Wrap up of linux.conf.au 2014

This year linux.conf.au was in the sunny and very hot city of Perth, Western Australia. The conference itself was held at the University of Western Australia. My first impressions were positive ones. Accommodation this year was a choice of Trinity College or St George’s College, independently run but very close to the University. I chose Trinity so that I could have a (hopefully more comfortable) double bed and a private bathroom. It was a good choice; the room was cool, comfortable and clean.

UWA is an older university and the most prestigious in Western Australia; its eastern seaboard counterparts would be the University of Melbourne, University of Sydney or University of Queensland. The campus buildings harkened back to a more glorious era of higher education where learning was revered rather than distilled into neat packages, sold as stepping stones to a rewarding career. The sandstone campus evoked much character; peacocks were found in one quadrangle and the tropical sunken garden was an oasis in the unrelenting heat. The Undercroft and reflection pool stood almost as a monument to brighter times for higher education; strangely still in the midday swelter. Internally, the facilities themselves were somewhat dated. One lecture theatre, while equipped with good audiovisual, had 70s-era bench desks and swing-out chairs; not comfortable for someone of my girth. Other lecture theatres were more modern, and two had videoconferencing facilities, evidenced by the PTZ cameras nestled in the roof. The Reid Library on campus was lovely and cool, and also followed the coffee-with-a-book trend by having a downstairs coffee shop. Power points were reasonably plentiful; located strategically in the upper and side locations of lecture theatres.

Interestingly, UWA had a number of digital signage screens on campus. They varied in size, and the images and text on display showed little in common. Underneath I suspect they were using disparate systems. I did have an opportunity to talk to one of UWA’s Audio Visual Team, Mark, and he walked me through the digital signage product  called Concerto. It’s open source and used in a number of universities, and is a product I’d like to explore further.

It’s traditional for the last year’s conference team to play host to previous organisers in an event called ‘Ghosts’ – this year held at the Raffles Hotel. We weren’t disappointed; cider by the pint and delicious gourmet pizzas got us talking. It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with people who are considered royalty in our community.

Monday was the first day of the conference proper, and started with the first keynote.

Dr Suelette Dreyfus on the Surveillance state

Video link to the Surveillance State presentation on the Linux Australia Mirror

Suelette’s keynote was particularly intriguing, and delved into the current hot topic of surveillance in a post-Snowden world. Her speech started with an excellent quote;

“In every community, there is a necessary balance between the rights of the citizen and the powers of the state – ours is out of balance”

She highlighted the incredible power of surveillance technology and just how far the balance has shifted, noting the rise in growth of corporate espionage and corporate hacking, leading the the era of the whistleblower. She demonstrated how the conceptualisation of what it is to be a whistleblower is changing and walked through academic definitions of whistleblowing. From being seen as a ‘rat’ or a ‘turncoat’, the perception of a whistleblower has changed from that of a misfit or villain to become more of a hero (or anti-hero), based on the data of the survey her research team are working on. This shows a large public support for whistleblowers and whistleblower protection, including the ability to reach out to the media to have their story told. Part of this swing is due to the public losing faith in the parliamentary political system.She quoted Orwell;

“in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

and noted the similarity with the open source world and how the models it uses are also revolutionary. Dreyfuss went on to note how whistleblowers and journalists are treated in today’s world, facing pejorative action such as being detained and searched at airports and surveilled. She quoted several players from the military industrial complex in their responses to Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden and contrasted this with their public support.She went on to describe how taxpayers’ funds are being used to fund surveillance activities, such as the infiltration of WoW and online gaming communities – the infiltration of which was seen as an NSA ‘opportunity’.Dreyfuss articulated the concept of security saturation, where there is so much money going into the surveillance system that they can’t spend it all – it’s so big that it’s not possible to reveal it all. She questioned the benefit of additional spending on surveillance, drawing a blank as to what societal benefit it could yield.She described how the surveillance state grows in seemingly benign ways, giving the example of the ‘Insight Platform’ for tracking educational progress of children through a one-stop-shop model. The tender document for the platform was analysed and she drew threads from this to show how a child could be tracked from maternal and child health centres right through to year 12, questioning what sort of data would be stored such as religious data, and how long that data would be retained for and who would have access to the data. When questioned on the data protections for the Insight Platform, many of these implementation details were left to the vendor – even when the government was keen to engage with overseas vendors!She noted some of the technical developments and the increasing sophistication of surveillance and surveillance tools. She then used a ‘Report Card’ on building the total surveillance state to show just how ubiquitous surveillance is, showing how data is cross matched across different government departments and how co-option of big data players is occurring.To wrap up, she articulated a number of actions people could take to do to prevent the surveillance state, such as

