November 28, 2005

Italian Linux Day 2005: A smashing success

Author: Marco Fioretti

Linux and the Free Software movement are slowly but constantly getting closer to the general public in Italy. More confirmation came last Thursday, when the home page of La Repubblica, one of the biggest national newspapers, displayed a smiling penguin linking to a full-blown article presenting the "Fifth Edition of the National Day of Linux and Free Software, celebrated with 97 events in 94 cities from Agrigento (Southern Sicily) to Aosta (in the Alps)."

In Rome, previous editions of Linux Day had been organized together by LUG Roma and LUG Tor Vergata. This year they were joined from two more LUGs, the one at La Sapienza University in Rome and the one from Anguillara Sabazia, on the nearby Lake of Bracciano. The 2005 edition also was the first under the patronage of the Italian government's School Technological Observatory; the IT, Culture and Communication Department of the Province of Rome; and the Office for Communication, Equal Opportunities and Simplification of the City of Rome.

Smile, here comes the camera!

Entering the Faculty of Mathematical and Physical Sciences of Tor Vergata University, which hosted the whole event, was a pleasant shock. First of all, it was really crowded, much more so than last year. During the lunch break, the volunteers at the reception desk told me they had registered more than 800 people, and still more just walked into the several rooms without bothering to check in first. In the second place, the average age of participants was much lower than in 2004. Several high school classes came en masse and spent the morning merrily moving from talk to talk after their teachers. This, I've been told, was the result of a clever PR plot. Some weeks ago, the Linux Day Committee faxed invitations to all technical high schools in Rome, with the logos of all those important-sounding public offices at the top. This evidently made several principals think that Linux Day participation would look great on their schools' yearly report. All students who registered will receive a certificate usable to add learning credits to their personal school curriculum.

If you're ever put in charge of organizing a Linux Day, you might also want to copy the following trick: Don't burn and give away just CDs of GNU/Linux distributions or GPL software for Windows. Make available on CD all the free documentation and copyleft music you can find. The volunteers at the CD stand told me that such collections went even faster than the software discs.

Another successful, albeit funny, moment was right before the morning talks started. I was at the reception desk, asking for my speaker badge, when a young lady straight off a Cosmopolitan cover walked in, cameraman at the ready, and said, "Hi, I'm from [major national TV network]. My boss told me to come here and report on the show. What is this Linux thing, and who can I interview?". The regional TV channel eventually reported about a "Debian Show" after what the volunteer they interviewed had declared to be the coolest thing in Linux.

Something for everyone

I had been invited to speak about "OpenDocument: An opportunity that Free Software cannot miss." There were about 100 people in the room in which I spoke, many of them teenagers. I explained the cultural and economical dangers of proprietary formats, discussed how OpenDocument can solve them in the office space. I mentioned several developer tools already available for the standard. My only regret was that there was no time left for questions when I was finished, but later on, several participants told me that they had appreciated the non-technical spin of the session.

The program of this Rome Linux Day really had something for everyone -- and you can download the presenters' slideshows to prove it. The subjects range from "Linux for people who've never seen Linux" to Copyleft to the new memory management system of Linux kernels 2.6.1x, described by uber-hacker Andrea Arcangeli. Another important session was "Linux for Translators, Translating for Linux," which presented OmegaT as "the best open source computer-aided translation package for general texts" and also explained how to localize GNU/Linux software.

Two sessions I found interesting were on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and MediaPeer.

Paolo Cavallini of Faunalia, an environmental consulting firm, introduced open source GIS tools such as GRASS, MapServer and Qgis. He then showed how he uses them to correlate and display the most diverse geostatistical data. Did you know that you can, using only open source software, create a map showing the probability that wild boars will damage crop or attack farm animals in any given location? Note that this isn't just an exercise, there is real money involved. This is how, for example, parks administrations know where they'll need to reserve more funds to compensate farmers.

Cavallini also talked of the paradoxes and barriers to competition created by proprietary software. Closed source GIS software, sometimes less flexible equivalents of GRASS or MapServer, cost $30,000 or more. New firms, he says, have a very hard time bidding for public contracts if an administration considers only such tools reliable. He also said he's seen schools that paid for such software and, when urgent restructuring work made the lab where they were installed temporarily inaccessible, could not use them because the licenses could not be transferred to other computers.

MediaPeer, presented by Emanuele Somma, is a P2P system different from all others. It was developed to promote "greater [political] awareness and understanding of the political processes, and to expose issues and facts that do not normally get coverage from traditional mainstream media." Its developers want to solve the problem of distributing and cooperatively indexing, at the lowest possible cost, any political multimedia content, starting with the registrations of many years of sessions of the Italian Parliament collected by the radio station of the Italian Radical Party.

All in all, Rome's Linux Day went off with flawless organization. The only (external!) problem was in the nearby cafeteria, which was unavailable for a while, probably because it had never seen so many people on a rainy Saturday before. In a memo of thanks distributed Sunday afternoon, Fabrizio Sebastiani of LUG Roma noted that "surely this was the Linux/FLOSS event with the highest number of visitors ever held here in Rome," and pointed out how the joint effort of four different LUGs made such an excellent result possible.

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