Today I attended the always interesting FSOSS event at Seneca Centre for Development of Open Technology in Toronto. I had a couple of goals for participating in the event. I hoped to get myself plugged back in to the open source community (at least more than sitting in my office permits) and there were a number of talks (and people) that I specifically wanted to see. Despite some disappointments, the high points more than compensated.
Key for me in the morning set of talks was Dru Lavigne speaking on Finding a Community (Even if You’re not a Developer). This was an excellent presentation – thorough, careful, and measured. Plenty here for anyone new to FOSS or anyone still trying to find their niche. Dru spent a fair bit of time outlining how to find a good fit for your skills. Clearly that is much easier if you are a developer and have a specific toolset. That rather narrows the field of projects to which you might contribute. But what if what you hope to offer to a FOSS project is documentation skills, or at least non-coding skills? Here the problem is that your skills are so general that you really could contribute to virtually any project. For me, the way to narrow the decision matrix in such a case is to find a project that you actually use and that you feel passionate about.
I was delighted to finally see Dru speak since I had been hearing her name (and seeing it) for some time. Worth the wait.
In the afternoon I went to a solid talk by Scott Nesbitt on FLOSS Manuals – Too Good to be True. FLOSS Manuals is the brain child of Adam Hyde, a New Zealander with a vision for facilitating documentation. And not just facilitating the creation of documentation, but rather getting documentation done! It is a long-standing truism that documentation is the bane of FOSS projects (well, any kind of project, really). Through the use of book sprints FLOSS Manuals helps with the rapid production and completion of user manuals. Scott detailed the book sprint that had been undertaken earlier in the week to create a user manual for Mozilla Thunderbird. He also pointed participants at the next generation of FLOSS Manuals, called Booki. Booki also has a Mozilla Drumbeat project, Open Web Publishing which is worth a look.
I wondered how the documentation effort in FLOSS Manuals co-ordinates or conflicts with the documentation efforts within a FOSS project. At least in the Thunderbird sprint key Mozilla Thunderbird developers directly participated. I’m not entirely certain I’m clear on whether or not the documentation effort of a FOSS project could get diffused by such work, but it’s clear that these are also live questions that are being worked out directly in practice. Scott did a good job encouraging those present to explore FLOSS Manuals further and, if possible, get involved.
The final talk that I want to mention is the one entitled Mozilla Drumbeat: open innovation for all. I had been looking forward to hearing (and seeing) Mark Surman again. I was really hoping he would clear up some muddle-headedness that I’m suffering regrading the Mozilla Foundation Drumbeat effort. I totally get the idea of defending and extending the open web. I don’t quite understand the Drumbeat spin on this. Alas, Mark dropped out of the event, apparently having slipped off to Barcelona to help prepare for the Drumbeat Festival due to take place there next week. Okay, fair enough. Barcelona does have its attractions. And it might also be warmer than Toronto at this time of year.
Fortunately (for us) Mark was replaced by Matt Thompson. Matt did a good job in Mark’s stead. He gave a nice overview of Drumbeat’s goals. He reminded us how Mozilla Firefox defended the open web not by lobbying the powers that be, but by simply building a better browser than the massively dominant IE that was threatening the open web. Today, of course, there are many new threats to the open web, not least the attack on net neutrality. Can the Mozilla Foundation find new ways to defend and extend the open web?
I don’t know. The Drumbeat projects highlighted all seemed very cool. I could see how they would garner lots of participation from “the people formerly known as users”. But I’m less clear on how they address the very things that Drumbeat itself identifies as threats to the open web. Of course, it could be that what really needs to be translated is the manner in which Mozilla built its fabulous open source browser. But then I would have thought I’d be hearing about a Mozilla Foundation project repository perhaps modelled on the Apache Foundation cohort of projects each of which partake to some extent in the well-tested development methodology found in the server project. There doesn’t seem to be that kind of guidance for proposed projects at this time. But perhaps it is just too soon to tell. Matt described the past year as, effectively, Drumbeat in beta test mode. We should look for a major overhaul of both the website and (I think) the movement in the new year. No doubt that has something to do with what will be going on in Barcelona next week. If so, I look forward to the continued sharpening of the aims and objectives, and methods, that Drumbeat will seek to promote. I have a natural fondness for Mozilla, its browser, its Foundation, and a firm belief in its potential for good. I, for one, will be watching Drumbeat with anticipation in the weeks and months ahead.
All in all, it was a good day. I missed the presence of one or more significant keynote speaker. And I really don’t need another metal liquid container (which seems to be de rigueur as a participant goodie at every conference these days). And no, an extra-large t-shirt is unlikely to fit me (luckily I managed to make an exchange for a more plausible size). But most important were the people I spoke to, ate with, shared a drink with. Because community really is what FOSS is all about.