February 11, 2008

SCALE 6x trip report

Author: Nathan Willis

The sixth annual Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) kicked off in Los Angeles on Friday with four specialized conference tracks. General talks and the expo floor both began Saturday, but attendees who braved the chilly 70-degree California weather a day early were rewarded with lessons in open source far removed from the typical desktop Linux fare.

Friday's sessions were divided between Open Source Software In Education (OSSIE), Women In Open Source (WIOS), and a double dose of Demonstrating Open Source Health Care Solutions (DOSHCS). The OSSIE track covered every stage of education -- from grade school up through high school, and all the way to college. It covered the intersection between open source and education from every angle: both incorporating computer programming into the curriculum itself, and using open source products like the Moodle course management system to build a school infrastructure.

Women in open source

As interesting as the OSSIE track was, I spent the majority of Friday dividing my time between the WIOS and DOSHCS tracks. Despite its name, WIOS was open to both women and men, and it featured a variety of topics, from the highly technical to the philosophic. For instance, on the technical side of the equation, developer Angela Byron spoke about the PHP-based content management system Drupal. Stormy Peters from OpenLogic examined the role of community manager -- an increasingly popular job title that can mean considerably different things to different companies and projects, encompassing technical tasks, management and business tasks, communications, and advocacy.

In background research, Peters had surveyed community managers from online communities across the spectrum, open source to closed. She noted that although women make up roughly 2% of the participants in open source projects overall, they occupy a significantly higher percentage of the community manager jobs. She posited some theories as to why -- including the fact that community managers lead by influence (rather than by decree), which meshes easily with the roles taught to women by Western society, and the fact that many men seem to be driven away from the job of community manager because of the perceived "touchy-feely" requirement.

Intel's Danese Cooper looked at the community of women in open source itself, in a talk entitled "Why Whinging Doesn't Work." Whinging (for those not familiar with the term) is British slang for complaining; Cooper defined whinging as a phenomenon wherein a discussion in a "women in open source" meeting devolves into an airing-of-grievances session. Her thesis was that whinging sessions are ulitmately unproductive; when they start, they overpower other topics of conversation and in the end do not encourage more women to join the open source movement.

Cooper named several open source women's groups and events that she felt had done a better job of focusing on productive, positive topics, such as the She's Geeky conference and Google's Girl Geek Dinner series. She ended the talk by recommending several steps that groups could take to break out of negative cycles, including recalibrating the language to reduce the amount of criticism, and consciously devoting time to ackowledgements of success. As audience members agreed during the question-and-answer time, the suggestions were valuable advice for all open source communities, regardless of gender make-up.

Open source in medicine

The DOSHCS track attracted a dedicated group of open source developers and users whose products and projects rarely get the attention given to other fields. The first talk I went to was a roundup of open source in medicine and health care, delivered by consultant and advocate (and, as he admits, lightning rod) Fred Trotter. Trotter surveyed the health care software lineup, which encompasses topics as diverse as electronic health care records, clinical research trials, and hospital management and automation.

Interestingly enough, the biggest name in the latter category is (and for decades has been) free software. The VistA system handles all aspects of management and recording-keeping for hospitals and clinics. It was developed collaboratively in the 1970s by the US government's Veteran's Administration for use in the nation's network of VA hospitals. As a taxpayer-funded project, the VistA code is by law in the public domain, and both open source and proprietary derivatives are marketed to non-VA hosptials.

As Trotter explained, VistA's open source nature has seen its share of difficulty and controversy. VistA-based software vendor Medsphere attracted widespread ire in the open source health care industry in recent years when senior members of its technical staff released some of its VistA-friendly toolkits as open source projects, and were subsequently sued by other members of management. The case was settled out of court, and Medsphere has since re-released at least a portion of the code as open source.

Still, the ordeal left the company needing to make up a lot of goodwill with the open source health care community. Medsphere has a presence at this year's SCALE, and even delivered a conference session. I spoke to several attendees about the Medsphere controversy. Some were willing to give Medsphere a chance, but others expressed doubts that the company understands how to collaborate with the open source community.

