Monday, October 13, 2008

Conference Booths

Back at the Queensland Spatial Conference I found myself with a fair bit of time to check out other booths and compare them with what we had. I'm well aware that we were doing that conference on a shoe-string, but there was such a difference between the experiences of ours booth with others that I managed to write up a full-page list of things we were missing. Most would be fairly cost effective to pull together. Unfortunately, that list seems to have succumbed to the ravages of time and neglect, or more likely I recycled it.

With LISAsoft's recent work on the Live DVD, I'm once again thinking about my conference booth experiences of the past and future, so I thought I'd see what I could remember. The following points are things that I would like to have when representing OSGeo at conferences.
  • Live DVD

    This one we've got a good start on. It still needs some love, but it's sufficient to be passed out. Basically, it gives people something interactive to take home with them. I'm fairly pragmatic, so I have no grand illusions that every disk we hand out is a convert that will extoll the virtues of FOSS4G software, but if one in ten use it, and a few of those show a couple of colleagues, it's well worth the cost and effort.

  • Demo Laptop

    This will seem obvious to most, but at the Queensland conference, I made the choice to leave my laptop at home and bring my camera instead. It was a good decision, considering the conference was at Surfers Paradise, but since Cameron's laptop was buggered, it left us without anything to demo on. But simply having a laptop isn't enough. We need much of the trappings that the Live DVD needs as well:

    • Decent quality sample data loaded and optimised, where possible.

    • Services installed and configured to connect and style sample data.

    • Applications installed, configured to connect to services and linked from desktop.

    • Pages populated with interesting links to documentation, list aggregators, examples, case studies, etc.

    I set up such a laptop before the WALIS conference in Perth, and it was very useful. Even when I wasn't demoing on it there were applications running and looking pretty. The effect was much better than an empty table.

  • Handout Propaganda

    We had some fliers on the table, but they were leftovers from a couple conferences ago. It looked bad to have such a small subset of what we were discussing. They were also spread across the table in a tidy, but unappealing manner. Other booths had a variety of document stands to present their material in a much more compact and visually pleasing manner.

  • Wall Propaganda

    Our walls were bare. Looking at the variety of wall-candy around the show room, I realised that we don't actually need real content on our walls, just some eye-candy to draw people in and make us look organised. I figured two banners would do nicely.

    • OSGeo Logo Banner

      I don't envision this one having too much content. It could be one of those pointless banners that shows an attractive couple looking at a puppy, or a computer tower doing some rock climbing or something. The biggest requirement is a big green OSGeo logo, and some stuff. It's sole purpose is to catch the eye so a passer-by will take a second look.

    • OSGeo project listing

      I know these are hard, and they get out of date pretty quick, but I think it could be made to look pretty impressive. I remember ages ago someone put together a diagram that showed the interdependencies of various projects. It wasn't restricted to OSGeo, and I don't think this banner would need to be either, but it could provide the content for this. It's the kind of impressive, complexish-looking thinger that makes people stop and try to understand. The fact that they never will just gives you more time to chat.

  • Standing Banners

    • Project Banner

      We have one of these, generously provided by AutoDesk, and it looks pretty good. It has the logo, our mandate and a list of projects. It could stand to be updated to include recent projects, and maybe have a bit more colour, but is perfectly servicable as it is.

    • Interesting Banner

      This should match the other banner in basic layout, but needs a bit more to read. I haven't quite figured out what to include here. Quotes from recognised names, examples of large or high profile users of OSGeo stuffs seem to make sense, but would need to be updated and are next to impossible to get generic enough to be applicable to most conferences, and yet interesting enough to want to use. A timeline of OSGeo projects might be interesting as well, and would certainly be impressive.

  • Case Study / Project Book

    This is asking a lot. Various projects have been trying to compile lists of case studies and projects using their products for ages. We should have quite a few around by now. By compiling them all into proper prose and screen shots, we could bind them up into a book and bring a couple copies to the booths. People are always interested to know who's using this stuff, and while we can point them to web sites or give them examples we know about, I feel it would be much more powerful to walk them through a couple examples in the book, and give them a chair while they browse the rest. There is considerable work in putting something like this together however.

