Diversity, Freedom and Education at the Open World Forum

This year I have been invited to present the first results of my research about Open public data at the 2010 Open World Forum. Due to the subject of my talk, I was also invited by Glyn Moody to a panel on Open Democracy (see Glyn’s comments on that panel at CWUK).

I have to confess that I went to the Open World Forum expecting to find some pompous, self-referential, corporate driven marketing show. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and this is what I’ll try to show here. The pounding, rave-style music at the beginning of each session was really depressing. A few talks by some politicians were not among the highest moments of the Forum (Glyn already explained why and I agree with him). This said, the Forum agenda was quite balanced and diverse. Personally I found it an interesting, useful event, one I would have been glad to attend even if I had not had to present my work. The Forum explored many sides of openness, not just the commercial one of Open Source software. Here are just a couple of examples.

Openness to diversity

The starting question of the track titled Think Tank - Open Diversity Summit: Why women matter? was more or less “Women constitute 25 to 30 per cent of wider engineering community, but only 1 or 2% in Free/Open Source software development. Why, and what are the consequences?". Here are, as food for thought, some thoughts from ladies attending the track:

  • (in FOSS) women are told to start with documentation, translation and similar support activities. We must not settle for that, there’s more to do.
  • This is really a cultural issue, quite different from country to country. I (background: highly educated Indian family) went to a software engineering college in the USA where I had zero white women as classmates.
  • Women are pragmatic, they (have to) do what brings in money
  • In many cases, FOSS development started as a side activity done in their free time by male geeks. Women have much less free time.
  • Comment from another lady to the previous remark: “male geeks… sometimes financially supported by women”
  • Now men have to adapt to let women in.
  • Women refuse competition inside hard meritocratic environments. They prefer to find more productive things to do. Including becoming managers of the same communities)
  • “Canonical is an equal opportunity employer, but since our foundation we have started receiving female CVs for technical job openings only in the last 12 months or so”
  • The day women go to FOSS, it will finally become mainstream.

Openness to Freedom

This, instead, is a synthesis of the closing keynote from Eben Moglen:

  • You’ve talked of the same things for two days now, so in order to not annoy you I’ll talk of something completely different: freedom.
  • Free Software is a conspiracy to save the 21st century from itself.
  • We make software that supports freedom; then we put that software everywhere; then we turn Freedom on.
  • Modern technology lets others know much more about you than it was possible in the 20th century totalitarian regimes.
  • Today the American economy is shifting to just doing data mining.
  • Servers (and with them Cloud Computing, Software as a Service and so on) run by others are a source of powers and control on you for those who run them.
  • This is not the original vision of the Internet and of things like the X server. X was something running on your computer, offering services on your behalf to you and others. That’s the way it should be with all servers, from blogging to email, social networking, everything. (Marco’s note: here’s my proposal on how to achieve this with email, with already available Free Software)
  • Networks must return to be real peer to peer networks as it was in the original vision of the Internet.
  • We want to move away from cloud computing to a federation of personal micro-servers that communicate directly with each other through the Internet protecting our privacy and letting us to decide who sees what of our data. Servers that are very small, extremely cheap, can run days and days on batteries and will be available very soon.

Last but not least: Education

People talked of lots of things at the Open World Forum, but no matter what the subject was, from Open Government and Data (are people ready for them anyway?) to personal servers, eventually many speakers would note: of course, none of this will really work without widespread, real (open) education.