Wrap up of linux.conf.au 2014

Posted on January 15th, 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;

https://datagovau.ideascale.com/

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.

Conclusions

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

Posted on December 16th, 2013

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.

 

Software Freedom Day Melbourne 2013 – Free software in a free society

Posted on September 22nd, 2013

Andrew Pam on content creation with free and open source software tools

Although Jon Lawrence of Electronic Frontiers Australia was billed to start the day, Andrew Pam kicked off after Lev Lafayette opened the session. Mirroring a presentation given at linux.conf.au in in Canberra in January 2013, Andrew explored many of the free and open source software tools available in rich media content creation. He introduced the topic by demonstrating how the concept of FOSS has extended beyond software development into content creation, and showed how open tools are sometimes ahead of the proprietary ones – particularly in the 3D space.

Andrew also outlined how open formats are even more important than open software, using the example of not being able to open a file in several years time because the software used to produce it no longer exists. This was a very strong point in the digital design arena, where players like Adobe set file standards – such as .psd and .ai early on, and other software has had to follow suit.

Text editors

Andrew explained that one of the early drivers behind FOSS text editors was the need to represent non-Roman characters. This spread to tools for translation, and even for script editing and producing. This sparked a discussion on whether HTML5 should be the basis for all documentation in the future – separating the content and the markup – as many other tools are simply leveraging HTML5 content for other display or output formats. Specifically, web browsers are moving into the presentation space, particularly with the animation capabilities of HTML5 and CSS.

One of the poignant examples of this talk that underlined the social justice aspect of the free and open source model was that of LibreOffice. LibreOffice is available in many smaller languages – such as Icelandic and Welsh because the tools are freely available to translate this product into those languages. While it doesn’t make business sense for Microsoft to translate Office into Icelandic, it’s been done by end users because the tools are available to do so.

Images

Andrew briefly covered the difference between vector and bitmap graphics, and then explained some of the FOSS tools available for photography and fonts such as;

  • fontforge.org
  • digikam.org

One of the great examples of FOSS here was that of open source Canon firmware; Canon hardware allowed for two exposures to be taken at once – perfect for rapid action shots (instead of just bracketing the exposures). The Canon firmware did not take advantage of the hardware capabilities and so open source firmware was developed which provided this functionality.

Audio

Andrew covered the tools available for audio by branching them out into recording and editing, creating and performing, typesetting scores and sampling. One of the great tools here is the ability to leverage free and open sound libraries, which can be remixed for new compositions.

Video

Andrew explained how hand animation has fallen by the wayside, yielding to several advanced tools in the space. One of the problems remaining to be solved here is the concept of distributed rendering. by farming out frames to different nodes to divide up the processing power needed for video animation. Luckily there is an open format available that can be used.

Libraries and distribution

Andrew walked us through a number of libraries for content creation, including Creative Commons and CC-licensed content on flickr. There are also a number of other open media libraries available for adoption and re-use, including freesound.org, artistx.org and Open Symphonium.

This lead to a great discussion on the crowdsourcing of media production and movie production – a model which does not sit comfortably with some studios.

Patrick Sunter on the importance of FOSS in public decision making

Patrick, a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, outlined the concept of ‘democratic autonomy’ – and how many of the principles of science, embodied in the free and open source software movement, can also be applied to public decision making. In particular he highlighted the concepts of

  • reproduceability (of results)
  • contestability (for instance, if a model is transparent the flaws in the model can be contested)
  • peer view (open and transparent data means that it can be better reviewed)

He opened with the example of climate change, questioning whether if the data and models used in so-called ‘Climate Gate’ were made open to scrutiny and reproduceability whether the scandal would have erupted. This parallels the free software concept of favouring the ‘bazaar’ – many contributions by many people versus the cathedral – power held by a small number of members.

He covered a number of tools that were useful to researchers for opening up models including;

  • Madagascar
  • Kepler
  • Nimrod
  • SAGE

One of the very interesting discussions as part of this talk was whether it should be a requirement of research funding that the research output be released under a FOSS license, particularly given that much research is publicly funded.

The example of the East West link proposal was also discussed, particularly in light of the model used for estimates – which is closed and proprietary, and therefore not open to the same level of public scrutiny. This example was illustrated with some excellent visualisations, based on the GTFS format (for travel and transport timetables) and open street map – showing how combining open data sources can provide new insights to drive informed decision making. This sort of data also provides better opportunities for the development of ecosystems, such as consulting, review, and widens participation in policy debate.

An excellent presentation.

Adam Bolte – protecting yourself online

Adam’s presentation focused on a number of online vulnerabilities and the software tools that can be used to prevent them. Firstly, Adam facilitated a discussion on privacy, making the point that people don’t realise the value of privacy until it’s too late. In short, even though data about you may not be damaging, it’s nobody else’s business to know about it. This point was underlined by the http://pleaserobme.com/ example – which uses FourSquare data to predict whenyou’re not at home.

Adam also gave an overview of GPG encryption for email, and keysigning for public key infrastructure.

He guarded against the growing trend of software as a service (SaaS), arguing that the software is owned and managed by someone else – that someone else also owns the data. Similar arguments were made against centralised networks such as Facebook and Google +.

Adam gave a great overview of privacy and security protection tools available in browsers (with his favourite being Firefox), including the proper use of passwords, not installing third party toolbars, and request policy setting to see where websites are sending your data. In particular he recommended the use of HTTPS everywhere, GreaseMonkey, User Agent switcher and No Script.

In the instant messaging and videoconferencing sphere, he argued that giants such as Microsoft/Skype were reading your messages, and than open source alternatives were better for confidentiality and privacy. He also argued for the use of TOR and Bitcoin.

 

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