  • getting political
  • writing privacy enhancing software
  • writing detection software
  • get involved in not for profits and NGOs that give tech support to journalists and average citizens
  • if you work for government, use your voice

Pia Waugh and Open Government

My other pick for Monday was Pia Waugh’s Open Government miniconf, given that one of the things I’m hoping to do is have the higher education system open up some more of their data sources. Some of the key questions discussed at the miniconf include how to get more people talking about open data. The concept of the data journalist was also discussed – noting that this role is focussed on analysis, seeking, visualisation, reporting and use of data – ie storytelling through data.

One of the highlights here for me was learning that data.gov.au is using IdeaScale for logging, rating and improving innovation ideas. I grabbed the opportunity and logged an idea to get eTax opened up;


Kate Chapman (@wonderchook) on Open Street Map

View the video for this keynote on the Linux Australia Mirror

Kate Chapman’s keynote on Open Street Map and the HOT project was inspirational. It covered how HOT is responding ti disasters with open street maps, using open mapping data. She started her presentation by outlining that most maps are not released under an open source license – you cannot reuse the data that they use. This makes it particularly difficult for humanitarian teams who may need a detailed map of an area in a hurry. They are using the HOT project to do mapping in advance.

She went on to explain that it was first activated in 2009 for the Gaza troubles, using iterative level of detailing – so that a basic map can be first produced, and then higher levels of resolution iteration after iteration. It was also used in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, particularly as the staff from the aid agency in Haiti died in the initial earthquake.

Tim Serong noted after the talk that it would be good to have plugin for Ingress which mapped out OpenStreetMap data as you hunted down portals – a great idea.

Darcy Laycock @sutto

View this talk on the Linux Australia Mirror

Darcy’s talk was a great one – on how to make APIs that developers love using. Most of it was common sense, but it was distilled in a very structured and meaningful way. Some of the key tips included using HTTP status codes for errors – as people are familiar with how the HTTP status codes work.

His comment that HTTP is for everything was accurate; HTTP is the protocol of the future and this is going to have major implications for technology such as the internet of things.

He also cautioned to make your API easy to explore – for coders, it’s another system to try and break, so make it easy for people to explore. They’re going to try and subvert it anyway, so encourage people to do so. He also encouraged developers to make the API ReSTful, as this is the generally accepted API standard, and is much nicer to use than XML-RPC or SOAP.

He also stated that change is inevitable, and that how you handle change is a sign of a good API. It’s much easier to introduce features than remove them. In particular, he spoke about versioning data versus versioning semantics – ie what does the endpoint do when you change the API. Data is much easier for people to deal with, however if you change the semantics it’s much more difficult to deal with. He also advised to use content type negotiation as another change handling technique.

He also noted that authorisation and authentication are hard problems to solve – so when building open APIs, don’t reinvent the wheel. People have generally through through the approach previously. OAUTH and OAUTH2 need special attention – you have to avoid developers having to write custom code to use your API. Keep the API simple and easy to understand so others can just ‘drop something in’.

On API design approaches, he gave a brief history such as JSON RPC, XML-RPC and SOAP, but SOAP doesn’t understand HTTP. He advocated the use of resource-based APIs and acknowledged the rise of ReST based APIs over the last few years, which leverage structs and paths. He cautioned to make a good API language agnostic so more people can use it, and noted the rise of graph-based APIs – with Facebook being the biggest and easiest.

He was a strong believer that APIs are for real people and should use user-centred design. At the end of the day,

“All the good APIs have something in common – the people who wrote it actually use it”

He also touched on the dangers of outsourcing APIs, which platforms shutting down, and the dependency that building off another API creates. He cautioned that you need to understand that the API can go away – you need to flag this from a risk analysis perspective.

