Culture shock

by Sebastian Benthall

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.