September 29, 2006

FreeDel 2006 participants learn about FOSS in India

Author: Mayank Sharma

About 200 seasoned and budding programmers from all over India gathered at the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi earlier this month for FreeDel 2006, a two-day event on FOSS in education organized by the Delhi chapter of the Indian Linux Users Group.

The event, in its third year, featured talks and discussions to help the education, government, and non-governmental organization (NGO) sectors understand the usefulness of FOSS. There were no stalls, no sales pitches, and very few tuxedos, but there were plenty of open-eyed students taking notes, getting pointers, and recording IRC handles from their favorite developers.

Day One

ILUG-Delhi's Kishore Bhargava started the proceedings on September 16 by introducing the attendees to the FOSS movement and the community, and encouraging them to join in LUG activities. He noted that, due to poor organization, the event schedule had been almost completely rewritten to separate the technical talks from the lecture-style presentations, and requested that the attendees use the wireless connectivity available on the campus to check for updates on the event's wiki.

The first speaker of the day, Justice Yatindra Singh of the Allahabad High Court, seeing the students in the audience, began with background on the importance of FOSS, then moved on to detail the adoption and application of FOSS at his court. He pointed out several hurdles during the rollout there, and stressed on the benefits of open standards. Singh also spent some time explaining software patents and their effects on the computer industry.

Singh was followed by Abhas Abhinav, a member of the National Resource Center for Free/Open Source Software (NRCFOSS), who discussed the goals and achievements of the center and explained how such efforts could be replicated nationally. One of the first goals of the center was to introduce FOSS in the IT curriculum at colleges. Abhinav shared the difficulties the center faced convincing colleges to append FOSS electives into their courses. They not only trained teachers from more than 50 colleges but also marketed the courses to students, pointing out career benefits. He concluded by requesting the audience contribute to the project in ways such as assisting with the textbook, training teachers and students, and preparing class notes.

After lunch, three scientists from the National Informatics Center (NIC), D. C. Misra, V. S. Raghunathan, and Srinivas Raghavan, discussed how, using FOSS tools, they had completed projects in various parts of the country. Misra talked about the Open eNRICH project, a customizable content-management system to deploy localized portals that NIC jointly developed with UNESCO. Raghunathan discussed how NIC has been able to make available census data using their own OpenGIS tool. The scientists also mentioned instances when they trained several hundred people on popular open source software such as OpenOffice.org. However, they noted the difficulties they face with supervisors who do not appreciate their money-saving efforts but only stress quick results.

Simultaneously, in JNU's computer lab, Gora Mohanty from Srijan Technologies conducted the first workshop of the event, on localization. He briefed the 20-odd participants on the importance and benefits of localized computing and gave them a tour of a localized Fedora installation.

Later, Triveni Yadav hosted the first of a two-part Linux System Administration workshop. Yadav, who does corporate training, gave the participants printed notes that explained and illustrated several Linux administration utilities.

Students and coders conducted several hands-on, tutorial-style talks and demos parallel to the presentations in the main auditorium. T. T. Harish, a student at the Jaya Engineering College in Chennai, who was introduced to FOSS through NRCFOSS's elective subject, shared details about his career counseling application, which involves a fair bit of artificial intelligence (AI) to help a student choose the right career.

Sayamindu Dasgupta, during his talk on GStreamer, demonstrated capturing audio/video from the command line using the various gst-* tools. Dasgupta, developer of the GStreamer/GTK-based Hippopotamus application, in true hacker style, could find no better way of explaining to his audiences than taking them over some 200 lines of C code.

Nishant Kavi introduced his audience to Nokia's S60 open source Web browser. Kavi explained the challenges of mobile browsing and layout issues before moving on to the S60's architecture and its features.

Anant Narayanan, a student from the Malaviya National Institute of Technology in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and a Google Summer of Code participant, gave the last talk of the day. His presentation on building Web applications using the Dojo and MochiKit JavaScript toolkits was divided into four parts. In the first part he debunked the AJAX hype and explained the transition from the traditional Web applications to the more interactive approach thanks to the Document Object Model (DOM). In the second and third parts he showed how Mochikit and Dojo make designing an interactive Web site easier. The final part of the presentation was a brief run through several projects that use the two frameworks.

Day Two

Technical talks and demos dominated the second day of FreeDel. Friji Karthikeyan, a FOSS hacker from Mumbai, began the day with a tour of PC-BSD, covering installation and the impressive and easy-to-use PBI application installer. She was followed by Indranil Dasgupta, who spoke on open source IT asset management tools OCS Inventory NG and GLPI. He explained how these tools made the harrowing task of administering more than 200 desktops a walk in the park. In discussions after his presentation, Dasgupta asked the audience to check out another new Python-based tool, ZenOSS, for IT monitoring.

Meanwhile, Abhas Abhinav presented a talk on lowering the management cost of Linux servers to a packed room. After explaining the issues and concerns in deploying and managing Linux-powered servers in an organization, Abhinav demoed his company's Debian-based open source deepOfix Messaging Server, which he said can prepare a messaging server in about 15 minutes. Sticking with the office, Mitul Lambani ran over setting up the popular Asterisk open source PBX.

The concluding part of Yadav's system-administration workshop again drew many people. Yadav did a little revision and then explained several important system administration tasks.

Several presenters tailored talks for technology students. Ramakrishna Reddy, a quality assurance engineer from Red Hat, introduced students to testing GUI applications using DogTail. Later on, Pawan Jaitley gave a demo of piping audio between remote boxes using tools such as rawplay and mkfifo, as discussed in his article, use and abuse of pipes with audio data. Antano Solar John spoke on his psychologist AI engine, which currently works with information fed in as text, and asked for volunteers to help him develop it further. Another student, Dhwani Desai, who is doing bio-informatics (BI) research at JNU, talked about open source BI tools.

The final talk in the main auditorium was on GNU R, a data analysis tool. The speaker duo of Abhishek Upadhyay and Nishant Sharma first introduced and then showed off the tool's capabilities in detail, with several sample problems, such as analyzing and plotting 10-year stock market data.

Bhargava closed the event with a discussion of career avenues around FOSS.

Conclusion

The two days were very informative, and everyone enjoyed the post-event get-togethers. The organizers and the speakers did a nice job of promoting FOSS tools. But while many students attended, few teachers and fewer NGOs and government representatives were at the conference. Although the enthusiasm from the student community is encouraging, FOSS enthusiasts will need support from the faculty and the administration at these institutions. Andrew Lynn, assistant professor of BI at JNU, mentioned that invitations were sent to several colleges but, he confessed, they went out with very short notice. Next time around, the organizers say they plan to give themselves ample time to ensure maximum participation from the real decision-makers.

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