April 18, 2007

National FOSS conference scheduled for Romania in May

Author: Bruce Byfield

eLiberatica, the first national Romanian conference on free and open source software (FOSS), is scheduled for May 18-19 in the city of Braşov. The conference is the result of 18 months of planning by Lucian Savluc, a Romanian immigrant to Canada, assisted by FOSS licensing consultant Zak Greant. The goal is nothing less than unifying FOSS promotion throughout Romania and encouraging its adoption by business through grassroots organization. The goal, says Greant, "is to help build a broad, sustainable, effective free and open source movement in Romania that includes programmers, university students, and business people."

The conference was born when Savluc and Greant started brainstorming about a project that would employ all of Suvlac's skills. After some discussion, the two hit upon the idea of helping to promote FOSS in Romania. "I decided I would like to do something to help the open source community and the country where I was born," says Savluc.

In general, Romania's adoption of FOSS seems to lag behind that of Western Europe or North America. The reason, Savluc suggests, is that, after the fall of communism in 1989, when Romanian businesses were in a hurry to develop their high-tech infrastructure, well-established proprietary software seemed a safer choice than FOSS, which was still in a relatively early stage.

Also, Greant points out, for the last decade and a half, Romania has been a center for outsourcing. "If you're outsourcing, you want to use the same tools as your customers," Greant says. "So people weren't looking for open source. They were looking for proprietary solutions."

Today, Romania is developing rapidly. An average programmer makes about 30% of what a German counterpart does -- yet that figure still represents a doubling or even tripling of income from just a few years ago. However, according to Savluc, FOSS in Romania is still mainly the province of geeks and young computer students. Savluc estimates that there are about 20-30 active FOSS communities in Romania, but says that they are generally little known in business or to the Romanian public. Outside the geek community, he says, people are starting to hear about FOSS, but acceptance is slow. The average executive may have heard of GNU/Linux, "but that's all." For Savluc, the question was, "How do we accelerate this process?"

Organizing the conference

Savluc's answer was to create the Romanian Open Source and Free Software Initiative (ROSI). Its first goal is to organize eLiberatica. Even incorporation as a non-government organization is on hold until after conference.

Savluc began by contacting friends and colleagues in Romania. Some were skeptical of his plans, and especially of his ability to organize the conference from outside Romania, but many helped by volunteering or suggesting other contacts. Savluc started discussing the conference online in the spring of 2006, "and things started to move very fast, actually."

The biggest break for eLiberatica came when Savluc returned to Romania on holiday in the summer of 2006. During the trip, Savluc enlisted the sponsorship of Agora Media, the leading IT media group in Romania. Besides assisting with the organization in Romania, Agora's involvement has also helped to lend legitimacy to the conference in the eyes of Romanians, especially those in the business community.

"If we just wanted geeks to come," says Savluc, "We'd probably just hold a BarCamp and keep the conference cheap. But Romania needs this technology for its own economic needs." He hopes to attract a broad mixture of the FOSS and business communities, so that the two can start interacting more closely. He is deliberately staying clear of government involvement or sponsorship, as he worries that it might discourage managers and executives from becoming involved due to memories of Romania's recent communist past.

Searching for speakers and sponsors

Although organizing the conference from North America sometimes presents challenges, Savluc and Greant point out that their location makes contacting potential speakers and sponsors easier. Many people in the FOSS community have responded almost immediately, either accepting an invitation or suggesting others who might want to participate. In particularly, Greant singles out Doc Searles and Tim O'Reilly as being especially helpful.

The conference schedule is still being finalized, but confirmed speakers include Monty Widenius of MySQL; Brian Behlendorf, a founder of the Apache project and CollabNet; Jim Willis, director of egovernment and information technology in Rhode Island; Kurt von Finck of Ubuntu and the GNOME Foundation; and Bogomil Shopov, a Bulgarian FOSS activist.

As the conference nears, Savluc and Greant are still open to adding other sponsors and speakers. Because they want sponsors who, in Greant's words, "are fully aligned with the event," the organizers have reject overtures from Microsoft. The trouble is, Romania is not a major market for most multinational companies, so attracting sponsors has been difficult. The organizers, Greant says, are still looking for sponsors "who can help lend credibility to the event. The endorsement of any individual or organization would be an assistance to us. There are other speakers in the wings, but it depends on sponsorship" whether eLiberatica can afford to bring them.

Measuring success

Savluc stresses that eLiberatica is only a first step in creating a national FOSS movement in Romania. However, he hopes that the conference will become an annual event.

Meanwhile, for this year, Greant says, "What we hope to come out of the conference is broader acceptance of free software and open source so that people can actually discuss it -- so if a developer goes to a company and proposes a FOSS solution, it is not automatically kiboshed. A sign of success will be how easy it will be to get open source accepted in places where it's appropriate. From the outside, I think it will be interesting to see how our Romanian contacts do. But, like all aspects of change, we know that we're only a small part of it. We hope we can contribute."

Even though the conference is focused on the needs of Romania, Greant says, "It's meant not just to serve Romania, but anyone who can attend. The endorsement of any individual or organization would be an assistance to us. So come to the conference. There's a lot of history in Romania, and a lot of culture change right now."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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