Digifesto

Category: topp

Interview on National Broadband Map architecture

Interview with Juan Marín Otero from Computech on development of the National Broadband Map, released by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Federal Communications Commission.

The selection of open source software has been critical in my opinion. The entire project has been constructed with open source tools, from the operating system to the last JavaScript library used in the presentation layer. The main reasons are the flexibility and easy development that these solutions give us. When we evaluated the requirements of this project, some open source tools began with a clear advantage (functionality and easy to deploy) over most of the commercial tools.

Developing on open source has given us the flexibility needed in a project like this without having to worry about whether we had enough licenses per computing “core” or not, and choosing the right components for each requirement, rather than having to adopt monolithic suites with great functionality but poor performance and little chance of adaptation. One of the advantages that may seem trivial but in this work environment is very important is that I have the whole project on my laptop, and I can make changes from a Starbucks, if necessary (and I use this example because it happened to me once on the project).

In search of an “open” politics

The open source movement has trouble articulating a coherent politics.

On the one hand, we have people like Matt Asay. Asay does a good job of making open source palatable to the mainstream business world. But he depoliticizes it so aggressively that he sometimes misses the (elusive) point.

In his recent post, “Free software is dead. Long live open source“, Asay argues that the free software ideology is too uncompromising about proprietary software. Open source has succeeded–or will succeed (Asay waffles as to whether the victory is already manifest or merely inevitable)–because it has embraced interoperability with proprietary software.

The path forward is open source, not free software. Sometimes that openness will mean embracing Microsoft in order to meet a customer’s needs.

Free software has lost. Open source has won. We’re all the better for it.

There is a disconnect in Asay’s post between his benign praise of interoperability and the tone of his screed against the Free Software movement. Though it was likely lost on many readers, the best explanation for that tone, and for his break from his normal subjects of open source business news and strategy, is that the post (published September 25) was written in tacit response to Software Freedom Day (September 19).

As could be inferred from its “freedom” rhetoric, Software Freedom Day is an explicitly political event. It’s vision:

…is to empower all people to freely connect, create and share in a digital world that is participatory, transparent, and sustainable.

It’s objectives are to:

1. to celebrate software freedom and the people behind it
2. to foster a general understanding of software freedom, and encourage adoption of free software and open standards
3. to create more equal access to opportunities through the use of participatory technologies
4. to promote constructive dialogue on responsibilities and rights in the information society

The free software movement is alive and kicking. Meanwhile, the politics of free software have spilled out into Free Culture movement and others. The Software Freedom Law Center’s James Vasile, inviting everyone in that ideological space to NYC’s Software Freedom Day event, noted:

Our production model, our ethos, and our focus on transparency, running code and the freedom to share are spreading beyond software to other areas of culture, including government, media, science, and the arts.

In New York City, Software Freedom Day will mark the launch of a series of quarterly Open Source / Open Culture events designed to engage free software hackers, creative commons artists, open government activists, and open science innovators.

All this talk of ethics , activism, rights, and freedom gets in the way of selling open source software to businesses, which explains why Asay proclaims so vigorously that free software is dead and has lost: precisely because it isn’t and hasn’t. Asay is trying to shift discussion away from these philosophical concerns. As he explains in a later post,

The problem I have with free-software advocates like Richard Stallman is that they think freedom is the primary reason to use open-source software. It’s not. Utility is.

After all, we’re not talking about essential human rights here. We’re talking about getting work done with software.

The problem with the philosophical rhetoric is that it is not persuasive to consumers. But the problem with depoliticizing open source is that it alienates the producers, who are often politically, not monetarily, motivated to engage in the open source process.

Consider Ian Bicking’s soul-searching about what it means to be an open source programmer. He traces his 15 year history of engaging with free and open source software. His story starts with his discovery of the GNU Manifesto while poking around Emacs.

When I read [part of the manifesto] I was immediate head-over-heels in love with this concept. As a teenager, thinking about programming, thinking about the world, having a statement that was so intellectually aggressive was exciting.

It wasn’t saying: what are we not allowed to do, nor did it talk about some kind of societal injustice. It didn’t talk about the meaning of actions or their long-term effects. Instead it asked: what must we do, not as a society, not in service of some end, but what are we called upon to do as an individual, right now, in service of the people we call friends.

But after this era of moral attraction to free software, the FOSS community’s discussion shallowed and narrowed to a discussion of the production model and the particulars of licensing. FOSS ceased to be a matter of positive moral activity; rather, it became a list of things one was merely legally allowed to do.

What’s missing, Bicking goes on to explore, is the meaningfulness of identifying as an open source programmer. Acknowledging that the practical aspects of FOSS are ultimately more compelling than Stallman’s moral arguments, he asks:

The open source and free software philosophical divide: on one side practical concerns, on the other moral. And this is what I want to talk about later: can we find a moral argument for these practical concerns?

Speaking personally, I feel this dilemma. When I chose to enter the software industry, I made a deliberate political choice to work on open source software at a social enterprise rather than at a proprietary startup. And I see a similar tension among colleagues at OpenGeo, TOPP, and in the developer communities I participate in and hear about.

OpenGeo especially is aiming for commercial success, and is shifting its priorities and marketing message accordingly (heavily influenced by Asay, via our own pragmatic open source industry veteran Paul Ramsey). The question that seems to underly a lot of our internal angst and discussion is, “Are we selling out?”

The answer is, “No.” But it’s not a good enough answer. It’s not good enough because one of the virtues–both pragmatic and moral–of open source is that you don’t have to put up with the bullshit of having to say or do things you don’t mean. Part of the point of open source process is that it is open.

