The fOSSa 2010 conference in Grenoble did a good job to prove (since it’s still sorely needed, see conclusions below) that Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) isn’t some unreliable toy for amateurs.
FOSS for the Software and Web Industry
I have already described in other articles the lessons that ALL managers could have learned at fOSSa and its coverage of the relationships among FOSS, education and environmental sustainability. Besides that, there were lots of interesting, if highly technical talks (I really want to study GeoBi for example). Vincent Quint explained why the World Wide Web would not exist without FOSS. Web standards require running software to experiment, demonstrate and get early feedback from community and FOSS is perfect for this role. Yuri Glickman gave a very good summary of the testing guidelines that software developers should strictly follow to guarantee interoperability. Systematic, automated testing of this kind should be mandatory in any big software project striving for quality, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.
Open Government and governance in theory and practice
I and Joern von Lucke provided (I hope) a fairly complete overview of what Open Government is or should be about. von Lucke presented many examples of how good Open Government and Open Data can be, whereas I summed up the risks and traps that everybody working on these topics should be prepared to deal with (here is my fOSSa 2010 talk), Bartosz Lewandowski gave an overview of the FOSS-based municipal services in Poznan, Poland. One is public internet access points (running Fedora and Squid) to increase accessibility to municipal e-services and information. Another is a multimedia Poznan City Guide, with 1000+ editors reachable via Internet, WAP, or Cable TV. This portal, which includes online streaming and audio archives of City Council sessions, is accessible to disabled users also thanks to videoclips presenting selected portal elements in sign language. There is also an interactive map of Poznan cemeteries, to find the exact location of specific graves. Personally, I liked a lot both the pragmatic approach described by Lewandowski (“that ISO-9000 stuff was just useless for us… we only wanted to provide critical services to the greatest possible number of citizens”) and the fact that they did not use Google Maps because “we strongly believe Public Institutions should use their own datasets”.
Stopping software patents in Europe for good
Going back from implementations to general strategies, Fiorello Cortiana remembered the possible relevance for FOSS of something already possible in Europe, even if almost nobody knows it: one million of European citizens can sign to call directly on the European Commission to bring forward some initiatives. Cortiana suggested to submit in this way a law proposal to forbid, once and for good, software patents in the European Union.
General thoughts on the road ahead
All in all, I’ve enjoyed foSSa. My only real disappointment, so to speak, is not about the conference or its organizers in and by themselves, but in how people did (not) participate. fOSSa 2010 was not hosted by some bunch of stereotypical Computer nerds, but by a branch of a school that teaches Management) and has about the same numbers of male and female students and teachers. In spite of this, there where (at least in day 2, whose main focus was Education and Public Sector, not technical stuff) almost no women in the audience. I wonder why, and don’t think that the reasons recently given at the Open World Forum for little participation of women in FOSS would be sufficient. Regardless of gender, I was also surprised to find more people at the Apache presentation that at the Day 2 talks.
There’s still lots to do to promote FOSS in Europe, at this and other levels. Gijs Hillenius showed a table listing EU Member States and their use of FOSS: the column containing the rounded number of FOSS desktops per thousands of civil servants in each State contained almost exclusively zeroes. I and others were also skeptical about Gilles Dowek assumption that businesses would be happy to have employees that can use FOSS. While discussing Dowek’s talk, Glickman said that reality is quite different in many places. He specifically brought the example of Russia (the same country in which all NGOS recently recently received a potentially harmful Microsoft offer), where Microsoft training for teachers is free and Microsoft licenses are as cheap as 6 dollars, whereas some local research calculated the cost of installing Linux would be around 8 dollars. Roberto Di Cosmo replied that France was in an identical situation 10 years ago and sometimes still is.
I’ll close by passing to all readers an objection made to Martin Michlmayr from an anonymous participant: “you say that FOSS projects often start as cathedrals (developed by closed small groups) but must evolve to bazaars (apparently chaotic development by large numbers of losely connected individuals) to prosper. However, I see the opposite happening today, similarly to what happened with real cathedrals that started as simple, informal churches”. What do you readers think?