Software Freedom Day Melbourne 2011 focusses on community building

This year’s Melbourne-based Software Freedom Day event took a low-key approach, in stark contrast to last year’s award-winning affair. Hosted by Linux Users Victoria at The Hub in Docklands, the day kicked off with a BBQ (with opensauce – props to Lev Lafayette for a very witty pun). Unfortunately due to a power failure at Southern Cross Station, my V/line train from Geelong was delayed by over an hour – meaning I missed the BBQ.

Ben Sturmfels opened proceedings by explaining the need for software freedom, and why it is so important for us to value freedom – not only in software and computing but in everything we do. A key topic of the discussion which ensued was resolving the tension between hardline ‘fanatics’ in the community – those who baulk from using any form of distribution for example which contains elements of proprietary code – as Ubuntu and Debian do – and those who take a more liberal and pragmatic approach to using free and open source software.

The afternoon saw two groups of three workshops held – and I chose to attend that run by Alex Garber (@clockworkpc) on promoting FOSS and how it can be better marketed. It was clear that people were drawn to free and open source software via a variety of channels. Some arrive from a philosophical or idealistic desire to have more freedom over how they use their computer. Others have pragmatic reasons – such as lack of financial resources – for using FOSS solutions. Additionally, as pointed out by two-term LUV President, Lev Lafayette, FOSS alternatives can offer productivity and processing advantages over their proprietary cousins. This represents a distinct advantage in high performance applications such as those used in science and engineering. Participants in the discussion recounted some of their introductory experiences to Linux and open source software, with many indicating that they took a ‘softly-softly’ approach – often dual booting into Windows and Linux before making the move to a Linux only platform. The ability to use key software packages under Linux operating systems remains a key barrier to adoption; although applications such as EndNote have FOSS alternatives – LaTeX – the data formats they use are often closed or proprietary, thus making data interchange difficult.

I then facilitated a session on building and sustaining FOSS communities. Many of the themes were not new, but what was so encouraging and enlightening about discussions were the depth of passion people felt for the groups of which they were a part (including Andy Gelme – President of Melbourne Community Connected Hackerspaces and Ben Sturmfels, Convenor of the Melbourne Free Software Group).

We covered a lot of ground. Discussions started around community standards – standards of dress, behaviour, deportment andw hygiene are seen as important – both to set expectations and avoid ‘putting off’ potential new members of the community. The need for leadership, management and facilitation skills for those in senior roles in free software groups was discussed, without reaching consensus on whether it would be worthwhile to actually invest money in providing training for key members. This naturally led into a thread on the need for mentoring within the community – and establishing both formal and informal channels for knowledge sharing to continuously nurture a pool of talent ready to take on leadership roles. Diversity, as ever, was a hot topic – and it was encouraging to have three women (including myself) in the group of a dozen or so. The general feeling in the room was that there is no silver bullet to solving issues of diversity and inclusion – other than that as a community we have to critically examine our practises to ensure we are not being unwittingly exclusive in our behaviours.

The difficulties of establishing FOSS communities in regional areas – without a large critical mass of interested people – were also touched on. Here, the group suggested having regular groups with a broader focus to ensure sustainability and sufficient interest – such as a programming group rather than one focussing on a specific language or technology.

We also did some ‘blue sky’ work, and envisioned what we would like free and open source software groups to evolve into over the next few years. To summarise, the desire was to be recognised as a legitimate and trusted source of advice both for open hardware and software solutions. In particular, the desire to be viewed by industry and business as a respectable, reputable option viz a viz proprietary options, was highlighted. The need to do more ‘reach out’ type work with other community groups focussing on social equity and justice was also a strong theme of the session.

The threads from the discussion were mapped using FreeMind and are available below.

NOTE: Unlike the rest of the material in this blog, this post is released under the CC-BY license as below.

Creative Commons License Software Freedom Day Melbourne 2011 FOSS Community Building by Kathy Reid is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at blog.kathyreid.id.au.