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Reader Report from OSCON: The Tenth Annual Open Source Conference

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By Paul Mackay

Editor's Note: We encourage "Reader Reports" -- submissions from members of Worldchanging's global audience who volunteer to write up their notes from conferences, workshops and other worldchanging happenings they participate in. If you'd like to contribute your own report, please email editor@worldchanging.com.

OSCON, the Open Source Conference by O'Reilly, celebrated its 10th anniversary last month with a week-long conference in Portland, Ore. Now that open source software has become a firmly established movement, the most notable development this year was the increasing involvement of large companies, highlighted by Microsoft becoming a platinum sponsor of the Apache Foundation and Sun's purchase of MySQL earlier this year.

David Recordon talked about the need for open data on the Web and some of the recent protocols such as OpenID, OAuth and Open Social that have been initially developed by the community outside of formal governing bodies. He concluded by announcing the formation of the Open Web Foundation:

" ... an attempt to create a home for community-driven specifications. Following the open source model similar to the Apache Software Foundation, the foundation is aimed at building a lightweight framework to help communities deal with the legal requirements necessary to create successful and widely adopted specifications."

Benjamin Mako Hill from the MIT Center for Future Civic Media presented on the ways that errors in everyday technology can present opportunities for encouraging the right kind of thinking. He used ATM crashes as an example of how typically invisible thinking becomes visible to users, stimulating immediate public discussion. Open Source Software can be used to further decentralize control over the technology that has such a powerful role in our lives. See more examples of tech errors analyzed on Hill's site.

Dawn Nafus, an anthropologist working at Intel, proposed three challenges that could be addressed with the principles and practices of open source. In addition to bringing life to large datasets with enriched content and meaning, and increasing the number of technology producers in nations around the world, Nafus discussed ways that Open Source could be used to aid the growing global food and water crises, again emphasizing the opportunity to decentralize power. While open source technology is mainly being focused on cities and in urban environments, 50 percent of the global population earns their income from agriculture. As an example of mobile devices providing new tools to these communities, Nafus highlighted a project in the Congo where hunter-gatherer communities use GPS devices to geo-tag important food sources and religious sites, changing the conversation in their engagement with loggers.

Several sessions addressed connections between open source and wider issues. Derek Keats, executive director of Information and Communication Services at the University of the Western Cape presented "Creating & Supporting Free Software in Africa: the African Virtual Open Initiatives & Resources (AVOIR) experience". The AVOIR project includes networking and collaboration between several groups across Africa, development of the Chisimba application framework and potentially in the future the creation of a Collaborative Masters in FOSS. Even though a variety of application framework software was available when the project started, Chisimba was developed from scratch to begin with a clean code base and, more importantly, support building capacity for developing similar projects with hardware, collaboration tools, development software and educational experience. Some of the content on Chisimba has been mirrored onto local wireless networks between villages that cannot afford to have internet connections, to support schools experimenting with social tools like blogging and wikis.

In another presentation, George Conard reviewed the current state of the Mifos Initiative. The overview touched on some of the conference's recurring topics, like the importance of building community to create successful OSS projects, and successful technical strategies such as designing projects to allow developers to write modular parts of a larger system. Mifos open sourced their code back in 2005 but found it hard to attract the OSS community to work on a vertical banking application in a niche market. They are now planning to re-architect the code to support a more modular design and try to build a hybrid model around their internal engineering team and the wider community.

Mifos faces even larger challenges, including developing strategies for building a local ecosystem for maintaining the software and hardware, and evolving the project to be financially sustainable. But with microfinance currently reaching only about 150 million, those who find ways to expand could reap huge rewards.

Watch videos of OSCON presentations here.

Paul Mackay is a technology professional writing from Vancouver, BC.

Photo credit: Dennis Knothe.

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