  • Table Cloth

    This one looks petty on paper, but when you are manning a booth with an bland white sheet covering your table, or worse nothing, it starts to make sence. By getting a simple black tablecloth with an OSGeo logo embroidered, emblazoned or emcrayoned on, we immediately look more prepared, more professional and more credible. This is my choice for the most cost-effective addition to our current booth efforts.

I'm sure I've missed a lot of things, including OSGeo swag (I take great joy in standing at the OSGeo booth with my ESRI thermal mug), booth personnel uniforms (which I'm personally opposed to) and the like, but this is my wish-list. I'm well aware of the time investment required to get most of these steps started, and once we have material, be it text for the book, designs for the banners or content for the DVD, we still need to find the money to produce them. Many of these are consumables as well. The reason we had such a poor selection of propaganda for the Queensland conference is that we gave most of it out at WALIS, and didn't get more produced. Our next conference is likely to have only two projects represented on paper. If we want to project a professional image, I feel we need to develop these resources. Once the legwork of putting creating the content is complete, it will be up to the local representatives attending conferences to decide what resources they actually need and how they will finance them. But that's a different blogging entirely.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sol Katz Award 2008

It has come to my attention that Paul Ramsey has become the 2008 winner of the Sol Katz Award. His acceptance speech is available for all those who, like Paul, couldn't attend the awards ceremony during the FOSS4G closing plenary. While it is a great speech, as all of Paul's public addresses are, there are a few issues I take exception to.

Paul refers to himself as a "non-technical member of the open source community". In my time working for Paul I found him to be a strong leader of the projects he was involved in, whether his own (PostGIS or uDig) or an adopted project live UMN MapServer. His vision and drive were great assets to everyone he worked with. But he was never non-technical. I rarely saw him get his hands dirty in the code, but he was always available to help with development problems, discussions of coding practices, technologies and any technical issue that I would care to discuss. Non-coder does not equal non-technical and Paul managed to make his presence known in the business, visionary and technical arenas.

Congratulations Paul. You are indeed in the company of great people, with Frank Warmerdam, Steve Lime and Markus Neteler as the previous recipients. And it's right where you belong.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Geospatial Live DVD

In the three weeks leading up to the FOSS4G conference, I had the opportunity to work on LISAsoft's Live DVD efforts. These initially started as an investigation into getting some of the Java packages onto an Ubuntu Live DVD image, but after a quick consultation with the OSGeo community, became a collaborative push to develop a live demo CD for FOSS4G.

We made one big mistake early on; we started too late. Let me give a quick overview of the process we used. Ominiverdi has already produced a Live DVD with some key C/C++ based packages on it, so we used this as our starting image. This image was then mounted into the file system and the root folder changed, essentially giving us a terminal in the image. From here, we were able to install and configure applications to our hearts content. There are various emulators and virtual machines that can also be used to boot into the image, but I stuck mostly with the command line. We knew from the start that much of the work we would do in this manner would not be replicable or upgradable. We simply didn't have the time to do things right from the start.

Since this effort was intended to be collaborative, we created a new image and uploaded it to the OSGeo server every night. This nearly proved our undoing. The image creation process is not a fast one. Made slower by Stefans use of a virtual machine to provide an Ubuntu environment in which to operate. This gave him, at times, a XUbuntu fakeroot mounted into an XUbuntu virtual machine running on Windows XP. Not hard to guess that his performance wasn't optimal. This meant that the last hour and a half of each day were spent creating and verifying the image. On one evening, Stefan ran into trouble and finally gave up at 9:30pm. Even after the image was produced, it took 2-3 hours to upload before being copied into the correct directory. Since Stefan is Melbourne based, and I'm in Sydney, that also meant that I spent 2-3 hours every morning downloading a new image. All in all, a huge drain on time.

