November 2, 2006

2006 Italian Linux Day: A nationwide success

Author: Marco Fioretti

The 2006 edition of Italian Linux Day on October 28 was the first in the six-year history of the event to be celebrated in more than 100 cities in every corner of the country. The prime-time news program on the main national TV channel TG1 spent almost two minutes on a story about the event ("and they didn't even make mistakes!", a LUG activist said).

The Rome edition took place in the Department of Mathematics of University La Sapienza and was organized mainly by the LUG of that same university. Besides the usual installfest, attendees could buy books on FOSS programming or download from the local wireless LAN their favorite distributions and lots of other software. One of the first and main differences I noted with respect to the 2005 edition was the fact that this year several dads brought their children along (more on this later).

Almost all of the talks at the Rome event fell in one of six categories: Philosophy, FOSS in Public Administration, Security, Programming, Networking, and Personal Experiences and Hacks. I contributed to the first one, speaking about the "risks and limits of some ways to live and advocate Free Software" -- basically a summary of my opinion pieces "Seven things we're tired of hearing from software hackers" and ""A Free Software manifesto for all of us."

Later, I attended an interesting session on how public officials should write tenders for FOSS to be used in public administrations. The gist of it was "if you want FOSS to be used in your ministry or department, make no or very little mention of FOSS as such. Just stick to facts." Public tenders, explained V. Pagani of the National Center for ICT in Public Administration, take years to go from publication to deployment. If they mentioned any specific product or technology, they would be obsolete before going into the field. For this reason, but also to be truly impartial, the tenders must speak only of, and require, services and functionalities based on open standards, modular architectures, and independence from any single vendor.

The same approach was confirmed by C. Panichi and E. Somma, who showed how FOSS is and will be used inside the Bank of Italy. They made clear that in such institutions license costs are not necessarily a problem, and fast and dynamic development is more a concern than an asset. What really matters is to spend the same or more money in really stable architectures and easily customizable services "rather than in taxes, er, software licenses".

Besides this, we learned that FOSS is doing well in the Bank of Italy. The Bank publishes every year several official studies, white papers, and other documents that summarize the status of the Italian economy. It turns out that a lot of the numbers in these reports are the result of complex econometrical analysis implemented with R, Octave, and lots of Perl or Python programs. As far as Linux itself is concerned, during 2007 it may become the most used server OS in the whole Bank. A cluster of 40 x86 Debian or Red Hat systems and one mainframe will be specifically devoted to a new, real-time monitoring system of the national public debt. This comes after about 10 years of successful Linux deployment and testing in the local offices.

Hard-core hackers had plenty of talks to follow. They ranged from virtualization to Socket Migration, Message Passing Interfaces, and programming with Qt or Python 2.5. Other interesting topics were the description of a homemade, solar-powered, cell-phone-connected monitoring server and an overview of Linux usage and development on mobile devices with JME or Maemo.

A truly national event

Several of the most interesting and original initiatives of Linux Day 2006 took place in smaller towns. They ranged from highly specialized talks on "Linux in medicine with Debian Med" in Padova to Freebox in Alessandria. The latter is a jukebox PC on which every visitor could create on the fly and burn to CD a customized playlist of copyleft music. In Milan "Elephants Dream," the first animated movie realized entirely with Free Software and content, proved the power of Blender. The high school students who assisted at the Compiz/Xgl/AIGLX demo in Palermo liked it so much that they thanked the speakers with a long ovation and came back in the afternoon to see more.

Several themes recurred all around the country this year. The most frequent ones were Trusted Computing, privacy issues, and streaming techniques. Many LUGs offered live video streaming of their events. Another favorite was the "Revolution OS" movie, which was played and discussed in several locations.

Having pointed out in an earlier NewsForge article that the FOSS community and disabled users must learn to communicate, I was pleased to discover that the program in Rome and other cities made a first step in this direction by including talks on accessibility issues. Here in Rome, S. Onofri introduced the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, starting from two facts. First, if Article 3 of the Italian Constitution states that all citizens are equal before the law, the same should happen before a Web site. Secondly, accessible Web sites advantage all citizens, not just disabled ones, because they are easily indexable and remain readable even on limited devices, or after a whole night spent hacking!

The human and playful side of FOSS

I found particularly noteworthy all the actions meant to show the "human" and fun side of FOSS. In Varese, for example, you could have joined a LAN party to play Tremulous, a GPL game based on Quake III. In Florence and Ravenna, FOSS met Italian haute cuisine with a risotto alla zucca e ramerinux and the Tortux (Tux Cake).

History tells us that the term "hacker" was originally used at the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club. Remembering this, in Prato they went beyond Ruby on Rails, controlling several model trains with Linux for the joy of all visitors. The staff in Casalecchio di Reno tossed pink plush penguins to the lyceum students they had invited, unintentionally causing much more joyous chaos than usually happens with bridal bouquets and garters. Speaking of humour, one of the official reasons for choosing the date of October 28 was that it is Bill Gates' birthday.

Schools' participation in events of this kind is never enough. The fact that, this year, Linux Day came just a few weeks after schools had reopened may have limited the number of classes that could attend, and should be taken into account next year. Apart from this, here are a couple of suggestions for Linux Day 2007, or any other FOSS show. One is to invite users with disabilities to try Free Software. The other is try to make parents visiting with their children the rule, not the exception. Organizers might set up "family tracks" or playgrounds where parents can leave kids to play with educational Free Software. The sooner you get them, the sooner (and better) they learn!

Marco Fioretti is the author of the upcoming Family Guide to Digital Freedom and contributes regularly to NewsForge and other IT magazines.


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