December 16, 2008

Ubuntu-sponsored FOSScamp builds community

Author: Robin Rowe

The week-long Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) meets every six months at changing locations to discuss what will be in the next release of Ubuntu. The mostly unpublicized FOSScamp always meets the weekend before. The FOSScamp un-conference has no program, no invited speakers, and costs nothing. Like some sort of geek Woodstock but smaller, the Ubuntu hip just show up.

On Friday morning, December 5, participants started arriving at the ost recent FOSScamp, held at the Google campus in Mountain View. The large whiteboard in the lobby advertising conference sessions was completely blank. Anyone can pick up a marker and schedule a presentation in one of the five conference rooms. The speakers are self-selected and self-proclaimed.

As a hundred scruffy hacker guys with backpacks mixed with jeans-wearing corporate types in the lobby, the whiteboard began to fill in with sessions such as Linux Audio, Easy LDAP Mgmt, Bug Triage in KDE, OpenID, Bootable USB Keys, Bzr/Loggerhead, Handheld Use Cases, encryptfs, Visualizing Digital Media Collections, OSS Writing, and many more. An un-conference like FOSScamp includes surprising open source topics you may not find at a chaired conference. And not every available slot gets filled with a topic. A hot topic may not have much scheduled against it, as speakers are also attendees and don't want to miss it.

"You can come unprepared and create your talk-topics on the spot," says Mirco Müller, who traveled to the event from Berlin. "One might have some ideas initially before arriving, but you might also be inspired by the people you meet there on-site and the projects they represent." Müller works with OpenGL, Cairo, gstreamer, and real-time computer graphics. He gave a presentation on Blurring in Cairo, describing a new GL-accelerated backend for Cairo that he's building. Blurring is useful for tasks such as drawing glowing letters in applications. Apple's Photo Booth application does that, but it's not easy in Linux. During his session, Müller showed how to install his OpenGL version of gstreamer, gl-gst-player, which does real-time HD video playback.

"Participation is ownership in open source," says Open Source Initiative board member Danese Cooper. "If you don't show up for the ongoing conversation, you're not in the game. Most interesting are the edge topics -- not the ones about how to code better Python, but the ones about how to approach documentation, and tech writing generally, from a FOSS perspective. I also appreciated the session about exploring open source business models from the point of view of which have netted monetary success."

"I admit I went to FOSScamp mostly because I was also attending UDS," says Adam Sommer, who works as a Linux sysadmin for a small college in North Carolina. "The great thing about FOSScamp is the laid back attitude. Less regimented meetings make for a great atmosphere for learning about new things. The chance to interact with very smart people is a great opportunity. The most valuable sessions for me were OSS Leadership and a session on technical documentation writing.

"In the writing session it was great to learn some things from people who write technical articles on a professional, or semi-professional basis," Sommer says. "The leadership session was insightful for me because it was my first time to hear about the experiences of an OSS project leader, aside from Ubuntu leaders."

"FOSScamp is a good opportunity to meet other PackageKit developers, and see how we can solve our problems," says Adrien Bustany, who traveled from Grenoble, France. "I was able to go to FOSSCamp because [Ubuntu sponsor] Canonical sponsored my trip. I'm working on the Qt bindings for PackageKit."

Many of the attendees at FOSScamp work for Canonical, which has more than 200 employees in 23 countries. "I got to go because I work for Canonical," says Lars Wirzenius. "I enjoy seeing the variety of different free software projects present. It is always nice to see the kinds of things other people do. I especially liked hearing about CinePaint, which I hope will be useful for me when I dabble in photography." During my session about Paint-Photo Editing, Wirzenius volunteers to help with packaging my CinePaint project for Ubuntu and Debian. Fostering cooperation between distro and FOSS projects is what FOSScamp is all about.

"The most interesting aspect is finding people coming from different experiences and different projects all together sharing their own experiences," says the Ubuntu Italian Translators team administrator Milo Casagrande, who works on the Italian translations for GNOME. "It's my first experience at FOSSCamp. It doesn't have a specific track. In the real spirit of free software, it's free and up to you to create it."

"I think it's important for artists and marketing guys, not only developers, to go into conferences and un-conferences," says Xubuntu marketing lead Pasi Lallinaho. Based in Helsinki, Lallinaho works on Ubuntu Web sites, artwork, and global television advertising. "FOSScamp is a good place to meet other people and get actual feedback from developers, because the feedback given online, on IRC and forums, is sometimes very fuzzy."

"I learned a lot about technical issues that are mobile-specific," says KDE BugSquad co-founder Alex Spehr. "I found myself observing how people used their mobile devices. Discussion about them popped up at the most random times. I also found the OpenSocial session to be very interesting. The combination of mobile computers and social networking is very powerful."

The point of FOSScamp is to build relationships between Ubuntu developers and FOSS project developers, known as "upstream" in Ubuntu terminology. "We're very interested in upstream relationships," says Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon. "Community is fundamentally a soft science," says Bacon, "but too many people think you can't measure it. You can measure it. What we're doing is figuring out methods to measure interactions so we can then build solutions to problems. We've done that with bugs and we're now starting to do that with patches."

Bacon leads a session called Making UI Experiments Possible. Bacon seems to be asking the impossible: how to safely run experimental user-created gadgets as user desktop components. "How do we get user feedback?" asks Bacon. "What about plugins for the desktop? How do you install temporary gadgets like a Firefox plugin?"

Delivering and installing software isn't enough. Bacon wants to measure usage and open a channel between the user and the upstream. "My role is to enable our community to do good things and to do productive things," Bacon says. He believes that stronger community can result in more free software being made. "How many more people take photos now that Flickr exists?"

I've spoken at many open source conferences -- Open Source Days, FOSDEM, GUADEC -- but being able to invent sessions in the moment and to experiment with session topics was new to me, and freeing. It was fun interacting with the audience, being in more of a discussion format than a presentation. During the two days of FOSScamp, I led twice as many FOSScamp sessions as I would at a typical conference, including Paint-Photo Editing, OSS Biz Models, OSS Leadership, and UI Year 2020.

In about six months, the date and location of the next Ubuntu FOSScamp will be announced on Jono Bacon's Ubuntu blog. Don't miss it!

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