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FOSS4G 2018: wait, what?

In late August I went to FOSS4G2018, held in conjunction with the HOTOSM summit in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I’ve been privileged to attend three of these events in a row now, and this one is incredibly difficult to wrap up neatly and put a bow around.

Why is this so?

Phew. The first question is where to even start? To begin with, it was held in the city of Dar Es Salaam, on the east coast of Africa. Flying in on my comfortable 777-300 I literally had no idea what to expect – it was my first visit to the cradle of humanity.

And wow. Straight off the plane, Africa launched itself with an exuberance I was completely unprepared for.

…which set the scene for the week ahead. I’d arrived early, because I was presenting a workshop about PDAL on the first day of the week. This was a story in itself, with my co-presenter blocked from travel literally at the last minute!

I’m digressing. Back to linear time storytelling. I felt completely overwhelmed by Africa to start with, and then – that state continued. So let’s wrap some boundaries around it using days.


I had Sunday to get my bearings both in Dar Es Salaam and the PDAL workshop. It’s the first time I’ve given it, so the usual nerves were well and truly entrenched. I set off toward the conference centre from my hotel; and was greeted by a jovial rastafarian who named himself Picasso. I wandered around with him for more than an hour, learning about Dar, about Tanzania, about how people live. He was joined by a friend of his, and at some point, I knew it was going to turn into a transaction.

Sure enough, some paintings appeared and it was time to do business. I bought one – it seemed really good value, we’d had a great chat about all kinds of things. My Australian conservativeness says ‘ah you were hustled good!’; but my human inner core says ‘well, that was meant to be – you learned a lot in that time, and connected with other humans from someplace completely foreign, and you helped each other out in ways which are both immediate and not so immediate’.

Hakuna matata, says the universe.

So I returned to my wandering, found the conference centre then went back to prepare my workshop.

…which went well, making sure everything mostly worked right up until the post-Geochicas icebreaker event, which happened late-ish at night in a rooftop bar – the to-become-infamous High Spirits lounge. First, I urge you to read this article about the importance of the Geochicas women’s meetup. Next, to the men who turned up – please note how it felt to take that step and respond to the invitation. Often, by default, tech and other events are ‘male focussed’ – so if we felt somewhat overwhelmed, remember it. It’s a reminder of how minority groups can feel all the time.

So I stayed up too late (of course) meeting the Geochicas and friends.

The workshop

Monday bought the PDAL workshop. With 20 people in the room I was terrified I’d do the material no justice at all – especially given a last minute halving of the facilitating team. But we made stuff, people learned things, I have a lot of feedback to work with, and can help improve future editions of the workshop material and my own workshop presentation skills.

One of the awesome things about running workshops is that the room is filled with people who have different problems to the ones I work on all the time. It’s an amazing exercise to both deliver information which is hopefully useful; and also come across challenges ‘in flight’ to try and work with. I was incredibly flattered to see people applying their new knowledge more or less straight away!

If you’ve ever considered a workshop and thought ‘well, I’m not ready yet..’ – then do it! Your use case is your own, you use tools in a way few if any other people do, and your experience is extremely valuable to the community. You’ll also learn new tricks in the process.

The rest of my day was spent in an OpenDroneMap workshop; and later that evening, checking out the Badminton society for an informal social dinner.

This was an experience in itself – it actually was a badminton club! But we could sit out in a courtyard and order local beers with incredible indian food. The night passed, conversations were had, walking buses took people home.

Tuesday. A day off.. or not.

Tuesday – I had planned a day off but went to see a HOTOSM discussion about issues faced by women mapping in Africa. It was a fantastic discussion, great to sit in and listen to. As I wrote notes, I realised many of the issues faced by women in Africa also occur in Australia. However, for African women the threat of physical violence is far more real; with fewer support mechanisms – especially further from cities.

I learned about women mapping for basic infrastructure – for example where safe places are; or where people can go for help. These essential services, things which create a civil society; are being built at a grassroots level. Amazing stuff! To repeat a link, I urge you to read this article, which recaps a lot of the discussion – what can we do to better support female mappers. I think these can apply in any country!

Afterward, a small crew of tall white people descended on the Kariakoo markets. It was intense! A bustling street market precinct full of life and people and everything. I bought a coconut (nearly a ritual by now.. the daily coconut) before we escaped, completely overwhelmed.

This was followed by an icebreaker function at … the Badminton society. So more curry and beer and amazing conversations. Late. Into. The. Night… and walking buses for whoever needed them.

Wednesday – and the conference proper!

By this point I was much relieved, my job done and now time to settle in and listen, learn, and talk to people. I was also feeling OK about walking around Dar Es Salaam – I’d opted to travel by foot every day, roughly 20 minutes walk through the city centre. On foot, the city is quite incredible – it opens gently like a flower in the morning, hums madly all day, and gently settles into a long evening.. with people out on the streets talking, mixing, eating until well into the night. An interesting hustle, but in a rhythm; and a purposeful pace.

So the conference. A most amazing opening address from the Tanzanian minister responsible for the Environment, January Makemba. Pushing heavily into the ‘why’ of mapping; and who we are as an open source community. We do it to make the world better, and we are socially conscious. I agree! I hope you do as well!

For the rest of the day, Eric Lemoine educated me about managing point clouds in Postgres-pointcloud and the LOPoCS/itowns stack; then Steven Feldman provided an insightful reflection on open communities and how we can (always) strive for better. Next, Peiro Toffanin and Dakota Benjamin showed their amazing work on OpenDroneMap and sharing results to OpenAerialMap. I finished the day with another OpenDroneMap presentation – Tomas Holderness deploying ODM on an AWS stack using a simple Python SDK.

