Taking to FOSS, Indian-style
By Frederick Noronha
GOA, INDIA, 13 December 2005
In keeping with the ‘argumentative Indian’  image, this event got off to a hotly-debated start. But, from all indications, FOSS.IN/2005 — which brands itself India’s premier Free and Open Source Software event — has been able to repackage itself, find a new home, and even upscale itself en route to being more relevant to this country of a billion-plus.
From November 29 to December 2, 2005 the event was held in a South Indian palace built in Tudor-style. Bangalore’s palace is believed to have been built by a local raja in the 1880s, after he was inspired by the Windsor Castle during a visit to England!
There were big names involved, too. At the end of an impressive list — almost as a deliberate prank — organisers sneaked in the name of legendary Welsh kernel hacker Alan Cox. In computer engineering, the kernel is the core of an operating system. It is a piece of software responsible for providing secure access to the machine’s hardware and to various computer processes (a process is a computer program in a state of execution). Hence, kernel hackers are treated with much awe and respect in the community. Hacker is a term which is — unlike in the mainstream media — used with positive connotations to describe people who use, create, modify or manipulate computers.
Others whose names were included in the programmes list included include Jonathan Corbet, co-author of "Linux Device Drivers", and editor of LWN.NET; Andrew Cowie of Linux Australia; Harald Welte, the chairman of the netfilter/iptables project, and the man behind GPLviolations.org; "Mr.Wizards-of-OS" Volker Grassmuck; the mainstay of the Apache project, COLLAB.NET’s Brian Behlendorf; "Mr.PHP" Rasmus Lerdorf; the Diva of Open Source, Danese Cooper; and the man involved in Linux Sound and Audio Dave Phillips.
Women geeks from Brazil, Indian techies keen to see how IT can make a real difference in adding efficiency to society, those keen to plug in its benefits to the world of education, mega-corporations and governments throwing in sponsorship dollars and rupees… there was a real mixed bag making this event happen.
Bangalore prides on calling itself the "Silicon Valley of India". Some 200 Information Technology corporations have facilities in Bangalore.
FOSS.IN was held in Bangalore — known as the ‘garden city’ because of its beautiful gardens, flowers and trees — which is also India’s fifth largest city with a metropolitan population of about 6.5 million. Bangalore became Independent India’s scientific and manufacturing hub for heavy industries, and in the last decade it grew into India’s IT hub.
This year, the focus went beyond just "Linux" and "Open Source". It was been broadened its scope by including the label ‘Free’ in its name. Moreover, it offered to focus "on all FOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) including "topics related to Linux, *BSD, FOSS technologies, FOSS on non-FOSS platforms, etc. at the technical level, and FOSS community, advocacy, FOSS in Education, copyrights and patents, FOSS in culture, etc. at the meta-technical level."
FOSS.IN received sponsorships, but organisers stressed that it is "driven" by the FLOSS "community itself, not commercial entities".
Kernel developer Cox gave a very easy-to-follow talk under an imaginative title "Use the Source, Luke", at the start of the event. Its aim was to encourage Indian contributors to this collaboratively-crafted pool of software that has reached amazing levels of maturity today, even if somewhat hampered by an initially-steep learning curve.
Open Source Institute secretary and treasurer Danese Cooper — earlier with Sun and now with Intel — focused on ‘Free and Open Source: Opportunities for India’. She raised issues like whether the so-called ‘developing’ nations are "simply leveraging work from the rich developed countries, or can they begin to innovate and develop original work?"
There are also other interesting talks. Redhat’s Venkatesh ‘Venky’ Hariharan looked at ‘The Political, Cultural and Economic Relevance of Open Source’.
Technology consultant Atul Chitnis talked about ‘The Impact of FOSS on Everything’.
