Ada Lovelace Day – Sae Ra Germaine

Once again it is time to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, which recognises the achievements and talent of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields. This year I’d like to dedicate my post to a colleague, friend and someone I admire greatly – Sae Ra Germaine.

I had the fortune to meet Sae Ra during the lead up to in 2011, and was immediately struck by her positivity, warm and endearing personality and stellar graphical design skills.

Her strengths embody many of the qualities that women bring to the table – and which are sorely lacking in information technology such as;

  • The ability to develop strong working relationships with people from different backgrounds, and with differing technical competencies. Sae Ra was the glue which held our team together – diplomatically resolving conflict, understanding peoples’ unspoken needs – and ensuring they were met – and generally acting as a nurturing influence on our group.
  • Design acumen and keen sense of visual appeal – which helped us to deliver one of the most attractive sets of conference paraphernalia that I’ve seen in recent history
  • The knack for sensing tension or conflict before it becomes marked and apparent, and working quietly behind the scenes to resolve the conflict or find a workable solution
  • An awareness of ‘human’ needs within a project – such as the information requirements that people might have, and what emotions should be catered for during an event such as a conference

Sae Ra is truly an asset to women in computing and multimedia.

Lake District and Derwentwater

During my trip to the United Kingdom, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Lake District of Cumbria, with the generous loan of a caravan situated between Penrith and Keswick. This is a beautiful, unspoilt and verdant part of the country, and the weather also obliged, granting us four rain-free days.

Keswick is a beautiful town along the banks of the River Greta, with narrow winding cobblestone roads, and a traditional town centre. It afforded  great shopping, and I picked up some lovely jewellery pieces (including an unusual silver spiral set of earrings from Special Expressions – where I got talking to a lovely chap who was originally from New Zealand). Amber stones set in both gold and silver are very popular in this region, however none of the pieces I saw were particularly appealling. The region is also renowned for Honister slate, which is commonly observed as a building material in fences and walls. This light grey-green coloured stone was also to be seen in many pieces of jewellery, but being such an unusual colour I didn’t think any of the pieces would suit the complexions of those I was buying for.

Another attraction of Keswick is the Cumbria Pencil Factory Museum – located on the site of the old Derwent Pencil factory, which has since relocated production to an industrial estate further west in Cockermouth. The Museum provided a good overview of coloured pencil production techniques, and outlined a number of the compounds used to produce the varied hues of the pencil filling. The souvenir shop was limited, but did have a great range of Derwent pencils, includings seconds bundles for only 2GBP each.

There were a number of great little coffee places in Keswick, but my favourite was Java and Chocolate, who made a delicious hot chocolate and weren’t bothered at all that I asked for soy. Also had something called a Toblerone Tartar here which was a type of mousse cake with crispy wafer layers – haven’t been able to find any recipes or pictures which adequately describe what it was like.

Another key observation about Keswick, and the Lake District in general, was that many people have dogs – almost one in two to one in three people I saw had their faithful fido with them. The most popular breeds appeared to be border collies, labradors and a variety of generally large terriers. Not a chihuahua (or corgi) in sight! Many shops advertise their dog-friendliness, and many cafes made provision for dogs with bowls – and treats.

Penrith was similar to Keswick, with a traditional town square girt by narrow undulating cobbled laneways. Again, slate was a key building material seen in many fences and walls.

The highlight of my trip to the Lake District though was the hike around the Derwentwater – a large lake to the south-west of Keswick. The day started out very bright and sunny, but very cool – with frost icing the trees and shrubs until about morning tea time. The walk was strenuous – and I was grateful for a loan of hiking poles, as the path was as narrow as eight inches in some parts, and very slippery. The scenery was absolutely stunning – with the sun bouncing off the placid lake like droplets hitting a mirror. The air itself was like breathing purity – cold, and pure, and heavy at the same time, smelling of fresh moss, sodden earth and unbrushed wool from the black faced sheep who grazed along the edges of the walk. It was pleasing to see so many walkers – called ramblers – out and about – and more so because the vast majority were middle aged or older – and their fitness levels all put me to shame!