Reflecting on this talk, the thought struck me that what Sutto was really getting at was an API maturity model, with best practices at the high end of maturity and worse practices at the low end. I’d really like to see him extend his talk toward this goal.

Alice Boxhall (@sundress) on Accessibility for Developers

Alice is a great presenter, and one of the things I liked most about her talk was that she wore a Google tshirt – in braille – to present.  Her talk was pretty basic on accessibility but was of a lot of use to developers who don’t necessarily think about the WCAG accessibility guidelines during development.

She showcased the ChromeVox screenreader, a Chrome extension, and spoke about the semantics of your interface.

There is an emerging standard in this space called WAI-ARIA. Although I’m pretty experienced with accessibility, I wasn’t aware of this development. From the site itself;

WAI-ARIA, the Accessible Rich Internet Applications Suite, defines a way to make Web content and Web applications more accessible to people with disabilities. It especially helps with dynamic content and advanced user interface controls developed with Ajax, HTML, JavaScript, and related technologies.

WAI-ARIA uses a number of roles that can be defined for a widget to give it meaning for someone with disabilities. This allows the screenreader to interpret the function of the widget more clearly – such as button, tree, dropdown etc. You then need to ensure you handle keyboard events such as onKeyPress and tabIndex appropriately.

She then explained how native HTML5 objects are turned into accessibility objects which are then ‘rendered’ by a screen reader using the aria-role attribute.

She gave some excellent tips for testing accessibility such as killing the mouse for starters, trying a screenreader such as ChromeVoc, Orca or Talkback, professional testing and talking to your users. She also cautioned to make your feedback mechanisms accessible – so that they can actually be used!

She cautioned that automated testing only catches low hanging fruit, and would like to see increased visibility of accessibility as a concern for developers. Accessibility testing should be performed regularly to prevent regression. She also cautioned that it won’t catch all possible tools, and that testing doesn’t negate the need to understand accessibility issues. The results then need to be acted upon in a cyclic fashion.

She then gave an example of how accessibility testing could be incorporated into workflow using the Capybara suite of tools; suitable for continuous integration.


There are many more talks that I went to, but unfortunately my netbook was playing up so I didn’t take a lot of notes. Mark Nottingham’s talk on the HTTP 2.0 protocol was another standout, and I also very much enjoyed Jon Oxer’s ArduSat keynote – about reducing the price it takes to to excellent science. Both inspirational. Again, a great conference, a great community and I can’t wait for linux.conf.au 2015 in Auckland, New Zealand.

On a closing note, because it sums up the conference so well, is Jenna Drawing’s take on the conference t-shirt – amazing as always.

Jenna Drawing's modified conference shirt, credit to Jenna Drawing
Jenna Drawing’s modified conference shirt, credit to Jenna Drawing

My must see list for #lca2014 linux.conf.au 2014

So, another year has sped around and it’s almost time to head to Perth for linux.conf.au 2014. The schedule has been up for a while so I have no excuse for not yet posting my must-see list.

Kathy’s must see #lca2014 list
Day Highlights
Monday Not being a hardcore sysadmin person, I’m really interested in the OpenGov miniconf, and what it has to offer open source communities in terms of opening up access to government data; but moreover making a difference to the open source mindset of government. Props Pia Waugh for running the miniconf. The Continuous Integration miniconf, run by Stewart Smith, will be worth a look but I’d like to see what’s on the schedule first. Automation of tests and test-driven development is a hot topic, and I’m interested to see what these practices have to offer multimedia and front end production as well as back end development.
Tuesday Haecksen, run by Lana Brindley, is always worth a look, but the schedule isn’t up yet. I’m intending to have a look at Jonathan Woithe’s music and multimedia conference, particularly Silvia Pfeiffer’s talk on node.js and the talk on web animations (which I’m presuming might cover SVG, HTML, JS and CSS).
Wednesday First up, Adam Harvey can talk to me about anything. He’s a brilliant presenter, and I love to learn more about where Android is headed. Writing documentation is fun, so I’ll go to that one too. Then I’ll catch the talk on HTTP 2.0 by Mark Nottingham and then the excellent Karen Sandler’s talk on bringing more women to open source. In the afternoon I’ll catch Pia Waugh on opening government data, and then Deborah Kaplan’s talk on accessible content. Then it will be time for the Linux Australia AGM, where I’ll need to take minutes.
Thursday Thursday morning might be a sleep in, but if I’m up it will be Ashe Dryden on Diversity and @codemiller on Elixir. Nothing really appeals to me for the rest of Thursday.. might go do something social or hallway track it instead.
Friday Friday morning will be Building APIs and VisualEditor for Wikipedia, then Alice Boxhall’s talk on Accessibility and TCP tuning for the web by Jason Cook. Totally bummed that Josh Stewart’s talk on engine hacking is up against VisualEditor.


