July 24, 2009, 1:03 AM — Yesterday I wrote about one trend I've seen at this week's Open Source Convention: that data lock-in may be a bigger issue than the availability of source code. My observation today is a growing sense that the open source community is, in the most delightful of ways, sharing what it's learned outside its own domains.
[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS ]
At last year's OSCON, for instance, there were sessions on how things can go wrong in an open source community (i.e. how to make a project fail), and reports about Google's Summer of Code achievements. Those sort of sessions still exist at OSCON this year; in addition to an update from Google on their open source projects (including, yes, the Google Summer of Code, which in 2009 has 150 projects, and 1,000 students in 68 countries), I was particularly enamored of the five-minute "lightening talks" in which a few dozen projects summarized what they've been working on. Plus, I don't mean to discount über-techie sessions like "High Performance SQL with PostgreSQL" and "Controlling the Addiction: Best Practices for Scaling With Memcached & the LAMP Stack" even if my eyes would glaze over after three slides.
However, I have seen a lot of attention given to the larger community in which software development operates... programming communities working to change the world around us. I think this is very, very cool.
Probably the best example is how much attention at the conference is given to e-government topics (though it probably helps that Tim O'Reilly himself has gotten involved in such projects), such as how open source communities can work with local and national governments to streamline the procurement process. For instance, Clay Johnson, director of Sunlight Labs, emphasized that "open source and open data = better government." Governments have always spent a lot of money on technology, after all; the recovery.gov contract is for $9.5 million plus an additional $8 million in options, he said. "We have to open the gateway for developers to get in and change things," Johnson said. "We're pretty good at changing processes."
To that end, data.gov is the tactical process for change because, Johnson said, "The government is more open to transparency than it has ever been. The contest — which has cash prizes as well as a trip to Washington, DC, and whose deadline is August 7 — is the first attempt at a software developer kit (SDK) for all the government APIs; it's still a work in progress, O'Reilly pointed out during yesterday's keynote. "It will prove that there are open source developers who want in on this action. And the government will have no choice but to change the procurement process," said Johnson today. The entire community is exhorted to join and to become activists; how about a hackathon in your area? "We are the key to making change happen," he said. "There is nobody else who can do it but us."
But it's not just in the political realm where I've seen efforts to reach outside traditional geeky demarcations. There was an excellent session on Green IT for small businesses (which I may write about separately), describing efforts to make the world a little better (while also lowers costs in the data center... both an organic carrot and a stick). A session today on Computational Journalism spent quite a bit of time (okay, perhaps too much) on the evolution of crime mapping sites; perhaps the long-term message was lost on me, but the notion that the technologies being developed in the open source communities ought to be contributing to the world at large is simply lovely. There's a lot less attention on weeding our own lawns than on thinking about the effects of agricultural policies.