Open Source Systems – Mobile FOSS workshop

The last day of the Open Source Systems conference was dedicated to two workshops – one on free / libre and open source software (FLOSS) in education, and the other to the same in the mobile sector – denoted ‘mFOSS’.

Led by Tony Wasserman, a professor at the Silicon Valley campus of Carnegie Mellon University, the goal of the workshop was the creation of a research agenda for open source software in the mobile environment. He set the scene by illustrating how the number of mobile applications had grown from zero to almost a million in just a few years, and placing this in the context of cloud computing; the code used to write the application itself may be open source, the platform it’s targeted at may (or may not be open source), the storage may be open source and the development tools used may (or may not be) open source.

The workshop raised several key discussion points.

Where are the open source mobile apps?

The participants discussed why we are not seeing more mobile applications released under open source licenses. This included barriers such as difficulty with the current dominant mobile app stores – Apple’s iTunes platform and the Google Play store – with open source licensed applications being disallowed with Apple. This gave rise to discussion on whether there would be the rise of a ‘SourceForge’ or ‘GitHub’ style of mobile application store geared toward open source apps. It was also noted that many apps were hosted using open source resources – whether it be storage, platform or even development tools – but they themselves as end products were not open source.

What makes mobile different?

Discussion was also centred around differentiating mobile application development from traditional application development – and a long list was generated;

  • In mobile applications, there are many hardware and software platforms to cater for, and the users of them expect a continuous or familiar experience.
  • From a user interface perspective, there are many form factors to cater for.
  • There are many development platforms and languages to choose from when developing, and although there are some dominant ones, the market is essentially in a state of flux.
  • Traditional applications are not required to be context aware – and mobile applications must effectively sense and use context through sensors such as accelerometer, touch and swiping, GPS and location based services, cameras and voice input.
  • Applications are much more distributed – the hosting may be in one country, the storage in another and users in several other countries
  • This leads to a related issue of the complexity of testing mobile applications – with different operators and different gateways in different countries – essentially the number of intermediaries between the device and the internet is greater.
  • Internet connectivity on mobile devices is not continuous – and mobile applications need to be able to gracefully handle loss of connectivity. A related issue is the availability of 3G and LTE/4G connections in some communities – particularly remote communities – where data services are not available all the time. Can the application detect the network on which it’s running and adapt to the internet connectivity (or lack thereof) that prevails? Effectively this calls for ‘responsive design’ – not to the form factor but to the network. As a related point, SMS rather than 3/4G is the transport layer of choice to reach the most people, and in developing countries there tends to be a high penetration of mobile phones, but they are basic feature phones, not smartphones. Designing around SMS is very different to internet based applications.
  • While mobile device technology has advanced significantly in recent years, it’s still not perfect. Battery life and device power consumption needs to be a key factor in application design – as it’s possible to build a fantastic app that drains the device in a matter of minutes, effectively rendering it useless.
  • The social element of app design is becoming ubiquitous – and must be factored in – such as for social shopping.

What technical challenges remain?

There are very few standards for mobile devices – for screen resolutions, data handling and even privacy and security. Touch interfaces and other sensors differ between hardware and software platforms. There is scope for research to identify ways that effort for cross platform development could be minimised.

Testing remains a challenge also given the heterogeneity of hardware and software. What works well on one device under one se tof conditions may not work well on another.

Load is also an issue, particularly when the user base of a mobile application grows large. How is app availability under high loads assured? This has implications for platform services like EC2 and Amazon web services.

One point of discussion was differentiating between ‘building’ applications and ‘engineering’ them – the teepee versus the Taj Mahal. The key question of course comes back to fitness for purpose – is the application doing what it was designed to do, and is it doing it well?

Another challenge is the nature of application feedback. If applications break, they garner negative reviews, which persist even after the bug might be addressed. This introduces the notion of community – which forces a degree of testing and quality assurance.

Monetisation also remains a challenge, with people very reluctant to buy mobile applications, even though their handset costs a significant amount of money – so different business models are likely to emerge.

Privacy and security of personal data are also issues worthy of attention, particularly with the distributed nature of mobile applications.

In general, this was a worthwhile session which captured a number of the issues currently facing the mFOSS community.