Wrap-up of linux.conf.au 2013

After being on the core team for linux.conf.au 2012 in Ballarat, it was somewhat of a relief to just be a delegate for the 2013 conference in Canberra. Luckily, I’d pre-arranged leave from work a few months earlier before starting a new role, but the downside was that I knew there would be a few  work emails that would need attention during conf, so I packed my thumping 17″ gaming laptop. Big mistake. It weighs nearly 2kg, and doesn’t fit neatly into my backpack handbag anything.  Next time, the little netbook comes with me instead!

After a quick trip to Melbourne airport on the Gull Bus, where I got to catch up with a couple of people from work who were also going, it was time for a Ballarat crew reunion – we’d booked out a whole row on the Qantas flight up. While waiting for the flight, we also had a chance to meet quite a few other Victorians who were going up, and we all got introduced to each other. Win! It was great to catch up and reminisce about the amazing experience we’d had last year, and get excited for this year’s conf.

Qantas really impressed me on this trip – with buffeting winds, the pilot was able to give us a smooth takeoff and landing, and the service was impeccable – a far cry from some of my previous Qantas experiences. MEL to CBR was much shorter than I’d anticipated, and within an hour we were disembarking. My first impressions of Canberra Airport were that it was small – around the side of Adelaide airport. The lack of shops and eateries seemed surprising, but it was wisely pointed out to me that most of the travellers through Canberra are generally fly-in, fly-out, and not wanting to hang around.

A quick, well-organised shuttle bus to Australian National University’s John XXIII College and we’d arrived at linux.conf.au. Registration was an absolute breeze. Organisers this year had sent people ‘boarding passes’ with a barcode that was used by Rego Desk to print badges. So, so easy. Next, it was off to Barton and Garran Hall for accommodation. On entering the room, my schwag had already been placed on the desk, with a t-shirt in my size, and my pre-ordered KeepCup. Fantastically awesome!

#lca2013 KeepCup #lca2013 KeepCup

That night, it was off to Debacle for Ghosts’ dinner. Absolutely delicious pizza and tapas, and a lovely way to get into the spirit of linux.conf.au. It was a great chance to catch up with Ghosts past, and hear their views on how the community had changed over time. Then, time for a delicious gelato (hazelnut of course!) on the way back before a quick shower to stave off the oppressive humidity – and an early night.

Bdale Garbee

Monday kicked off with a keynote by industry luminary Bdale Garbee, whose presentation centred around some of the changes and directions he’d observed in the technical direction of Linux. He noted that Linux was gaining ground in the mobile space, as the entire world shifts from the desktop to the laptop, to the tablet and to other mobile devices. His key message was that end users want applications that work seamlessly across platforms, and noted the key pickup in cloud services that offered these experiences. He criticised developers for making it difficult for end users to be able to modify their own applications, and similarly advocated that students should be taught more theory rather than vocational-style ‘how tos’ in a particular product or vendor suite. He also noted that there is no incentive for manufacturers to save costs by loading free and open source operating systems on their hardware instead of Windows; Microsoft provide significant financial incentives to OEMs not to load alternative operating systems – so it’s not in their financial interest. This was an eye-opener, given my recent negative experiences with getting a Win8 laptop to dual boot and having to work around UEFI. A solid talk, but not one I would classify as inspirational.

I had intended to sit in on the MobileFOSS miniconf to get a better handle on what’s happening in this space, but I needed to catch up on some work so headed back to the dorm rooms.

