October 19, 2005

Open source and politics ride the same bus

Author: Jay Lyman

A recent bus trip and tour of Oregon State University's Open Source Lab (OSL), and its cavernous collection of "the most important racks in open source," had political and technological progressives sitting side by side.

The Bus Project, a progressive political non-profit organization, got together with the Portland Open Source Software Entrepreneurs (POSSE) and others in Portland's open source community, and organized the three-hour trip to OSL to illustrate the need for change in politics and software. Part of the trip's purpose was to highlight the recent Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) held mid-month in Portland.

Developing and driving

Environmentalism and open source evangelism have a history in the northwest US, particularly with outfits such as FreeGeek, but Oregon's position at "the cutting edge of public policy" is adding to the region's fertility for open source industry and politics, said Bus Project Chair Jefferson Smith.

The discussion on the ride to and from OSL was mainly about how open source software is doing to the IT industry what the Bus people want to do to government. Call it "disruptive" policy. Passengers discussed the value of grassroots politics, of leveraging free and open source software (the Bus Project's site is hosted using Ubuntu), and of bridging today's digital divide.

Oregon Representative Phil Barnhart addressed the 50 or so passengers -- an eclectic bunch of local government officials and supporters of "solar server farms" and wired inner-city schools -- at OSU. Barnhart is one of the first legislators to get into the open source act, having introduced the Open Source Software bill in 2003. The bill, which failed to pass, would have required the consideration of open source software by Oregon state agencies. It was re-introduced into the Oregon senate this year, local open source advocate David Pool told riders.

Barnhart said Oregon, like Massachusetts, is struggling with a growing amount of data in proprietary formats that it cannot access. Conceding the distributed nature of open source software development, Barnhart said he nonetheless would like to see investment money and jobs in open source landing in Oregon, as has occurred with OSDL and the Open Technology Business Center.

Inside the open source lab

The highlight of the trip was supposed to be the lab, and it did not fail to impress. The lab's Alex Polvi and Brandon Philips started out by noting that the lab supports open source with systems administration and software development.

Polvi, a lab infrastructure ace who did systems administration work for Mozilla, explained that the OSL serves as one of two co-location centers for Mozilla; the other datacenter is in Santa Clara, Calif. Philips, who put his open source coding abilities to work for NASA this summer, said that the lab is opening doors for young developers like himself.

"Everyone pulls each other along," he said, adding that with open source, the students are working on real software and systems that get real use.

Next, some visitors took a Willy Wonka-like tour of the datacenter, deep in the basement of the OSU campus building. The lab's associate director, Scott Kveton, also showed visitors the upstairs facility, where -- like a hopeful homeowner getting a remodel or addition -- he laid out the master plan to bring all of the college's, and much of open source community's, connectivity upstairs.

Down in the basement, the tour party walked by racks and racks of servers that host a veritable Who's Who of open source: PHP's mail server, the build infrastructure for Gentoo, racks for Debian and Drupal, and more. The excitement and pride of the entire open source community shone through as Kveton presented "the three most important racks in the open source world," which were doling out downloads and support for Mozilla, Debian, and Gentoo.

Kveton said putting OSU's student talent to work running the plumbing for open source communities "frees them up from the administrative stuff. We're providing infrastructure to groups so they can do their main thing."

The trip home provided more time to talk about the convergence of open source software and progressive politics, and how the Bus Project could put open source programs and people to work.

Some of the groups involved, including the lab, have posted pictures of the event, which also got some local coverage by open source supporters.

"To be the headquarters of a non-headquarterable thing, this is key," the Bus Project's Smith said of the trip. "I think it's a really important experience in how we re-design democracy over the next few years."

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