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.

Freedom: a choice

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” Thomas Jefferson

Rarely does an informal user group talk challenge my perceptions. This month’s Linux User’s of Victoria Beginner’s Workshop talk, presented by Ben Sturmfels, did.

Many will be familiar with the oft-cited benefits of free and open source (FOSS) software; it’s cheaper to acquire, strong community support means that bugs are found and patches provided quickly; because it’s ‘open’, it’s readily able to be extended and modified. Essentially, there are a number of practical  benefits to adopting FOSS.

However, for Sturmfels, convenience is not the overriding prerogative for adopting FOSS.

Freedom – as in liberty, not gratis – is.

Taking a leaf from the book of Richard Stallman and contemporaries at the Free Software Foundation, Sturmfels outlined four basic freedoms that he believes people should be more aware of when making software choices;

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

If these principles are not considered when using, buying or recommending software, then we are essentially curtailing our own freedom. We are penning ourselves in. Considerable debate ensued among the twenty or so people present at the workshop, with several pertinent examples highlighted. Being forced into a single supplier for a product, and that supplier then leveraging a monopoly position to raise prices was the obvious case. This got me thinking, after having a recent case with an integrator at work, who refused to share their source code for a user interface device. In turn this increased the dependency we had upon the integrator, rather than them competing on superior quality, innovation or price. Perhaps Sturmfels was on to something here.

Digging a bit further, he went on to highlight that our choices also impinge on others. By using non-free (as in liberty) software that has a ‘network effect’ (the more users of the software there are, the greater its value – such as Skype or Adobe Flash Player), we are actually pressuring others to use non-free software, and in doing so, pressuring them to curtail their own freedoms. This struck me as a novel angle on an old debate.

Surprisingly, many open source products and operating system distributions contain non-free/proprietary components. The most common are things such as device drivers for wireless cards, graphics cards, and software that plays media files such as Adobe Flash and some codecs. Even the popular Ubuntu GNU/Linux distro contains some proprietary software components. Two distributions which don’t include gNewSense, and TrisequelGNU/Linux, the distro preferred by Sturmfels.

The issues with software freedom are only being exacerbated with the prevalence of cloud-based services, such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. The question of control of user data, and the inability to inspect the inner workings of many of these applications goes against the grain. There do however appear to be alternatives, such as Identi.ca and Diaspora, that adopt a more libertarian attitude and make their source code freely available. Indeed, free software advocate and lawyer at the Free Software Law Centre, Eben Moglen, has conceptualised the Freedom Box – a distributed method of sharing data with those you choose, while retaining privacy and intellectual control. It would also have the ability, via peer to peer networking, to route around disruptions to internet connectivity, such as that experienced in Egypt earlier in the year.

However, software freedom is not sexy. It is a hard sell.

In the end, as software users and advocates we have a choice to make. Sturmfels compellingly puts the case for freedom.

 

 

 

Ada Lovelace Day – Quinn Norton

Ada Lovelace Day celebrates inspirational women in technology. This post is dedicated to Quinn Norton, a journalist who specialises in covering the fields of body hacking and functional body modification. Unusual choice? You bet! Inspirational? Definitely 🙂

Body hacking is, like all other forms of volition: the freedom to enact your will upon a system

Quinn embodies (no pun intended) freedom. Her viewpoint is that in our society we often have less control over our own bodies than we do over other objects such as hardware. Medical procedures are tightly regulated and governed not from the perspective of individual freedom, but societal need. She is an advocate of something called functional body modification – implanting devices, taking drugs and having surgery that enhances our abilities.

This has particular importance to me. I have a distance vision of less than 10 inches, am morbidly obese and have a 3 generational family history of premature death due to cardiac failure. My father was one of the first people in Australia to have an implantable defibrillator – a machine which regulated his heartbeat and actively restarted his heart on a number of occasions when it went into nonviable rhythm. Without life there is no technology. I can’t code when I’m dead.

That said, I’m conservative. I won’t get laser eye surgery to restore my vision to 20/20, yet happily underwent gastric banding to reduce obesity. Without Quinn’s view of body modification – that it is an expression of freedom – it would have taken me a lot longer to reach this decision and take a positive step. Would I take Provigil to make myself more alert? I’m not sure, but thanks to Quinn Norton  now I think about body enhancement in a different way and am more open to freeing my body from the constraints that have been imposed upon it by nature.

Using technology to alter the body is nothing new. Surgery has been around for over 100 years. However for the most part it has been mechanical – amputation via hacksaw, bloodletting and debridement via scalpel, relocation of joints with brute force. Technology has only entered mainstream medicine in the last 40-50 years – with lasers for surgery, neurosurgery via telescope, better monitoring through machines. It is a matter of time before the body and technology will merge, perhaps in unexpected ways. Will the next generation be part man, part machine? Will becoming part machine be an evolutionary requirement due to the pace of change – the sheer amount of information that has to be absorbed to be productive? How will social status be changed by the ability to enhance bodies? Thin people are better than fat people!

What it means to be female is also changing. As a female, I can control reproduction and choose to have a baby – only when I want to. If I don’t want children, I can still use my body for the benefit of others and act as a surrogate for a friend or colleague who can’t carry to term – an expression not just of freedom but of altruism. Functional body modification also brings with it new challenges – such as the ability to subscribe to changing societal norms – enormous perky breasts that seem to defy gravity, faces that never sag and bums that never droop.

Quinn Norton is a pioneer – using her own body as a platform with which to experiment, push boundaries and continually question what it means to be human.

Watch Quinn Norton’s presentation on Body Hacking