Archive for the ‘free software’ category

Supporting Sahana!

12 December 2009

I had a great time interacting with the SahanaPy folks  and the young Turks from Bikaner at FOSS.IN 2009!  I identify most closely with that aspect of FOSS.

Sahana is a free disaster management software which helps us mitigate human grief in the aftermath of a disaster. Great guys doing great work!

Another rant of mine about FOSS was that T-shirts were not to be had! I mean I can’t  barge into a double-Greek, geek session on GNOME/MAEMO/KDE and pick up a Tshirt. Not quite the thing I do!

So the next best thing is to order a T-shirt for myself which @ajuonline was kind enough to help me with.

So here’s my snap in token support of Sahana…oops SahanaPy!

Supporting SahanaPy

Another reason I like Sahana – thats my niece’s name!

Making out at fossdotin!

7 December 2009

In a way I’m having a one-sided love affair with FOSS. For those elegant people of exquisite taste who read my blog regularly, FOSS stands for Free and Open Source Software aka FOSS.

FOSS.IN or #fossdotin is one of the largest open source conferences in India held each year in Bangalore, this being the eleventh year. FOSS devotees cluster here year after year to enjoy this most prominent of Indian FOSS techno-fests. The focus, as the event has matured, has graduated from newbie recruitment and FOSS evangelisation to encouraging Indian developer contribution to the FOSS community.

Now the blurb says…

never mind,  I can’t find it now… but I got the impression that all FOSS enthusiasts are welcome.

Now I am not a coder, or even a heavy FOSS user except for, the occasional Linux install and VLC. I couldn’t see myself as a ‘delegate’ – the term used to denote those attending!

But I said, what the heck! It gave me an excuse to come to to Bangalore! Spend time with my brother Arun and his family! Meet my Wikipedia friend – Shyamal! Meet Kishore Bhargava, an old friend from ILUGD and co-organiser of fossdotin and, hopefully, some others!

And very importantly, I wanted to see if a virtual stranger/newbie/NOT-geek could find relevance in this oh so holy developer’s conference.

So I duly registered online and shelled out my Rs 750/- the first day. Horror of horrors! A very long line of delegates stretched in front of the registration window! One hour waiting in the sun! Intolerance to accept staus quo as regards environmental conditions being one of my vices, I encouraged the straight liners who were all baking our brains in the sun to coil into a cool serpentine shape under tree-shade so that under more convenient climes I could yap with those around me!

Its easy to break the ice with a group of young, intelligent and eager people. Just ask them who they are and what they are doing! I spoke to some of the guys waiting in the line with me! They were, of course, much younger, had done tons of cool stuff and were gung-ho on FOSS, its future and the role they played and would play!

Finally, my turn came and I was in proud possession of a large plastic-coated card garland, I proceeded to the checkout where I was told that the delegate kits would be issued another day! Reassured by this piece of advice which reminded firmly that I’m in India, I went inside. I had previously been worried that I would miss the opening session but good old Indian Standard Time came to the rescue! The talks began late. Atul Chitnis spoke at length and after that, the conference began.

The awesome main auditorium. #fossdotin on Twitpic

The Conference Hall at FOSS.IN (Image - AbhiBera on twitpic)

The conference was held at NIMHANS Convention Centre which had enough space and auditoriums for the meet. Arrangements, (not withstanding the small glitches earlier mentioned) were generally good. Now this conference is run by volunteers and one could see that they had put in a lot of hard work. There was wi fi for all but with each person hooking up his laptop, mobile phone and the kitchen sink, it tended to crawl.

This year about 1400 people registered. I dont have the exact figures but I suspect between 850 to 900 people turned up, which is still a very good thing! Besides the usual numbers of people from Bangalore a lot of people from outside Bangalore and some from outside India came to the conference. A group of 30 college students from Bikaner were possibly the largest group from outside. A Gautemalan IT guy on holiday in Rajasthan diverted himself to Bangalore to attend the conference. A TI chip developer who helped work on the software connected with the Itanium processor came over from the US to reminisce over the ‘golden days’ of computing in Bangalore about two decades ago!

Sadly, the male to female proportion was very high. Its a pity that more women are either not into FOSS or were not present at the conference. Now a guy can just buy a ticket, come to Bangalore, stay with a friend or share a sleeping bag or so. But a young girl cant just do that no matter how much she would want to – her parents would probably send her only if she had close friends or relatives in town. Its sad that your sex limits your opportunities.

I felt at home sometimes, most of the times I felt an outsider. So I strove to find ways to make my presence meaningful and the conference useful to me. I succeeded to some extent.

FOSS.IN has many facets – talks, BOFs (birds of a feather get-togethers), workouts and Projects of the Day! Speakers spoke on a variety of topics ranging from highly technical and way over my head to reasonably general where I could understand the non-tech part and get the general drift of things.

Open Street Map

The conference draws a number of western hackers and they held interesting workouts! The hardware hack where the hacker showed how to solder electronic components and make small open hardware projects interested many. I was also curious of the Open Street Map project where with the help of a cell phone and cheap data logger the workout added new features to the Bangalore Open street map. There were people hacking Maemo, Fedora, KDE, Gnome and so many other things.

