Initial Thoughts on FOSS4G North America

FOSS4G North America (FOSS4GNA) wrapped up yesterday, closing out with another thought-provoking keynote by Paul Ramsey. Paul’s talks on the “economics of open source” have evolved over the years and, while this talk certainly discussed such economics, it was so much more. Paul is one of the best speakers you will see and his talks are well-crafted. Despite that, this talk had a “thinking out loud” feel that gave a sense that Paul’s deep waters are running less still than in the past. 

In the end, Paul’s talk harmonized well with the day’s opening keynote by Vicky Vergara, who made the point that the open-source community is just us – the people who use, build, and participate in open-source ecosystems. Vicky is incredibly energetic and positive and gave the conference a rallying cry for engagement. Paul, by the end of the day, lent that theme a tinge of urgency.

Brian Timoney followed Vicky in the morning with a typically thought-provoking and entertaining talk, reaching back to Ortelius to highlight the long history of openness and attribution in the geography community. The message from all three speakers, who span the continent of North America, was clear: openness has a deep history, openness requires active participation, and without participation openness cannot continue.

For me, personally, FOSS4GNA was something I needed deeply. I joined the organizing team in March, primarily focusing on sponsorships. This is the first time I have participated in the organizing of a conference and it was a learning experience from beginning to end. I’m not certain I was the most effective participant this time around, but I’m hoping, with this experience, I can participate more deeply in the future.

I needed FOSS4GNA because I had a major career change at the beginning of the year. My previous role left me, in terms of content and exposure, feeling like I had become isolated from the geospatial community. I knew many of the people on the organizing team, but hadn’t interacted with them in a long time. I enjoyed getting to know them again as well as meeting new people. The energy of Eddie Pickle, Ryan Burley, Guido Stein, Michele Tobias, and Michael Williams was contagious. I am grateful to have had this experience.

The conference itself gave me even more opportunities to meet and reconnect. One of my best friends is Todd Barr, and it was fantastic to see them in Baltimore and see them talk on co-elevation and product focus in geospatial. Todd is an empathetic and deep-thinking leader and exactly the kind of person we need to hear more from.

I moderated three sessions over the two days. Two of those were in the “business of open-source” track. There was a concerted effort to make sure the program included content on use cases and on business-oriented topics. FOSS4G draws from a heavily technical crowd  such as software engineers and data scientists, and the content can skew to being heavily technical.

I came away from the “business of open-source” track feeling like speakers pulled their punches slightly. I’m still not ready to assign a reason for why this may have happened – perhaps a desire not to alienate the heavily technical demographic of the conference, but that is only speculation at this point.

I feel like the time has come to consistently go more deeply on business-oriented topics. If the arc of the three keynotes I discussed above says anything – it says that we must be more proactive and more proficient about articulating the business value of open-source software. Paraphrasing Paul, open-source is easy to exploit, but it is also easy to dismiss.

In my previous role as a CIO, I was concerned with legitimate issues related to compliance, regulation, and security. I don’t recall a single time, when I queried my network of colleagues in similar roles, that anyone ever recommended any open-source solutions to deal with those issues. Senior leaders will happily trade money for the perception of making those kinds of issues go away. Open-source solutions can address those kinds of issues – more effectively than most proprietary equivalents. But the technology needs advocates who will articulate its value in a manner that gives decision makers an apples-to-apples comparison.

People like Vicky, Brian, and Paul – as well as opening keynote speaker Chris Holmes – can do that and do it well but open-source, in order to avoid both exploitation and irrelevance, needs more people who can do so. For that reason, we must be bold about discussing business topics in venues such as FOSS4GNA.

I said earlier that I needed this conference. Going into it, I needed a mission. I was still searching for a way to integrate my recent experience in a way that benefits the FOSS4G world. I feel like I left Baltimore with clarity on that mission. For that, I am grateful to this community.