parts of that work are 
presented at the conference.

This also ties into the next point.

* Make sure everyone is mentioned

Yes, the big, established projects kick ass and take no prisoners. They 
are great. However, they threaten to overwhelm the little guys, the 
newcomers, the totally surprising new way of doing things.

So all the projects, communities, efforts present should be censused 
early on and an effort should be made to discuss the known or new 
projects which are not around. Then they can be organized into groups 
and presented. A person could be assigned to present each group, say one 
for 'Data storage projects' and another for 'Sources of open data' and 
so on. Each one is at most a five minute talk but would be a good yearly 
review of where we stand and what we are tackling.

This helps everyone get exposure, discover what others are doing, and 
get an overview of the attendees and other projects.

* Split the workshops into different kinds

The workshops, as currently run, are too rigid. Usually there is over 
demand for some, under demand for others, and demand for many more than 
what is offered. The workshops need more breathing room.

The formal workshops work great for some projects and some users. 
However, there is also room for more flexible, mini-workshops on smaller 

So perhaps space should be found for workshops throughout the 
conference, or during the last 'hackathon' day. Interested users could 
go to a 'workshop lunch' or something. Smaller projects could announce 
during the conference they will hold workshops at hour X in the workshop 
space and then gather users for that.

Ideally the workshops would happen after the conference, once the 
newcomers have a sense of which they want to attend, so they could go 
from 'I am lost' to 'I can do stuff'.

BTW, bring your own laptop and pre-download X (or make sure the laptop 
runs the Live-DVD) is probably viable for many workshops.

* Give prizes for the whacky

FOSS4G should also be about innovation. The off-the-wall should be 
encouraged. The last day could include prizes (could be just a shout out 
and extra mention) for:

   - best new attendee (craziest dressed or some such)
   - craziest project of the year
   - most fantastically pointless project
   - best failure

This is just play, with a serious intent---value the new, little guy.

So my global conclusion seems to be 'toss out the keynotes, toss in the 
community.' The current exposure level of 'gives a talk' and 'gives a 
workshop' needs to be expanded to more levels by getting everyone out in 
public. There needs to be top level mingle space, hack space, 
mini-workshop space. We need to work to keep it FOSS4G and not FOSS$G.

My four cents, probably hopelessly unrealistic,


[1] The talk with the most 'buzz' at FOSS4G BA 2013 was a geo-doer
     who uses GIS to build political power for a community relative
     to the central government. The actual presentation was poor; the
     work was mega-inspiring.

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