I got the impression that Indians were participating in many open source projects at code level. Some did this as a hobby, some as part of their job, yet others as both! But I could not help feel that given the tremendous size of our computer industry, the number of contributors was a small fraction of what it should be! FOSS.IN plays a golden role in encouraging this developers to contribute to FOSS!

I made new friends and acquaintances, Some of the people I met I knew them from their blogs, posts, twitters, email groups etc (not irc handles, I’m not yet a geek, you see). It was especially nice to meet Tarique Sani, Kalyan Verma, Kiran J, Koustubh Naik who I knew from other interests – nature, wildlife, photography and Wikipedia.

People were curious to find a non-coder, army officer come all the way from Pune and so I did have some good conversations a la The Last Samurai!

One of the workouts really interested me. I am an army officer and combat engineer. When calamity strikes, the Army is invariably called out and the engineers are the first responders to disasters.

So the SahanaPy workout was especially interesting to me. For information of my audience, let me tell you that Sahana is a free, open-source software which is used to manage activities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Conceived as a lesson learnt from the 2004 Tsunami in Sri Lanka, it is now a flourishing open-source package in use in many parts of the world both during peacetime and calamity. SahanaPy is a fork of Sahana in Python scripting language to make the program more extensible and easier to maintain.

I spent quite some time with the SahanaPy guys – Ajay Kumar, Fran Boon, Shrikant Bohra and Michael Howden. From my side, I could narrate some first hand experiences in responding to disaster in the Indian context which I hope they found useful.  They told me all about the wonderful program Sahana and how it was being used all over the world.

At the #sahana hack space on first floor. #fossdotin on Twitpic

The SahanaPy workspace (Image:ajuonline on Twitpic).

I also met a bunch of interested youngsters from the Bikaner students group. These young people were not only familiar with Sahana but had deployed it during the recent IOC fire but were quite disappointed that the IOC had not partaken of their efforts. On Ajay’s suggestion,  we all had a very interesting group discussion. This was the high point of the conference for me.

Col. @ashwin_baindur talking about what a first responder does... on Twitpic

A very interesting BoF on first response to disaster management. Yours truly on chair (due to my arthritic knee).

Another interesting thing for me was to see Kiran Jonnalagadda and others hacking MediaWiki using Python to analyse history and try to detect POV pushers working in stealth mode.

I did try to set up a wiki-editing session but did not succeed as I had not brought a laptop to the conference. The organisers had specifically cautioned against this but circumstances prevented me from doing so! Kishore lent me his Mac but I learnt that I’m bad at using the Mac too!

The evening of the penultimate day, I twisted my heel on the uneven pavements around NIMHANS and was hors-de-combat for the last day. That really sucked. I missed the robotics keynote, Kiran’s Wikipedia talk and the rock session at the end!

Anyway, I came back happy. I had had a fairly interesting time at FOSS.IN.

The handouts at FOSS.IN were neat too – I got a white FOSS.IN coffee mug and a nice 2010 wildlife calendar with photos by Kalyan and sponsored by Tarique’s company. I wished though that they had also made T-shirts for which I would have been happy to pay!

However, if one intends to get full benefit from such an event, its obvious that you need to be a FOSS code writer. If you just like FOSS like I do, you could enjoy being a passive observer. However I would like to be a do-er and shaker and this time I couldn’t be one.

So who knows? Lately I have been getting the urge to hack simple GIS tools and also to learn Python. Perhaps I’ll come back to FOSS.IN a few years later in my own right as a FOSS contributor.

Till then, FOSS prevails!

On why FOSS is vital for science…

26 November 2009

From this article on Journal on Science and World Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2007

An Africa institution of higher learning has ‘got’ FOSS exactly right. Any hope for Indian centres of learning?

So why is open source software so vital for science? In the introduction to Voices from the Open Source Revolution, Chris DiBona, Sam Ockman, and Mark Stone point out:

Science is ultimately an Open Source enterprise.

The scientific method rests on a process of discovery, and a process of justification. or scientific results to be justified, they must be replicable. Replication is not possible unless the source is shared: the hypothesis, the test conditions, and the results. The process of discovery can follow many paths, and at times scientific discoveries do occur in isolation.

But ultimately the process of discovery must be served by sharing information: enabling other scientists to go forward where one cannot; pollinating the ideas of others so that something new may grow that otherwise would not have been born .

Where scientists talk of replication, Open Source programmers talk of debugging.

Where scientists talk of discovering, Open Source programmers talk of creating.

Ultimately, the Open Source movement is an extension of the scientific method, because at the heart of the computer industry lies computer science.

This shared method benefits both the industrial and scientific communities. Science gains a ready platform for distributing its ideas, and industry gains a wellspring of freely available ideas and innovations from which to construct new products and services. Ultimately, the free availability of information will help Africa to become competitive in the global economy, as well as turn the focus of technological innovation towards the real problems of the continent.

The only reasons I can think why Indian institutions aren’t already doing something like this en masse, in what appears to be a no-brainer as far as the nation’s best interests are concerned, are mediocrity, ignorance, carelessness, incompetence, laziness and greed!

Read more about this issue on this blog here:

Image credits – Tux (authors Larry Ewing, Simon Budig and Anja Gerwinski) & Gnu (Aurelio A. Heckert) from Wikimedia Commons. Free Software Foundation’s ‘join us’ tag from their web site, under fair use!