Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fun and Learning at OSIW

(A late but detailed review)

Being part participant, part team-member (on the content planning front), loud devil’s advocate, unconstrained idea-generator, patient ear, and unabashed complainer – or in short, being a pain in the neck – is a tough role, in any event! But I enjoyed being just that, at Open Source India Week 2008 (held from February 11th to 15th 2008 in Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi; I attended in Bangalore).

To be frank, there were a lot of little execution goofs – sometimes, the taxis sent to the hotel to pick up the star-speakers didn’t reach on time, a few speakers didn’t turn up, the event managers produced just one ‘master of ceremonies’ for three halls, sometimes it seemed as if there were no schedules although everything looked perfect on paper, and there was no Internet at the venue – God bless those patient souls.

But over all, I enjoyed working with the team – a lot – and it was a valuable learning/networking experience for me too.

Lesson learnt: Events must have a dedicated team for handling logistics, but this team must also be involved right from the planning stage so that they always have a holistic picture of what is happening, where. Execution related errors can be easily avoided and should be -- because it’s these little goofs that irritate both the participants and the organisers!

A wary start

Events are not my cup of tea. I am an editorial person, and understandably, I was wary of joining the team. Of course, others discouraged me too, since Microsoft (well-known element on the hit-list of free/open source software patrons) was also a sponsor. I, however, liked the fact that the organisers were very candid about that. They did not try to con me into joining the team – they made it clear at the very outset that Microsoft was going to be there too. Somehow, that didn’t bother me much, because it’s ultimately about being ‘open’ and letting everybody share their views. Ultimately, the consumer is intelligent and will make the right decision. I never doubt that. In fact, as a consumer, I believe I am intelligent too – I only use what works best for me!

Plus, the organisers offered me a role in the content-planning front, which frankly was just one step away from what I do for the magazines I work with. The content in this case would be presented and not written, and I’d have to interact with speakers and not authors. I also liked the fact that the goals of the event were good, and the positioning was different – it was an event targeted at those who knew the basics, it was meant to be a meeting ground for professionals already in the field of FOSS and IT to top up their knowledge and discover the latest in FOSS.

As a silent reviewer, however, I was a wee bit saddened because somehow the goals were not publicised much amongst the targeted audience – the turnout was not as much as it could have been, and the saddest part was that some later said, “Oh, it sounds interesting but we never knew about it, or we’d definitely have come.”

Lesson learnt: It’s not enough if you put together a good event, you need to publicise it too, because the right audience is an important part of the overall dynamics. And this needs to be done not just through ads but also through social-networking and other online modes – let’s say, PR is as important as the ads. Plus, it needs to be done on an ongoing basis – throughout the year, to keep the buzz alive.
That said, it was a very interesting few months -- interacting with speakers, understanding the topics they'd like to speak on, checking the 'match' of the topics with the various segments of the audience, finalising the topics, etc.

Interesting stuff, and pet projects

As a participant, I thought the content overall was well-planned (obviously, I didn’t plan all of it ;-)), and I found interesting discussions happening in many of the halls, anytime I stepped in for a sneak peek. Web development, mobile applications, open-sourced hardware-software platforms (such as the T-Engine/T-Kernel embedded systems platform), virtualisation, and a whole lot of interesting topics were covered – and the general impression was that the erstwhile LinuxAsia had grown in coverage in sync with the increased scope of its name!

Two of my favourite workshops (well, to be frank, it’s these two that lured me to work with the LinuxAsia team) were the ones on accessibility and FOSS-based entrepreneurship.

Accessibility is a significant issue today, and all the speakers (and the audience) were very clear about the fact that no proprietary software offers the specially-abled users as much freedom and accessibility as open sourced ones. The speakers demonstrated accessibility features in desktop environments and browsers, the possibilities that open source opens up in this front, and also certain challenges faced currently, which developers could help overcome. Klaus and Adrianne Knopper of Knoppix and ADRIANE (desktop environment for the visually-challenged) fame, Krishnakant Mane of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research who demonstrated accessibility features in software such as Mozilla Firefox, Amartyo Bannerjee, Teresa and Arun Mehta who spoke on computing for those with autism and cerebral palsy, and C Umashankar, managing director of ELCOT who showcased their work in that space and the general relevance of accessibility – every talk was valuable to users and developers., a workshop on FOSS-based entrepreneurship was another interesting session that saw a packed hall and tremendous interaction between the audience and the panellists. The two panel discussions focused on tech-entrepreneurship on a broad level before zooming into the growth in FOSS-based entrepreneurship (and investments therein) across the globe. Many insights arose from the experienced panellists such as investors Alok Mittal and Ashish Gupta, technologists Brian Behlendorf and David Axmark, and open source advocates like Dr. Anthony Wasserman.

India needs more entrepreneurs now, as that’s the only way we can capitalise on our intellectual capital in a sustainable way, in the long-term. And FOSS breaks down some of the entry-barriers, allowing more people to start their own companies. While the investors made it clear that their evaluation of a project would be agnostic of whether it is open sourced or not, they did highlight the global trends in FOSS-based entrepreneurship and discuss the advantages therein. This workshop was organised in association with investment firm, Canaan Partners.

Not to forget the interesting panel discussion on mobile technologies – the topics discussed ranged from the need for standardisation to make life easier for developers, to better usability, and the desire for virtualisation on the mobile. Channelling the insights of experienced technologists such as Chiaki Ishikawa of the T-Engine Forum and J Satyamoorthy from Red Hat’s Jboss team, Narendra Bhandari of Intel did a superb job of chairing this panel – he left the organisers in total awe, thanks not only to the way he conducted the discussion on stage but also by how he managed to keep an eye on all the panellists to ensure none of them went missing minutes before the discussion was set to happen!

The summits saw a focused audience

I did not have much to do with organising the summits and couldn’t attend any but the CTOSummit in Bangalore (since it is quite closely linked to technology) – but I think it is a superb strategy to shape OSIW into a set of sub-events, including these summits. Unlike a campus event (such as, say, the TechZone of OSIW), in a summit, the audience is limited but extremely focused. Even when a summit is planned or publicised, the profile of the typical attendee is also planned. So, the speakers can also target their talks well; plus, since the audience has similar interests, there is a very vibrant interaction also.

The CTOSummit held at the Taj Westend, Bangalore, was very nice – the panel discussions as well as the interaction with the audience. Frankly, to the extent that I attended, and from the point of view of ‘i.t.’ magazine (which I consult for) and as a journalist, I found this session most interesting – as every panel discussion spelt the latest in technology, what’s hot, what’s not, innovations, and opportunities to be tapped.

Lessons learnt: The exhibitors expressed a very valid desire to have booth-space available at the venue of the CTOSummit, since the audience comprises decision-makers who are more likely to act (first-hand) upon what they see than the mixed audience seen at the campus event (TechZone). Maybe next year?

I only wish I’d also been able to fly over some of the Bangalore traffic and make it in time to have a proper lunch with the attendees at the summit! No, no, it’s not just about the food (that’s there too!). It’s because, as a friend once told me, the real conference always happens when the conference isn’t happening – and lunch times are crucial to get a feel of the audience, their preferences and what they really think about an event! Hmm, maybe it’s not too late… you can mail me your ideas, even now!