The other impact of this approach was that it greatly reduced the ability of others to contribute. Lorenza Becchi managed to get in some MapServer configuration, which gave us something to show off. Other than that, most people were taken out of the equation by the 2GB download required.

Despite these problems, the community was keen to offer support and assistance to the effort, and we ultimately had a stable and reasonably feature-rich image available in time to burn a stack of disks before the conference.

Yesterday, there was a Bird of a Feather (BOF) session at FOSS4G. We had half a dozen people in a room in Cape Town, as well as half a dozen more scattered across the globe. It was more productive than I had expected, with Tim Bowden ensuring that the live discussion in Cape Town was sufficiently transcribed into the IRC channel to keep us involved. While a full transcript will significantly — and negatively — effect the popularity of this blog, I can provide a quick summary.

There was almost unanimous agreement that a better packaging system, using debian (.deb) style packages, was required. My proposal, which was vaguely accepted, was to break the packaging of everything down to a fairly fine granularity. Essentially we would first package all the applications that are not yet packaged, in particular the Java ones we at LISAsoft added. Next would be a packaging of the sample datasets that were added. In particular, there is a dataset of basic Australian features. Next would come the default configurations, which would depend on both the package of the application being configured, and the data it's linking the application to. For example, we create a package to install uDig to the standard location and drop an icon on the desktop. We can then create a package to load some shapefiles into a common spot on the file system, or into a database. Finally, yet another package can add a default uDig workspace that has been configured with connection details for the data and appropriate styling to leave a pleasant first impression. The image below shows an overly-simplified, incomplete and possibly misleading example showing expected package dependencies. The advantage of this system, is you can create a Demo DVD from an existing Ubuntu or Debian Live DVD by simply adding the Demo DVD package.

This system of packaging is very powerful. We have already identified three broad use cases for these Live DVDs: demo dvds, educational dvds and installers. The demo dvd is a true live dvd. It will be run from RAM, and thus should be kept small. It will have as many basic applications as we can manage, but lacking in the developer tools, script bindings and such. Basic tutorials, default configurations and such will need to be included, and it should be fully functional off-line. The educational dvds will be more involved. There is an Education Initiative in OSGeo that has the potential to create large amounts of high-quality instructional content. Unlike the demo dvd, this is less self-driven, and is likely to be used as a train-the-instructor tool as well as a classroom resource. Finally, the install dvd is useful in areas, like Cape Town apparently, where downloading a large disk image is not practical. This disk will need to be able to install a new operating system, individual packages, Windows installers or Mac installers. It will need to be completely off-line, and include as much of the product documentation as we can handle. Sample data and curriculum materials are secondary. By modularising with this granularity, we can quickly produce special purpose Live DVD images using existing tools simply by pointing them at our repository and selecting the packages we desire.

That raises the next issue: a package repository. I've done a small amount of research into the debian package repository structure, and it seems fairly easy to do poorly. Fortunately, Tim Bowden has volunteered to get one up and running for us using OSGeo supplied infrastructure and Chris Schmidt supplied guidance. Having the repository will provide us with a central location to share our work in a much more efficient manner than disk image uploads.

The final bridge to cross is content. This is the sticking point at the moment. Our BOF session was fairly tech-heavy. The instructional content, be it tutorials, documentation, or full blown curricula, needs to be developed by people that know what their doing, both from a literary and product standpoint. The Edu group will be invaluable here for broad content and product communities for application specific content. If they can produce modular content, we can package it fairly easily. This is where the real value of the Live DVD will be found. Simply loading up an application and poking at it is great. I spend a great deal of time doing that. But to have well thought out, structured material to walk people through the capabilities of application is invaluable here.

I'm excited about the direction this project is taking. We've got interest from some smart and dedicated people, and we've got enough direction to keep us going for some time. I think having the versatility this approach will give us will make these DVDs ubiquitous at conferences, workshops and hopefully universities. Getting the word out is valuable. Getting the product out is better.