Get your FOSS on: Wellington conferences, companies and organizations

This is the last post in a 3 part series looking at the tech/geek/open source communities in Wellington. Part 1 looked at regular geeky events and Part 2 looked at geeky people and projects in local libraries.

Wellington will host some excellent open source conferences in the next year. Also Wellington is home to some great companies and organizations who are active leaders in the community.

Upcoming conferences

WordCamp New Zealand (August 8-9, 2009) Tickets aren’t available yet, but I’m sure they’ll be snapped up quickly. WordCamp is being held at the Mt. Victoria (Lawn) Bowling Club, which is pretty awesome.

linux.conf.org.au 2010 (January 18-23, 2010) LCA is “fun, informal and seriously technical, bringing together Free and Open Source developers, users and community champions from around the world.” It’ll be a jam packed week with miniconfs on Monday and Tuesday, followed by the main conference of 5-6 streams including Seminars, Tutorials, Lightning Talks and Birds of a Feather. Wellington will be the second time that LCA has been outside of Australia (after Dunedin 2006).

Kohacon 2010 (April or October 2010) There’s been some murmurs of hosting a Kohacon in New Zealand to coincide with the 10th birthday of Koha Integrated Library System.

Companies/organizations

Catalyst is a company that specializes in open source software development. The staff are smart developers, passionate about open source software, and active in many communities. Chris Cormack, Brenda Wallace, and heaps of other rad folks work there. Many of the staff are involved in getting the Maker Space off the ground. They have been managing the New Zealand election systems, as well as the TAB betting systems for quite awhile.A  Staff can use the company’s equipment to work on their own projects, with the caveat that the project is licensed under GPL or Creative Commons license. An example of this is some of the videos that Creative Freedom Foundation recorded in their campaign against Section 92a (copyright reform bill).

New Zealand Open Source Society The current president Don Christie, is part of the Catalyst Management team. Recently they lobbied the New Zealand government against signing another all-of-government deal with Microsoft. The Government said that this type of agreement with Microsoft was no longer appropriate. I’m interested to watch the software and hardware choices New Zealand decides to make in the next while.

New Zealand Open Source Awards These have been happening for the past couple of years to the recognise and celebrate “the contributions of New Zealanders directly to open source projects or the promotion of open source generally”. Reading the past nominees and award winners gave me a really broad view of all the things happening in New Zealand.

I feel really lucky to have had a chance to live in Wellington. Not only does Wellington have the best coffee and cafes in the world, but there are vibrant, robust, and friendly open source communities.

Get your FOSS on: Wellington library geeks

Wellington has a vibrant open source development community. There are some fantastic open source projects happening in libraries in Wellington and the surrounding area. Here’s more about the projects and people doing neat things in libraries, most of which are open source. This is part two of a three part series on the open source and library tech communities in Wellington.

Chris Cormack is the original Koha developer. Koha was the first open source integrated library system (ILS) in the world. An ILS is the system that you use when you search a library’s online catalogue, check out books, and that library staff use to catalogue items, run management reports and often track their book orders. In 2007 he won a New Zealand Open Source Award for his contributions to Koha. Like many of the active community minded geeks in Wellington, Chris also works at Catalyst. He is the current translation manager for Koha. I’ve learned a lot from him about Koha, the open source community here in New Zealand, and the Koha community around the world. We’ve had great conversations about software, community, politics, and how these things are connected.

Kete is an open source project that allows you to “create online areas for collaboration for your community. Write topics and upload images, audio, video, documents. Discuss them all. Link them together”. It was developed by Horowhenua Library Trust and Katipo Communications, the same team that started Koha. I had a great meeting with the core developer, Walter McGinnis, who works for Katipo Communications. I got to see a sneak peak of the next release. Walter is smart and passionate about the work he does. He’s had the most interesting jobs including being a “gas station attendant” and janitor in Antarctica, as well as doing some casual film projection on the side, in trade for coffee. He answered all the questions I had about using Kete as a platform for a community archive project, like QueerHistoryProject.com.

Aotearoa People’s Network is “about providing free access to broadband internet services in public libraries so that all New Zealanders can benefit from creating, accessing and experiencing digital content”. Many of the APN sites have a local Kete where people from that community can upload their stories, images, and other content. My only criticism about this amazing program is their decision to use internet filters on the whole system. Yay APN! Boo filtering!

Horowhenua Library Trust is the little library that could. Jo Ransom, the Deputy Head of Libraries, is an innovative and gutsy leader who is a strong and loud advocate for libraries and their users. HLT is the birthplace of Koha and Kete. In 1999, HLT was forced to find a new ILS that could deal with a change in millenium. Proprietary ILS vendors didn’t have a system that could manage on dial up speeds and cope with the interference from the electric fences on local farms. They worked with Katipo and funded the original Koha development. Recently they funded the development of Kete, a community digital repository. I also admire Jo’s guts in standing up to her council to fight against the introduction of revenue targets (which would mean user fees) for HLT. Jo is one rad librarian, and HLT is one rad library system.

