This last few days I’ve been dialing into FOSS4G 2022 from Tromsø, northern Norway. It’s the first time I’ve checked in to one since 2019! It wasn’t possible to attend in person this time, so I’m really happy that an online option was part of the package. And, as much as I really wanted to catch up with a lot of people and have proper conversations, it was wonderful to just turn up – and go home at night afterward. I love to travel, I do not love hotel rooms and airports – both of which are unfortunate realities for long distance travel when I don’t have weeks. I mean, a cycle tour from Tromsø to Firenze – how amazing! Also just not possible.
A feature of online participation was being able to skip between parallel sessions – fast and simple, no disturbing anyone. A feature of the pure online track was the range of topics covered.
FOSS4G has been an eclectic mix of topics since I first started getting into the community. See for yourself in the program here: https://2022.foss4g.org/schedule_general.php From project updates and deep technical dives to continent-scale spatial data infrastructures, user stories, even side projects that just turned up one day. This hit particularly hard on the second day – in the morning listening to stories about the European commission and strategies for open source adoption, then in the afternoon hearing about how open source tools are deployed for mapping garbage mountains in Kenyan informal settlements, so people can try to respond and keep themselves safe when it rains and washes the garbage everywhere.
That contrast was a lot. Especially sitting in a comfortable office in northern Norway – so I had to take a break and will catch up the rest of that day later from recorded talks (by the way the talks are all recorded to watch later!)
Another talk which stuck in my mind was about quality metrics in OpenStreetMap – data quality isn’t just about how well things match the real world when you look at them on a map, it is also about how those data can be used to help or to cause harm. I really liked the proposal to use ‘do no harm’ as a way to assess ‘are these data any good?’.
…and all this is a lot to digest. I mean, as a community we have deeply passionate long term volunteers who know some of our open source geospatial infrastructure inside out, and brand new people just dipping a little toe in the water. We have geospatial software artists constantly pullling things apart and reassembling them in new and unforseen ways. We have literal artists, we have governments and corporations and people literally just trying to survive and seeing tools that are accessible to them so they grab them with both hands and go for it. And all of these things are intertwined.
So – Phew. It can feel all a bit overwhelming, and needs time to integrate.
This is what open communities are all about – whoever wants to use open source geospatial tools can use them. And its nice to hear about how they’re used by governments and corporations and how they help with efficiency and security and customisation and long term system sustainabilty. What really lights my fire and drives me to get involved in this community is the other end of the spectrum. Nobody came down to Kenya and helicopter-consulted how to solve problems, then took a fat paycheck back to a cosy home somewhere in the global north – people who need a solution picked up the tools and made it. And they can also build a community of expertise around those solutions on their own terms. That is exactly why FOSS4G needs to exist.
Avoiding extractive practice is a really core philosophy of the FOSS4G community. Yes, people do use FOSS4G tools in extractive ways – we can’t physically stop that, we can only keep trying to be the change we want to see. I’ve tried to summarise how it feels like this: when I go to an industry conference the discussions are “what can we sell you?”. At research conferences, “have you got funding?”. At FOSS4G, “what can we give you?”.
So – thankyou to the FOSS4G 2022 organising committee, who took on the risk of running a large conference in uncertain times and providing this focal point for the community. We do technology and tech-aligned work, we know about remote work and building completely online remote communities and working together even if we’ve never actually me, and we are also human. Connection outside of a boxed (screen or virtual) environment is so important.
As a director of OSGeo, the foundation supporting all this, I get to thinking oh wow – how and where do we even start? In an 8 hour board meeting following FOSS4G 2022, lets say conversation went to a lot of places. I’m privileged to be part of this group of kind, experienced, thoughtful and community-focussed humans.
Probably the biggest immediate thing we did was reinvigorate a Telegram messenger channel – we’ve see that especially in the past couple of years people have seemed to drift off into their own corners a bit, and communication methods evolve. So we hope a new way to help the community stay in touch helps. All the directors are members of the channel, so it’s also a fast and easy way to raise things with the board. You can find it here: https://t.me/OSGeoorg
Because governance in OSGeo is open and transparent we avoid making decisions on messaging platforms – there is always a way that people can track the discussion, contribute, and find an electronic trail in [N] years time. At the moment and for the forseeable future, that method is mailing lists and the loomio service. We should probably think a bit about what to do if loomio decides to fold up, there’s a lot of company intelligence there. For now – well, we have to try and live in some different worlds for different things and try to avoid platform fatigue (as I currently sit here with mail, telegram, element clients open and getting messages).