University of Wisconsin, Madison alumni Subramanya Sastry focuses on NewsRack. This is a tool for automating news monitoring, which he feels is particularly suitable for campaign-oriented non-profit organisations that otherwise have to depend on laborious, manual paper-based cuttings as a means of keeping track of the news. NewsRack — available currently, and being improved — automates news monitoring based on user-specified profiles. It is installed as a web service and available for testing at: http://floss.sarai.net/newsrack
India’s long invisible — or barely existent — contribution to the world of GNU/Linux also came to the fore. Hindu priest based in the US-cum-software coder the Debian Project’s Jaldhar H Vyas give two talks, including an introduction to Debian GNU/Linux. Jaldhar (34) has been a Debian developer for eight years. He is co-author of the book "Debian GNU/Linux 3.1 Bible." He is also leader of Debian IN, a project to localize Debian for Indian languages and cultures.
All the way from Brazil came Sulamita Garcia of LinuxChix. She had good things to say in her blog, even if Sulamita had the tough task of visiting a country where tradition and a couldn’t-care-less attitude among mostly-male, young and arrogantly successful geeks pushes women even more to the margins in the world of FOSS.
LinuxChix calls itself a community for women "who like [GNU]Linux, and for supporting women in computing". Membership ranges from novices to experienced users, and includes professional and amateur programmers, system administrators and technical writers. Garcia made the point that it was alright to be women in computing, and that gender didn’t need to simply aspire to be "men with long-hair". She pointed to amazing women role models in the history of computing, including some expat and resident women from India.
Besides a range of hard-core tech talks, there were many which give hints of how technology is being applied to local realities, specially in education.
Philip Tellis argued that computers have been used in education for over a decade, and while the scope of their usage has changed over the years, they are "still largely restricted to be used as instructive media". This usage, he argued, stems primarily from the use of closed systems that are unavailable for study. But, with FLOSS, students get to experience a whole new way of learning — by doing. "This not only takes a large load off of an instructor’s shoulders, but also prepares students for an industry that moves too fast to jump on to," argues Tellis.
Dr George Easaw of Government College of Engineering, Goa focused on MOODLE, a fascinating and free-to-deploy e-learning tool.
There were also talks on FLOSS in agriculture, science and education (by R Srilatha of the French Institute of Pondicherry, http://www.ifpindia.org/oscar.html); and a panel discussion on FOSS in education.
GRASS-ROOT, DOWN-TO-EARTH ISSUES
Amidst its unusual venue, FOSS.IN however didn’t overlook some grass-root, down-to-earth issues. It’s set in the middle of the greenery of a sprawling garden, amidst fortified towers.
Shantanu Oak looked at what the Wikipedia — http://www.wikipedia.org — holds out for India. On the other hand, Neetibodh Agarwal looked at the "rules of engagement" with global FLOSS developer communities.
There’s also a session on Indic-language computing. Gora Mohanty of the Indlinux project (http://indlinux.org) talked on "the long and winding road: FOSS computing in Indian languages".
Siji Sunny of the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (www.janabhaaratii.org.in) looked at "simple, robust and cost-effective computers for villagers".
Sunny says a solution has been implemented through Project Janabhaaratii at the SNDT University in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). It involves creating a work environment in a village with one computer and disk-less workstations. Using this and their approach for entering Indian languages on GNU/Linux platform, they say they can create contents locally and share it globally. Their solution involves Indian-language enabled GNU/Linux at the server accessed using a Live CD enabled on PCI cards.
IndLinux.org’s (http://www.indlinux.org) G Karunakar looks at mapping FOSS in India, while Arun Chadda explains how Free Software was introduced to a Bangalore school.
Indranil Das Gupta of L2C2 Technologies (www.l2c2.org) talked on delivering localized content in education. Lawyer Mahesh T Pai of Kerala spoke about Free Software distribution and the Indian law.
Obviously, there’s a lot of work ahead. Not just does India need many more techies in this part of the globe to better understand the latest cutting-edge technology, but they need to learn how to apply it. Not just in keeping with global trends, but going along with the requirements of a still mostly poor (superpower-ambitions notwithstanding) country like India.
Effective links between software (techies, talent pools) and society (education, governments, non-profit organisations) are still waiting to be built. Most importantly, countries like India need to understand itself better — what it’s capable of doing, where it needs to reach, what it has attained so far, and where it fits in to the larger global picture. A tall task indeed. But an exciting one!