DOSHCS mounted concurrent sessions in two conference rooms over the course of the day, so I managed to sit in on only a fraction of the talks. One interesting talk was completely separate from the health care record and hospital management topics that dominated so much of the schedule. Doctoral student Brian Derenzi from the University of Washington presented work he has been doing to assist doctors and clinicians with children's health care in Tanzania.

Like many low-income countries, doctors and clinics in Tanzania use a UNICEF-designed diagnostic protocol called the Integrated Managment of Childhood Illness (IMCI) system. It is a step-by-step prodedure designed to help health care workers quickly and reliably diagnose childhood illnesses. The trouble is that, historically, the IMCI procedure book is long, complicated, and cross-referenced, leading many health care workers to skip or shortcut some of the procedures. Derenzi's group is working on converting the IMCI protocol into an step-by-step software application for use on PDAs, leading to fewer oversights and improved diagnoses. Initial trials on a subset of IMCI proved successful, and there is more to come in the future.

The day ended with a panel of the DOSHCS presenters, at which everyone discussed the advances made since last year's conference and the outlook for open source software in health care moving forward. Panel members agreed that open source is now seen as a mature player technologically, but they unanimously lamented the culture clashes that impede its progress. Doctors' offices and hospitals don't understand how open source can help them, and the US government doesn't grasp the open source development model. The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year for simple proprietary software components even when robust open source alternatives are already available.

The focused tracks of the Friday presentations certainly brought thought-provoking subject matter to those who were able to attend.


The second day began at 10:00 a.m. with the first of the event's keynote addresses, and wasn't officially over until close to 11:00 p.m. that night. Four conference tracks drew full crowds all day long, the expo floor was open and packed, and birds-of-a-feather (BOF) sessions filled the evening hours.

Last year, we described SCALE as a "laid back" conference, and the Saturday's events proved that reputation well-deserved. T-shirts and jeans were the dominant wardrobe for presenters, and the audiences were lively and unafraid to ask questions -- including when it meant interrupting or correcting a speaker.

Jono Bacon, the community manager for the Ubuntu Linux distribution, delivered the morning keynote. He talked about the overlapping roles and responsibilities that communities, distributions, and corporations have in shaping the future of Linux and open source software. No single type of entity (neither business nor community) has the sole responsibility to deliver success, he said.

In fact, he said, we might be talking about success in the wrong terms anyway, as if it were a state that could be achieved once and would persist forever. Instead, success is an ongoing process, characterized by recognizing opportunities and meeting them. Bacon concluded by talking about the relationship between Canonical and Ubuntu -- a business and a community working together to produce and maintain a Linux distribution -- and detailed some of the governance structures and processes the two entities use to keep their actions and interactions productive toward that shared goal.

Following the keynote, the day was filled with hour-long session talks, split into four tracks. Unlike Friday's schedule, the tracks were not organized thematically, and varied from case study to project update to technical how-to. Over the course of the day, I sat in on talks aimed at software developers, hardware hackers, desktop users, and interoperability experts.

User-centered design, video codecs ... and rockets

Celeste Lyn Paul of KDE gave a talk about user-centered design (UCD). Paul is a human-computer interaction designer, and presented an overview of UCD methodology and practices with an eye toward how it fits (or should fit) into the iterative development model used by most open source projects. She covered research methods and analysis tools that designers use to assess users' goals and experience, and discussed ways to incorporate UCD into existing open source software projects that might not have the same access to interaction designers enjoyed by proprietary software vendors.

Video editor Seth Kenlon's talk "Video codecs and the free world" was targeted less toward developers and more toward the general Linux user community. He presented a bird's-eye view of the video codec universe, from the basics of bitrate and frame rate to how proprietary codec vendors collect licensing income even when they seem to give the codec away for free (hint: you are paying one way or another, either through fees included in the cost of your operating system, through advertising revenue, or some other, hidden means). Kenlon briefly looked at popular Linux video players, and the means by which they support proprietary codecs. He concluded with an appeal to support free formats, or at least formats that are formal, multi-vendor standards.

