Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

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FOSS4G 2013 Thoughts

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aka that mythical time post FOSS4G 2013

So where to start? This feels really weird. I first discussed bringing FOSS4G to the UK in 2006, at the first “official” (don’t start on the lineage of the name, this isn’t the place) FOSS4G with my colleagues at the time, Chris and Leif, and Tyler Mitchell. It was (is?) still on the list of objectives in the UK chapter pages on the OSGeo website. Fast forward 7 years and I’m on my way home from Nottingham, with more t-shirts than I started off with, achy feet, bone-tiredness, and a weird kind of numb feeling about what has just happened.

(Small self-congratulatory bit for the team) I think we did a good job! We could have done some things better, and we had a lot of luck, but in general it worked well. Thanks to the team. We couldn’t have done it without every single person. That’s all I’m going to say on that- lots has been said (go see Twitter and come back if you’re interested…). Back? OK. So this is just some general thoughts on the event, and what it’s like to organise something like FOSS4G. There will be a more formal debrief for the FOSS4G cookbook, this is just a non-objective brain-dump- you have been warned (and people from the Portland committee might want to look away in case you get put off)…

  1. Conference organising on this scale is tough. Take the level of toughness you expect, and multiply it by at least two. If you knew how tough it was, you wouldn’t do it. Really.
  2. You learn a lot about yourself and your fellow team members over the year. You spend a lot of time together, on and off-line, you get excited, frustrated, stressed and scared. You learn that everyone handles this differently, and at the end of it, you really are a team- and not just of colleagues and acquaintances, but firm friends.
  3. Don’t expect, realistically, to have either time or headspace to think of anything else in the run up to the event. Become a task-management ninja so that your boss isn’t forced to sack you.
  4. Only attempt this if you have an understanding boss!
  5. Get a thick skin, as “Conference-Organiser’s Law” states that “Someone will complain about EVERY.SINGLE.THING” and you can’t take every comment to heart, or indeed act on every complaint. Similarly, those people that troll the event on twitter? Don’t bother. Really.
  6. Everything costs a lot of money, and at the end of the day you have to a) balance quality with cost, and b) pass those costs onto the delegates. People will complain about the cost (see point 5) and some people will feel entitled to a free ticket, but honestly there’s no such thing unless they are happy to camp/sleep in their car, and bring their own packed meals/drinks every day, and not use any conference wifi, power, or other facilities.
  7. Anyway, who should decide who is entitled? Is it better to cater for established core developers who have undoubtedly contributed an enormous amount to OSGeo, or new blood who might be the core contributors, movers and shakers of the future if they get inspired by attending FOSS4G?
  8. For future organisers- take advice from previous events but don’t listen to it unless you want to- it’s your turn so, within the bounds of logistics and OSGeo requirements, make it your own.
  9. Also, take up a hobby that allows you to clear your mind when you’re really stressed. Mine has been rock-climbing (try thinking about work when you’re clinging onto a rock with only your fingers) but YMMV.

Some thoughts from a punter’s perspective (warning, I only got to see a few talks so this might be totally un-representative):

  • This event was about maturity- the big players are all well settled now, so what we had were talks about new releases and features. Previous bright-young projects are becoming more established too. This is all great! It’s getting even harder (let’s say ludicrous actually) to dismiss this stack as not fit for purpose, whatever that purpose is. Similarly we had keynotes/plenaries from some really big companies, talking about open source. There might have been complaints about getting guys in suits on the stage, but it demonstrates a growing confidence in our software and you’d be crazy not to see the advantages that might bring.
  • There’s some great work going on in the services part of the stack too- which is fantastic from an interoperability perspective and again, making our software an even more viable option for companies alongside their existing packages, which I definitely see as a “softly, softly catchee monkey” approach. I also saw a couple of decent talks on metadata- making life easier to connect and store, which is definitely an area I’m interested in at the moment.
  • Arnulf Christl won the Sol Katz award, which is not only totally deserved but dreadfully overdue. Paul Ramsey did one of the best closing keynotes that I’ve seen in a long time, as well as more presentations and workshops than all the other presenters put together, or so it seemed! Lots of people “from the internet” met each other face to face for the first time, in one case after 10 years of working together on the same project. People had fun.

So, what happens next? I tweeted recently that I’m looking forward to some “doing” rather than “organising”. This is not just related to FOSS4G, but a growing feeling that I am happier and more useful doing low-level tinkering in things that I’m interested in, than being on higher-level committees. So my plan for the next year is to step back from any committee stuff of any description. I want to continue my python learning. I want to get to grips with PgRouting and WPS, particularly from a UK ITN perspective. I want to do a release of Portable GIS that works with QGIS 2.0 and PostGIS 2.x. I want to blog about “some thing I found out that newbies might find useful”. Finally, I want to get back to giving talks about what I do (after all, who wants to listen to talks on conference organising?), and how others can get involved.

To those that came to our little “event”, thanks for visiting a smallish rainy island in the North Sea! Maybe see you in Portland next year. End Update.

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