January 20, 2007

Open house for open source: Linux.conf.au day four

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SYDNEY -- The seventh Linux.conf.au continued Thursday at the Kensington campus of the University of New South Wales in Sydney with talks, tutorials, and Open Day.

I didn't attend as many talks on Thursday as I did during the first half of the week because I had my own talk to deliver at 11 a.m. on marketing open source projects. You can view it online, along with most of the other talks. I've encountered very few "drone and point" talks at LCA 2007, perhaps thanks to a presentation at the speaker's dinner on Monday on improving presentations and making them more engaging.

Herding cats and influencing people

After lunch, I decided to see what Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's Community Manager, had to say about "How to Herd Cats and Influence People."

Bacon is an entertaining speaker, and his advice for organizing a community -- get groups of people together, get teams to talk to each other, get new people involved, and make sure the environment is conducive to getting something done -- was spot on.

He also talked about ways to encourage potential contributors who are "missing a piece of the puzzle," which means folks who could be active and productive contributors, but presently lack motivation, some skills, or confidence.

For example, Bacon suggested having "bite-sized" tasks ready for new contributors, to let them have an easy entry into the community and let them feel that they've accomplished something early on. This allows new community members to wade in a bit slowly, and encourages them to take on bigger tasks after having initial success.

Of course, most of Bacon's message was framed in the context of Ubuntu, but it was abstract enough that any member of an open source project would benefit from the talk.

After Bacon's talk, checked out "Open Source Art," by Alexander Reeder. Reeder discussed how he had repurposed an old laptop into a display for weather information. It was an interesting look at one way to make use of hardware that's gone past its expiration date, but it wasn't heavy on practical, hands-on information.

Lightning talks

The final session of the day that I went to was a lightning talks session, where anyone could get up and talk for a few minutes about their project, or just ramble for a bit about whatever was on their mind.

Typically, the lighting talk sessions I've attended have been fairly tight affairs with time limits rigidly enforced. This time around, some of the talks were interesting, but several were of the rambling variety, and the time restriction wasn't strictly enforced.

One of the interesting talks was a discussion of how to contribute to OpenOffice.org (OOo), which included suggestions for helping with marketing, quality assurance, and localization. One interesting suggestion the speaker made was for users to spend just one hour a month going through distribution bug trackers to check old bugs for OOo. If a bug has been fixed upstream, it saves time if someone closes the bug to help make sure the bug database is current.

I also thought that the White Trash lightning talk was interesting, particularly since this was the first time I've heard of the project. White Trash is a dynamic whitelist plugin for Squid that allows users to automatically whitelist Web sites without the intervention of an administrator. It allows users to add sites they need to reach to get their work done, but alerts them to any attempts to get outside access by any malicious pages or software on their computer.

Open day rocks the newbies

After the lightning talks, I wandered over to the Mathews Pavilions, where Open Day, a free five-hour exhibition for the public, was getting under way. One of the fun things about Open Day was meeting some of the family members of the local open source enthusiasts, and watching people being exposed to open source and cool hacks for the first time.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) table, which had demo units of the devices, was consistently packed with curious attendees. The Linuxchix table, which had a display of important women in computing, was also busy throughout the day, and the Open Source & Gaming booth kept a stream of geeks busy attempting to match dance moves with a computer.

Another fun project was the Open Source Segway, which had long, long lines of attendees eager to try moving a few meters on a homebrew Segway. The Open Source Segway has been on display most of the week near the Mathews Pavilions, and I spotted Linus Torvalds and a couple of other notable folks taking it for a spin.

I found the Solar Panel Car to be an interesting project, if somewhat odd-looking. The car was on display just two days after finishing a trip from Perth to Sydney in just five and a half days -- a record -- completely on solar power. Sadly, they weren't giving rides.

There were also tables for OpenOffice.org, Fedora, Novell, Red Hat, Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and many others. About 40 different projects, companies, and institutions were there to talk to the more than 700 Open Day attendees.

The only problem with Open Day was that the Mathews Pavilions, where all of the exhibits were set up, was jammed to capacity most of the day. Moving around in the pavilion was something of a challenge, and it was a bit difficult to hold a conversation with the Open Day exhibitors with all the noise.

However, the close quarters didn't deter many of the Open Day attendees, and my informal polling of the attendees indicates that the event did a good job at educating and interesting folks who aren't familiar with the open source community.

A read-write conference

In addition to all the presentations, talks, tutorials, and organized activities, Linux.conf.au offers ample room for attendees to communicate and set up their own fun. All of the registered attendees have access to an attendees mailing list, where we can post invitations to after-hours parties, try to organize ad-hoc birds-of-a-feather (BoF) sessions, or (in a few cases) try to recover items misplaced during the conference.

For more real-time discussion, the organizers also set up IRC channels on Freenode for LCA 2007 and for each room where presentations are being held. Luckily, chatting on IRC seems to have been kept to a minimum during talks, but I did see a few attendees doing some real-time transcription of talks for the benefit of users not in the room.

Overall, Thursday was another fun and informative day at LCA 2007. Friday is the last day of the conference, though some informal post-conference activities are scheduled for Saturday, including a pickup cricket match and a trip to the Blue Mountains put together by the Linuxchix organizers.


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