Brenda Chawner is finishing her PhD thesis that looks at factors influencing satisfaction with open source software in libraries. She was also the head of the library school at Victoria University and is organizing free software prophet Richard Stallman’s next visit to New Zealand. Stallman will be one of the keynote speakers at the LIANZA conference. Brenda describes him as “one of the most influential people the audience has never heard of.” I really enjoyed all of our conversations about open source and libraries, and how different projects develop different cultures. She’s a great teacher, and I’ve learned a lot from her.

Part 3 in this series will look at upcoming conferences and companies in Wellington.

OLPC testing in Wellington

OLPC laptop with a kitschy 70s sugar bowl

Every Saturday morning there’s a group in Wellington that meets to test software for the One Laptop Per Child program (OLPC). I’ve really enjoyed helping with the testing, meeting smart folks with smart politics, and learning more about OLPC. OLPC is the group that tried to develop a $100 laptop especially for children in developing countries. While they didn’t succeed in making it for $100, it is a remarkable piece of hardware.

The OLPC mission statement is:

To create educational opportunities for the world’s poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.

I like that this statement clearly identifies kids as the users. I love the phrase “joyful, self-empowered learning”.

The first week we played some simple educational games. Memorize, a simple mathematics and memory game, was lots of fun when networked with other people. While one OLPC is neat, a group of them is quite amazing. The collaborative and cooperative possibilities with a group of OLPCs is really exciting. I’m sure that kids have found ways to do things that us adults aren’t even imagining.

Last week we tested Food Force 2, an educational game where you build wells, houses, farms, hospitals and schools in an effort to serve a growing population. Initially I was really excited, but that wore off quickly. It wasn’t terribly fun, the interface was awkward to use, and it was difficult to close the dialog boxes.

This week there’s several testing requests from developers. I’m particularly interested in the open source Sugar operating system on a USB drive, dubbed Sugar on a Stick.

I’m sure with time I’ll learn more about what expected functionality is, and when things are really broken. Right now I’m not sure how things should be working, so it’s hard for me to tell if they’ve gone wrong. The more experienced people in the group are really helpful explaining some of these things. Also, as we all come from very different backgrounds there are some really interesting conversations about open source software, software development, education, games, and usability.

I really miss troubleshooting software, which used to be a regular part of my job. It’s massively satisfying to figure out what someone did to make something break, replicate it, and then fix it. Although informal, these testing sessions help me satisfy my troubleshooting cravings.

Public toilets and public libraries

Today I went to the Wellington Central Library to get a library card and use the internet.

The location is excellent.A  The library is part of a civic square, right beside the municipal office (where I need to go on Monday to purchase a recycling bin and the yellow council approved garbage bags so that my garbage will be picked up), and the tourist office.A  There is a beauitful silver coloured globe that is suspended above the square.A  There were dragon boat races happening nearby, as well as a free performance for the jazz festival or the children’s festival.A  it’s a lively and central location.

Wellington Civic Square by Velvet Android

I like the physical space.A  On the level where I entered there was a bustling cafe.A  There was also a citizen’s advice bureau (not run by the library), where you can get information about tenancy laws, employment laws and health services.A  You can look over the railing and see lots of books and people.A  The signage is bright, and the space is colourful and organized.

Inside the library by *TreMichLan*

After providing picture ID and something showing my local address I was issued a library card.A  The friendly staff person explained borrowing limits and fees.A  She explained that a request cost $2, it cost $1 if I returned an item to a different location from where I borrowed it from, it cost $0.50 to borrow a magazine, $4 to borrow a DVD (with a week limit), $1 to borrow a CD (with a week limit), and $5 for bestseller books (with a week limit).A  I was gobsmacked.A  when I expressed my shock at the price to borrow a DVD, she replied that the libraries rental rates were lower than a DVD rental store.A  My partner asked if it was free to borrow regular books.A  She replied that it was.A  The staff person was very profesional and knew the library policy well.

These user fees are problematic for two reasons.A  First, these fees are obvious barriers that hinder or completely obstruct some people’s access to these materials.A  I realize that economic times are tight, and that public libraries need to be creative with their budgets, but to me these fees are unacceptable.A  Second, these fees undercut the idea that public library is an information center, and reinforces the notion that the library is primarily about books.A  Information found in non-bestseller books is free, but information in other formats is not.A  This is silly.

I expected internet access to be free.A  While I’ve set up my home account, I will be waiting for another 10 days for a technician to come and set it up.A  The internet is my information lifeline and I’m having trouble without access at home.A  Most internet cafes charge $4/hour.A  I was completely shocked to learn that the public library charges $6/hour.A  The staff person explained that the library doesn’t have a lot of computers, so higher price is to encourage people to go elsewhere.

I’m not sure about what influenced the library’s policy on this, but I think it is extremely classist. For middle class people who have high speed internet at home, this is a non-issue.A  However, for people who don’t have access (people with low incomes, transient people like migrant workers and travellers), this is a major problem.A  Again, I think this distinction between information found in books, and information found on the internet is highly problematic.

Wellington has many free and clean public toilets that are open 24 hours a day.A  I think this is fantastic andA  is obviously a priority for the council.A  In today’s information society, access to information is an equally important need, and should be a free public service.