Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

FOSS4G ... And We're Done

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So- the last day of FOSS4G for 2007- roll on 2008 in Cape Town (must start saving). Definitely a resounding success!

For me today, the theme was GeoFOSS as a) a business and b) as a community. For the first case, there were several presentations by geospatial consultancies on doing GeoFOSS as a business- what makes for best practices and so on. This seems to suggest a certain maturity in the discipline-an idea that was picked up by Adena Schutzberg of Directions Magazine in her review of the conference at the close. This was followed with talks by Chris Schmidt of OpenLayers fame and Howard Butler, and also by Tyler Mitchell that focussed on aspects of the open source community.

In reverse- Tyler gave a really good presentation on the work of OSGEO. In particular I was interested in some of his facts and figures: Since it’s inception in 2006 it has grown from 9 projects to 13- these represent 4.6 Million lines of code commited by 182 developers, equating to 1253 person-years of work. estimates the worth of this code at 69 Million US Dollars. That’s big money! The main point that he made, however, is that OSGEO’s mandate is to support and develop these projects, raise awareness of them, provide infrastructure support- but most of all to reach more users. A worthy cause.

Back to Chris and Howard’s talk. If I felt uncomfortable with anything I heard this year it would be this talk, I’m afraid! Last year I struggled with some of the overt Open Source “nazism” which dictated that if you weren’t a dyed in the wool open source user who shunned all forms of proprietary software then you weren’t worth listening to. If those guys were around this year, I missed them, and I’m glad – this year was a lot more laid back. But, I digress. Chris and Howard did make some very good points around where to get support, and the steps you need to go through to make it easy for people to help you. Basically be concise, polite and gracious. Absolutely. BUT… I do have a few problems with the idea that, as a new user you are committing some kind of offence and will get a permanent black mark against your name if you don’t phrase your question exactly right or somehow know how best to approach people. The point about being new is that you are new, for chrissakes! You don’t know all of this, and to be shunned because you make a simple error first time around isn’t going to help. I understand that developers must get sick of answering stupid questions, and are doing this for the love of it, not the money, in their spare time, and so on, and I admire them immensely for their skill, dedication and enthusiasm but they do need to remember what it’s like to be new to something- even they were beginners once. If people continue to be annoying or lazy then fair enough, but give them chance or you’ll scare them off and the long term effect of that is that people stop using your product. What’s the point of all of your hard work then?

OK- rant over. Highlight of the closing session was the Sol Katz award which went to Steve Lime, father of Mapserver. A brilliant choice- as Mapserver is probably the way most people got into GeoFOSS in the first place. I’ve already talked a little about Adena’s closing review- in which she talked about the growing maturity of the community. I certainly felt that way here, but I’m about to go back to the UK where it doesn’t really feel like that. As an example- I have just been catching up with my RSS feeds, sadly neglected over the last few days and I came across a short review by Ed Parsons of the Association for Geographic Information (AGI)’s 2007 conference in London (caution- this link doesn’t look very permanent to me). They claim to represent the geospatial industry in the UK, and their conference is described as “the UK’s largest dedicated event for the geographic information community” yet in Ed’s review and the information on the conference, the only mention of anything remotely open was Nick Black doing a presentation on OpenStreetMap (he gets around!). Ed even went so far to say that many people hadn’t come across it before, which seems odd given how much press there has been about it. To be fair, there appear to have been a number of neogeography presentations, and I haven’t had a proper look at the programme so I might be wrong but if the number one industry event in the UK doesn’t talk about GeoFOSS then we’ve a long way to go. I’ve had a degree of interest at the conference about working towards a UK chapter, and I managed to hook up with about half of the delegates who come from the UK, so it’s important that we maintain the momentum. Sign up on the wiki if you’re interested, but I’ll keep on posting about developments so don’t touch that dial… (sorry, wrong analogy).

So- many many thanks for a great conference- especially to Paul Ramsey who did a great job as chair and host- Victoria is a wonderful city that everyone should visit, and I’ll forgive him for the woeful lack of seals and otters as long as we see a whole pod of whales tomorrow when we go whale-watching…

See everyone (in a virtual sense) back in the UK on Monday!