The solution to the problem can’t be an uneasy tension between snappy sales pitch and a hidden agenda. That undercuts both the sincerity of the pitch and the viability of the agenda. Rather, there needs to be an articulation of the open agenda that is compelling for both outsiders and participants, both producers and consumers, so that those distinctions can be ultimately extinguished.

What I’ve been up to

Where have I been up to lately?

So I haven’t had much time left for blogging here. However, my work at OpenGeo during the past few months has given me some new perspectives on political and ideological themes that I will try to articulate here soon.

The OpenGeo blog

Hey folks–check out the new OpenGeo blog when you get the chance. As OpenGeo’s official public-facing blog, it a place where we will be both showcasing our sexiest new offerings and elaborating on our organizational goals. Expect news on how high-profile clients are using open source geospatial software and how a high-tech “dot-org” based on principles of transparency and workplace democracy thrives in the market.

In a nutshell, the blog is going to be a steady stream of reasons why OpenGeo is kickass. I, personally, am excited about it.

Phil Ashlock and Chris Patterson added the blog to the website a few weeks ago. Posts will be written and edited by the team as history unfolds.

OpenGeo

Chris Holmes made an unofficial announcement of OpenGeo, the new identity of TOPP’s geospatial solutions division. The branding effort is both a consequence of and catalyst for its financial sustainability.

I’m really excited to present OpenGeo, the newly minted geospatial division of The Open Planning Project. Nothing much is changing internally, but we’re getting serious about our image in the world. We’ve been supporting open source geospatial projects for years, and in the past couple years we’ve offered great consulting services around the projects we work on. But it’s always been confusing for people who don’t already know our work.

So OpenGeo.org is about giving a more visible face to our services and products, so we can bring the geospatial work in TOPP to economic sustainability with full cost recovery. It also marks the launch of ‘GeoServer Enterprise‘ packages, which bundle web and telephone support, priority bug fixes, discount consulting rates, and a number of implementation hours by the experts.

Complete post here.

90’s design and BlockPartyNYC

It’s a rare treat when you stumble upon a web site that is a true relic of the 90’s.

So I was thrilled to discover a web site about New York City street fairs that appears to be regularly updated with new animated .gifs.

Incidentally, a friend and I discovered this site today when trying to see if there was any competition for TOPP’s new BlockPartyNYC site. I’m interested in how this site works out not just because I intend to crash a lot of block parties this summer, but also because it is a great example of a geodaki.

Unfortunately, it does not yet use any OpenGeo products–instead of GeoServer and OpenLayers, it uses a MySQL database and Google Maps. But it’s likely that later this year TOPP will adapt or rewrite that code to use open source geospatial software. The plan is to redeploy the software as a package for the NYCLU, as a way for concerned citizens to inform each other of the location of surveillance cameras in New York City.

Filtering feeds

About a week ago Subtraction made a long post complaining about the main problem of feed aggregators:

No matter how much I try to organize it, it’s always in disarray, overflowing with unread posts and encumbered with mothballed feeds. … The whole process frustrates me though, mostly because I feel like I shouldn’t have to do it at all. The software should just do it for me.

These are my reactions to this, roughly in order:

  • I feel the pain of feed bloat myself, and know many others that do. It’s another symptom of internet-enabled information explosion.
  • It’s amazing that we live in an era when a feeling of entitlement about our interactions with web technology isn’t seen as ridiculous outright. It’s true–it does feel surprising that somebody smart hasn’t solved this problem for everybody yet.
  • The reason why it hasn’t been solved yet is probably because it’s a tough problem. It’s not easy to program a computer to know What I Find Interesting…

…or is it? This is, after all, what various web services have fought to do well for us ever since the dawn of the search engine.  And the results are pretty good right now.  So there must be a good way to solve this problem.

As far as I can tell, there are two successful ways of doing smart filtering-for-people on the internet, both of which are being applied to feeds:

The most interesting solutions to these kinds of problems are collaborative filtering algorithms that combine both methods. This is why Gmail’s spam filter is so good: it uses the input of its gillions of users to collaborative train its algorithmic filter. StumbleUpon is probably my favorite implementation of this for general web content–although its closed-ness spooks me out.

We’re working on applying collaborative filtering methods to feeds at The Open Planning Project. Specifically, Luke Tucker has been developing Melkjug, an open source collaborative filtering feed aggregator. It’s currently in version 0.2.1. To get involved in the project, check out the Melkjug Project page on OpenPlans.org.

TOPP helps keep Ext open source

There has been a lot of concern at TOPP over the past month or so over ExtJS, a JavaScript GUI library, when it was discovered by David Turner that their license was neither free nor open source, as we had supposed. This shook things up because at least two TOPP projects, OpenPlans and GeoExt, rely on Ext (the latter in a somewhat fundamental way.) TOPP Fearless Leaders Jackie Arasi and Chris Holmes joined Turner in persuading Ext against turning to the dark side.

According to a recent Ext blog post, they have changed their license:

Until version 2.1 Ext was released under it’s own license, the “Ext License”. That license granted usage (provided certain conditions were met ) under the LGPL license terms. The CSS and images (”Assets”) distributed with Ext before 2.1 had a license all of their own which was not open source compatible at all. We received quite a bit of negative feedback from some prominent members of the open source community about our license not being friendly for open source projects. Some even said Ext was not open source at all since these licenses did not offer the same freedoms that standard open source licenses offer. Since we have been an open source company since our inception, these comments and concerns struck home and we felt a need address the issue.

We are pleased to announce that all of Ext JS 2.1 is now available under the GPL v3. We anticipate this will allow broader usage in open source software and should make licensing questions and choices much easier.

What a heartwarming story! It turns out the people behind ExtJS were confused about how the GPL relates to JavaScript code, and we were able to help them out about it. It’s great to see the open source community stick together and keep each other on course, even on an organizational level.