Yes we should reach out and listen in to places where the community is. We also have that requirement for open-ness in governance, so we need to retain a way that you, as a global community, can understand what we did as directors, why, who was involved. We disagree about stuff, the community has a vast diversity of opinion and culture, and we should never hide that. We have a code of conduct, and that provides a framework for rigorous discussion of pretty much anything.
Another important theme emerged around sustainability. Here I want to capture environment and community – because really they are two intertwined parts. “FOSS4G the event” has traditionally run on a very north-centric location cycle of “Europe, America, Rest of world”. As a citizen of ‘rest of world’ (Australia) I’d love this to change, because we live in places with names and cultures – and the discussion is started. My personal view is that this simple change will help … well … the rest of the world feel more engaged and visible.
In an environmental sense, normally (living in Australia – and even from my temporary home in northern Norway) if I want to go to FOSS4G it is a very long flight. This also impacts my life in that travel times are long and I am exhausted when I arrive and exhausted when I get home! I saw some people had cycle toured to FOSS4G Firenze – I would *love* that opportunity, but cannot afford the time it takes to boat hop and cycle right now. I’m open to offers for help with that!
Our biggest explicit environmental cost as a community is travel. As I mentioned this is a tough one for we who are in the rest of the world! Swag and consumables at conferences are next, we can work hard(er) to ensure that we lower impact in terms of … just not making so much stuff that gets thrown away. So there is work to do around how OSGeo can make a meaningful impact. Keep throwing us ideas.
In 2019 I helped FOSS4G SotM Oceania do something meaningful – financially supporting an ecosystem restoration project that does a lot more than put carbon into trees: https://osgeo-oceania.org/news/planting-the-seeds-of-carbon-offsets/ . That was a lot of work and we got lucky. Can we repeat it? Does it mean anything at all? Can a QGIS style environmental policy (https://www.qgis.org/en/site/getinvolved/governance/codeofconduct/environmentalpolicy.html) as part of our Code of Conduct help?
This discussion about environmental impact has been ongoing for years. It would be great to hear your thoughts and experiences on this. Especially if it leads to engaging with local projects which have greater impact than making us feel better.
On community sustainability – what happens if nobody steps up to run a global FOSS4G? How can we support communities to keep having energy to run a big conference every year? How can we better support regional events so people have an option to travel less in order to connect with their community?
Some great initiatives are being discussed here – in particular building even more into conference infrastructure packs (pretalx, venueless, website, ??) and expanding the long-running assistance and mentoring from the broader OSGeo community. We still really want to respect to local committees adding their local “special sauce”, which is a really important part of why FOSS4G works. We mainly want future FOSS4G organisers to feel supported, and give an easy (easier? I’m not sure any event organising is actually easy) on ramp to getting a FOSS4G up and running. How is that going to evolve? Stay tuned. You are going to be part of it.
I also need to stress that none of these initiatives are my idea – so far my role as a director has been to express some ideas and experiences which are hopefully relevant and useful, and say yes to almost everything! Which has felt really great – As I said earlier, it is really great to work in such a deeply experienced community in a context where so much just works already – and I still have much to learn.
As a reflection. In my election manifesto I wrote that I wanted to focus on community maintenance and sustainability. Honestly I’ve been really busy learning how OSGeo works, and in a way my goals are easy – because they’re very well aligned with what the global community wants. This year I think I’ve done OK but not yet excellently – in a way I want to change my manifesto a bit, to ‘just help everyone in the community be awesome however I can’. This also seems to be a low hanging fruit – a common goal of everyone on the board. I’m happy to keep helping however I can.
And for final words, we got to some topic in the meeting and I said ‘well, we can’t see what we can’t see until someone points out we’re not seeing it‘ – which is a kind of Rumsfeld moment! The point of repeating it here is this: get engaged, the board is just people like you, OSGeo belongs to you. If we’re not seeing something, it is because we only see so far. The OSGeo board meets virtually on the last monday of every month – you are welcome to attend meetings. OSGeo committees and working groups are places where things get done, and there is always room for people to help!
Thanks again for your trust, lets see what 2022/23 brings, and I hope to see you in Kosovo. Maybe part way by bicycle, at least cutting one flight out…