Culture shock

I have the privilege of attending FOSS4G 2008 (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial) in Cape Town this year as an engineer for OpenGeo.  This is my first time attending a technology conference, and so came with few expectations.  But what I had gathered from colleagues who have attended in the past was this conference is primarily for hackers and open source entrepreneurs who are committed to the free software paradigm and bringing it to the GIS world.  The event is put on by OSGeo, which is unguarded about its goal to piss off ESRI, the monopolistic proprietary GIS giant who we believe misserves their costumers and, indirectly, the general public. (Author’s note: Please see comments below and retraction, here.)

So far, most of the people I have met are coming to the conference from this angle, and it creates an exciting atmosphere.  What I didn’t understand until today was that there are other major groups attending FOSS4G this year.

The reason why FOSS4G is being held in South Africa this year is because FOSS4G is being co-sponsored this year by GISSA, the Geo- Information Society of South Africa.  They have contributed to an otherwise technical conference a humanitarian focus.  The first few talks given today were sober ones about the crises of developing nations, beginning with the health and crime problems in Cape Town itself.  The theme of the conference is oddly cautious: “Open Source Geospatial: An Option for Deveoping Nations.”  GIS professionals from government and NGO’s have been invited from developing countries around the world, with a couple hundred from South Africa itself.

The result is a strange cultural mix.  The FOSS crowd is lively, reliably laughing and applauding when a speaker makes a dig at proprietary software (PowerPoint, Internet Explorer, Apple).  Their speeches are deliberately humorous and irreverent.  After Ed Parsons gave a rather cluelessly untargeted talk about how Google’s (proprietary) products are awesome and how easy it is for people ot use them to make (proprietary) data, the crowd dragged him over the coals during the Q&A.

The government and GIS groups must find this strange.  Their tone was consistently more serious, more cautious, and less confrontational.  The pace of their presentations was slower.  They presented their tragic facts and their strategies to overcome them without the exuberance and confidence that this was their time to rally.

The point of bringing these two groups together is so that groups like GISSA can evaluate the appropriateness of geospatial FOSS for their very serious needs.  In many ways it’s great that they can see the FOSS developers in their element, since the transparency of the open source process and the enthusiasm of its participants is one of the software’s selling points.  But on the other hand, I worry that the two groups are speaking different languages.  I’ll be interested to see whether there’s any convergence by the end of the week.


A week ago I attended the OneWebDay event held in Washington Square Park.  OneWebDay is “Earth Day for the Internet”–a day for global awareness and celebration of the internet, and a not-so-subtle PR event for the cause of net neutrality.  There was an impressive line-up of speakers: Lawrence Lessig, John Perry Barlow, and Jonathan Zittrain were the most prominent, but there were others who were accomplished as entrepreneurs (The Craig of Craigslist, the Guy Who Started Pandora) or who could be classed as web advocates or activists in some sense or another.  A video of the event can be found here.

These were my reactions, in no particular order:

  • Nick Grossman pointed out to that “OneWebDay” is an overly cumbersome name that will probably cripple the adoption of the day on the calender.  Also, camel casing–really?  “Web Day” would be much catchier.  I fear the former name has stuck already, but somebody really ought to try to get the alternative out there.
  • It is absolutely fantastic that the Web Movement, or whatever you want to call it, has a poet among its founding members.  John Perry Barlowt–summary–is s striking figure against a backdrop of nerds, and will give this historical moment a memorably Romantic aspect.
  • One of the most contentful speeches, in my opinion, was Gale Brewer‘s.  She directly addressed the problem of the digital divide, and explained how it was a problem even within the borders of New York City and how connectivity is being fought for as a local political issue.  Since the theme of the event was “Participatory Democracy on the Internet” (double check), I think it was especially important that the day’s speakers address this point.  If political access becomes more tied to internet access, that will only reinforce the existing political inequalities unless there is a concerted effort made toward universal connectivity.
  • One of the more interesting comments was made by the Guy Who Started Pandora.  While most of speeches and Q&A discussion were a harmonious choir singing praises of the internet and calling for a united movement for its liberties, this Guy (whose name I forget) pointed out that there is one point of discord within the web community.  “People have to remember that they still have to pay for things,” he said.  “People have to get out the mindset that all of this can be free, free, free.”  He had solved this problem with advertising.  But as a businessman in the digital music industry and also a former musician who had tried to make a living, he was clearly making a reference to music piracy and the common attitude that there is nothing wrong with it.  I believe that the tension he highlighted is a deep one, and that the politics of the web are not as unified as “One Web Day” implies.