In "Peace, Love, and Rockets," Hewlett-Packard Chief Linux Technologist Bdale Garbee spoke not about anything his employer is doing in the open source world, but about his hobby of model rocketry and how it led him into open source hardware and software. "I've been accused that my main hobby is turning my other hobbies into open source projects," he quipped. Garbee described the basics of model rocketry, including the simple (and cheap) avionics available. Just a few dollars can buy rocket builders a simple altimeter, a few more can equip the rocket with a means of automatically deploying its recovery chute, and so on.

Trouble is, all of the available options are proprietary and entirely closed -- no schematics, no programmability, not even documentation of the simple serial protocols the devices use. So rather than give more money to the proprietary vendors and reverse-engineer their products, Garbee has designed his own -- and is making the hardware designs and the software that runs on it open source. He has had low-volume printed circuit boards produced and assembled the hardware by hand. Garbee is slowly putting his work online at altusmetrum.org, with the software available under the GPL and the hardware designs under Tuscon Amateur Packet Radio's Open Hardware License.

Virtual worlds, vectors, and more

Liana Holmberg from Second Life (SL) creator Linden Lab presented an overiew of the company's history with open source, starting with the release of the SL viewer source code in January 2007. Over the following year, Holmberg said, a developer community grew up around SL, and Linden had to continually make adjustments in order to meet the community's needs. It rolled out infrastructure like mailing lists and source code repositories, and developed codes of conduct and collaboration agreements to protect both parties when independent programmers submit patches for Linden's official applications.

Linden recognized the community's contributions with an Innovation Awards ceremony in August -- having decided that the pace of development was so rapid that waiting a full year would be too late. Holmberg said there are now eight to 10 active SL viewer projects derived from Linden's official client. The official client has been ported to and packaged for multiple Linux distributions, and in September the company hosted the first Second Life Grid Open Architecture Working Group meeting to develop protocols for exchanging information, in-world objects, and user identities between the main SL grid and other online virtual worlds.

But the flow of source code has not been entirely one-way. Holmberg said Linden has released Python utilities developed in-house, such as eventlet and mulib, and has contributed to upstream projects like OpenJPG and OpenAL. The latter two libraries are used by the SL viewer itself, and are representative of the ongoing work of the viewer development community to replace proprietary components with open source alternatives.

Holmberg encouraged interested developers to join in that effort, as well as to explore SL and contribute new features. But, she said, the most important task for the long-term future of SL is the development of open standards and open protocols to connect SL and other online virtual worlds -- whether commercial, free, publicly accessible, or isolated within a single organization. Linden believes that interactive 3-D spaces like the one in SL are the future of online interaction, and wants to do what it can to build that future in an open and accessible manner.

The evening hours were filled with attendee-organized BOF sessions, most centered around a particular open source project or application. I went to the Inkscape BOF, where developers Ted Gould and Josh Andler demonstrated the new features set to arrive with the release of Inkscape 0.46 within the next few weeks. The new features include highly visible additions such as live path effects and a live "tweak" tool that allows you to deform and reshape drawing objects simply by pushing them with the mouse or tablet cursor. SVG Filters are also slated for a major upgrade -- the last revision of Inkscape included the first implemented filter from the SVG specification, Blur. 0.46 will include almost the entire SVG Filter spec, and will include a filter pipeline editor with which users can construct complex filter operations that can be easily reused among multiple objects.

Gould and Andler answered questions from the attendees and talked about the project's plans for the future. The roadmap isn't laid out in detail, but Inkscape may make another point release between 0.46 and the start of summer. The project is popular with students from Google's Summer of Code, and thus would like to make the 2008 SoC participants' job easier by starting them out with a fresh, stable release.


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