OpenIsland Conference

I’ve had some time to reflect on the OpenIsland conference held in Belfast last Friday, which I was involved in organising and spoke at. We had 170 people registered, and despite dire warning of bad snow storms (5 cm of snow causes Northern Ireland to grind to a halt), which I fear put off many participants, we still managed 110 people showing up at the start.

Sir Reg Empey, local minister turned up to launch Open NI the body which should partner Open Ireland in the Republic. We also had senior guests from the University of Ulster and the newly formed Southern Regional College. This was before our two keynote speakers, Bruce Perens, and Robert O’Dea.Bruce is somewhat of a legend in the community, having (during his time as Debian Project Leader) drafted the Debian Social Contract, Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) which became the Open Source Definition. He gave an interesting and amusing one hour talk about how open source software aids innovation, and pitched a world view where proprietary and free software live side by side, and clearly explained the role of free software in innovation.

Robert O’Dea from Sun Microsystems (who were the commercial sponsor of the conference) explained how much Sun had contributed, especially with Java, OpenSolaris and OpenOffice, and how Sun saw this is a fundamental part of their business, with a commitment to free all of their software. He also talked about the OpenSparc project which usefully broadened the discussion from just software.

After lunch Ciaran O’Riordan of the FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) spoke (without slides) about the history of free software, defined the four fundamental freedoms, and spoke about the emerging issues of patents briefly. Alan Wallace then gave an overview of some of the legal and business issues associated with patents and licensing.

Graham Taylor then spoke about his work in Open Forum Europe, and in particular the avoidance of the lock-in problem.

The afternoon then moved into the case study section, one for SME, one for the Health Sector and one for Education.

Liam Robertson gave a talk about his work at Armada Central Limited. They use free software to essentially create a mash up of legal and justice information to present in a single coherent form to law enforcement officers in the USA. Apparently they create some free software too but we didn’t hear much about that.

Mel McIntyre from OpenApp talked about his project in the health sector. Again, this used an impressive array of free software to pull together disparate data sources to help answer health questions with geographical understanding. They use the excellent R statistical language to do a lot of underlying computation, which is something I probably plan to do in some academic planning software we hope to write.

Finally I was the last speaker, my talk was a lot more focused on our processes than our products, so I don’t know if I got the emphasis wrong or whether the contrast was useful. I spoke about our experience in releasing our free software programs at the University of Ulster and setting up our foss@ulster development environment. By the time I got up many folks had already had to leave, and many others were looking pretty tired, so I probably went too quick to compensate, but think I covered the main points, and still got the conference time schedule back on line.

The last things was a panel discussion, that touched on a number of issues, but the most contentious was patents which regrettably seemed to cause Alan Wallace to feel isolated enough to pronounce other panel members “extremely prejudiced”. In any case I feel it is too common an error to use prejudice in such a derogatory manner, to suggest bias has altered a world view rather than the other way around. Graham Taylor and Bruce Perens strongly argued that patents had failed their primary purpose, and in their current form interfered with innovation.

I had lots of interesting chats with delegates and it’s good for us to remind each other we are not in it alone. The level of interest in academic and government circles is higher than ever before, which I believe gives us a great opportunity to educate more people about the issues. Some of us are meeting in work tomorrow to discuss how to leverage student projects on foss over many years. Watch this space!

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