At a break, I went out and bought a coconut to drink.

My mind thoroughly overwhelmed, the conference dinner was up next. And then, there was more mind blowingness. We were herded into buses, and whisked off to the dinner venue with a police escort! Once there, we talked, saw some incredible dance and drumming performances, Astrid Emde won a Sol Katz award and then we danced.

Gala dinner views

…finally, we were bussed back to Dar Es Salaam, and kicked back with beer and conversations. Late. Into. The. Night.

Thursday – peak overwhelm. Peak what? You can’t peak yet…

Thursday started with the OSGeo AGM – introducing the first Oceania-based FOSS4G event since 2009!

…then a ‘pub quiz’ – which actually let us explore some of our biases about the world and how it is represented.

I chaired a session with some talks I would never have prioritised – which is always a fantastic exercise in serendipity. The talks were excellent – reconstruction of historical buildings in their geospatial context; open source routing engines; gRPC and protocol buffers for geospatial service building; and machine learning for image recognition.

Then back to the plenary room for a keynote delivering an overview of the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative – which you should definitely check out.

And of course, a daily coconut.

B2B rooftop bar moar dancing and networking.. Late. Into. The. Night.

Friday… getting there…

I saw Tom Van Tillburg create city scale models from PostGIS and PDAL; and peer-to-peer pointcloud sharing systems from Thibault Mutabazi. I learned about an application for ‘cycling mentors’;  the application of open source geospatial software in the World Food Program’s data infrastructure; and how the Copernicus program is integrating open source software in it’s infrastructure. Finishing the day, and the event, were two thoughtful and powerful keynote talks on what diversity, inclusion and community mean from Angela Oduor Lungati of Ushahidi, and Maria Arias de Reyna –  OSGeo president.

Sometime that day, I found a coconut seller and bought a coconut.

And once more, a bit of dancing then discussions Late. Into. The. Night.

*boom*. By now, my mind was properly blown. Time for a holiday?

Zanzibar and recovery/unpacking/days off.

Dhows in the distance.. from the Stonetown patio

…to Zanzibar. the perfect place for a well earned rest, right?

Yep. but nope.

My plan for three days of no internet, yoga, and deep relaxation on Zanzibar were broken. They started as they meant to continue with a quick trip to the OSgeo code sprint and a mad dash to the ferry by tuktuk, ably assisted by Nils Hempelmann. I’d also invited part of the ODM team to stay at the airBnB while they needed to. So we talked shop, ate, drank coffee, drank spiced tea, ate more curries, went to the night markets, concocted more ideas, thought about dancing, slept for more hours than the past three days combined, went to a beach, swam in the ocean, drank beer, talked more shop, became locals at a seafront café with amazing masala tea, went on a spice tour, talked shop some more, tried to organise helping out some drone workshop folks with accomodation, danced, drank more beer, and finally, finally, finally squelched off to the Zanzibar airport and the way home.

I don’t really apologise for the density of that text block – that’s exactly what it felt like.

In fact describing the whole week would have fit way better with a massive blob of unpunctuated text! Like a firehose of consciousness, being directly injected…

By now – my train was thoroughly wrecked and even ten hours in Dubai airport working on the FOSS4G SotM Oceania conference seemed sane.

Do not do this – do not spend ten hours in an airport working. It is a batshit crazy idea! 

Be clever and book your flights more carefully.

In conclusion

I have probably left you with an impression that FOSS4G conferences are pretty insane, and so are the people that go to them (mea culpa).

What I hoped to transmit is that this event is actually an incredible week of learning and communication. For a geospatial practitioner, or researcher, or coder, or even anyone just interested it is an amazing cornucopia of knowledge and experience.

There is intense technical discussion, there is intense reflection on the community and it’s makeup and actions.

It is also intensely social. I am the wrong person to comment on inclusivity and social happenings at these events, because I see through an extremely privileged lens. I can say that I do highly appreciate the difference between, say, socialising at FOSS4G and socialising at, say, any other tech focussed event. There is a tangible difference between your average industry spatial thing and FOSS4G, which January Makamba  summed up well in his introduction:

look at this room – it’s beautiful!

January Makemba

…to a room full of vibrant colours, genders, cultures and ideas. The Dar Es Salaam committee worked on the mission ‘leave no one behind’ – and they did an amazing job!

It is not a perfect community – however, it is prepared to reflect on itself; and act on those reflections. There is support and respect, people who go out of their way to make walking buses so others feel safe to get to their accomodation, people who volunteer their time and energy to create a better world. FOSS4G is a week – one week in the year – where you get to catch up on half conversations that go on all year, to find new connections and strengthen old ones. To learn, to give, to receive, to grow. As a professional and as a human. It’s undeniably an incredible privilege.

FOSS4G in 2018 stood out because of how far it went to encapsulate all of these things.

…and it’s not over yet. You can see slides from presentations; and session videos where available – opening and closing sessions at the time I am writing this. I hope these collections grow!

Asante Sana, Dar Es Salaam; and all the people who make this community; and all the wonderful people I spent hours discussing ideas far beyond geospatial software with.

Finally, a massive thanks to Synthesis Technologies for letting me spend a large chunk of a small travel budget to get there!

Here’s hoping I can make it to Romania for the 2019 edition…