[OSGeo-Discuss] Evolving FOSS4G [was: FOSS4G 2013 Nottingham Update ]
acuster at gmail.com
Fri May 10 10:31:25 PDT 2013
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.
=> 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
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
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,
 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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