Radia Perlmann

Tuesday started with a keynote by Radia Perlmann, inventor of the spanning tree network protocol, who provided an overview of the invention of a number of key network protocols, including IP. The really interesting take away from this talk was that the best protocol is not necessarily the one that gets adopted – the selection is not a rational process, and evangelism is a key part in driving forward a number of initiatives. She walked the audience through the spanning tree algorithm using a series of pictures – which communicated the point very well. Her engaging nature, passion, use of appropriate anecdotes and delivery style made her an excellent speaker. I will never forget the story she provided in closing, where she recounted where her son, at that time a toddler, had come running up to her with what appeared to be a sore arm. After kissing it better she asked him ‘What happened?’, to which he replied ‘I got pee on it!’. In Radia’s words,

Make sure you’re solving the right problem

Then, it was off to the dorm rooms to grab my Arduino Lilypad gear for my Haecksen Miniconf presentation.

Fee Plumley

After my talk, Fee Plumley spoke on open cities and nomadic creative digital culture and one of the quotes she used in her presentation really resonated;

The law doth punish man or woman That steals the goose from off the common, But lets the greater felon loose That steals the common from the goose.

Her ideas were around how decentralised communities, based on open source models, can operate more effectively than existing urban constructs. Really amazing lady, and wish I’d had more time to spend chatting with her.

Ruth Ellison

Ruth Ellison, a UX practitioner based in Canberra had one of the most inspiring talks at Haecksen. She opened with a great quote;

Everyone has lasers in their garage, right?!

and proceeded to tell the audience about how she uses open source technology to make laser-cut jewellery using a laser cutter. She’s an active member of Canberra’s Make Hack Void and Maker communities, and one half of the jewellery business CrankyBot. One of the most inspiring pieces she had was a 3D jewellery visualisation of climate ranges, plotted in SVG and then cut with a laser cutter. Inspirational stuff.

Katie Miller

Katie Miller  presented about teaching girls FOSS, and went through a case study of the best way to deliver teaching of FOSS by getting people actively involved, having tangible outcomes, and setting the difficulty level right so that people were challenged but not overwhelmed.

Next, I really wanted to see the Browser Miniconf sessions which dealt with the history of web development, and advancements in HTML 5, but caught up with work shennanigans ;(

Wednesday morning was the PDNS breakfast, which I didn’t go to.

Rusty Wrench goes to Donna Benjamin

During the conference opening, Donna Benjamin was awarded the Rusty Wrench award for services to the Australian open source community. Very well deserved.

Next, I took Peter Chubb’s excellent shell tutorial – I’m a bit rusty and it was a great refresher.

Adam Harvey

One of the standout presentations for me was Adam Harvey’s talk on ‘Users delighted’ which covered advancements in CSS3, HTML5 and user experience (UX). The key takeaways for me were that everything we do in this space needs to make it easy for users to do what they need to do, independent of what or where they’re doing it from. He’s a strong advocate of responsive design, and an excellent presenter. One of the key quotes from the talk was;

We were at the pub, as you do, because if you’re a web developer it’s the only thing that numbs the pain of IE6

Adam advocated the implementation of open web standards, and noted frustration with having to write browser-specific workarounds in CSS for different browser families.

Thursday’s keynote was Bunnie Huang, who invented the Chumby. I got caught up with moar work shennanigans and missed it. I also wanted to see the Git tutorial, but, well, moar work shannanigans…

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Friday’s keynote was packed with people eager to inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee speak. His presentation had two key tenets; the first was the openness and power of the web, especially under HTML 5, and the second was the tragic suicide of anti-SOPA campaigner Aaron Swartz, who had been the target of prosecutors for several years for alleged breaches of copyright. Berners-Lee’s presentation style was non-linear – in many ways it was like trying to drink from a firehose. The main is clearly a genius, and his plethora of ideas took a lot of concentration to keep pace with. He is a staunch advocate of the openness and neutrality of the net – and in his words he summarised the issues down to

no spying, no blocking

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at his meeting with Julia Gillard. One wonders whether Stephen Conroy would offer him an audience.


In summary, linux.conf.au was a brilliant, tiring, exhausting, overwhelming, inspiring, demanding experience. And I can’t wait to do it all again in Perth next year.

NOTE: Videos from #lca2013 are going up on the mirror at the time of posting.