ReportTool launched

ReportTool is a simple web application for creating, editing and viewing reports on students’ work. It was created by Stephen Butterfill, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Warwick.

In classic hacker fashion, Steve had an itch that needed scratching. Like faculty in every university department, the faculty in his department had to create, track and distribute reports on students’ progress. From Steve’s point of view, it is much easier to do this on the web than on paper. Since he couldn’t find a free and open source web application to meet his need, he set about building one of his own.

Along the way Steve needed to learn java and web programming. When you’ve got an itch, I guess, you do whatever it takes to scratch it. And, since he is one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met, it wasn’t long before he had a working application.

First make something that works. Then make it better.

Having built an application that is adequate for his own needs, Steve started thinking about sharing it with others. Anyone building an application like this is almost certain to be using so many free and open source development tools that open source just seems like the natural way to go. But how to go about it?

That’s when I got involved with ReportTool.

I have been helping Steve set up a project site for ReportTool. Our modest goal is to gather input from potential users, those willing to try out the live demo, or indeed those brave enough to download the prototype. Future development of ReportTool – including discussions towards which open source licence would be most appropriate for it – will take place out in the open on the ReportTool development mailing list.

It’s been fun working with Steve. And fun setting up the ReportTool site. But I suspect that the real fun is only just beginning…

Try it on for size

These days almost any webhosting company that offers a GNU/Linux package also offers a plethora of one-click installs of free and open source content management systems, database servers, blogging software, wikis, control versioning systems (cvs), and more. With so much choice, you will want to try it all. And you should. It’s fun, and you will learn a great deal.

There is probably some marketing term for a product that promotes itself by letting potential customers use it. In the case of open source software, that trial use merges seamlessly with actual use, with no discernible transition or acquisition cost.

So, I come, I try out some software, I like it so much that…I just keep using it.

The opportunity to try something that isn’t a cut-down version, or a lost leader for a “pro” version, is one of the great strengths of free and open source software.

Recently I have been learning how to administer Mailman. Just another one-click install option from the webhoster for a project site I am helping with. I already know it does the job I need it to do. I need to set up a development discussion list and an announcement list. I know this because I’ve engaged with Mailman interfaces as a list subscriber on countless open source project sites. Now I’m discovering that administering lists is reasonably straightforward as well. What should I do now?

Just keep using it!

Getting involved with open source software

For some time now I have been working for OSS Watch, which is the national advisory service on free and open source software for universities and colleges in the United Kingdom. It sounds grand, and in many ways it is. Our work stretches from the highest levels of national and european policy to the most practical kinds of advice for staff at universities who want to release their software under an open source licence. I enjoy it. I ought to, I’m the manager.

The strange thing is that I do not have a background as a programmer. Once, in long ago days, I was a philosopher. Latterly I became a communications manager in a digital research environment. This led in time to my working with OSS Watch, initially to help this national service shape its communications package, more recently to manage the service as a whole.

Talk about what you know, they say. So at first I concentrated my public presentations for OSS Watch simply on what OSS Watch is, or hoped to be. As a brand new advisory service there was plenty of work to do in this area. Being a quick study, I was also soon able to converse at length on the nature of free and open source software, with a concentration on copyright and licensing matters, both of which are vital to any understanding of open source software.

The theory of free and open source software is not enough, of course. You have to get your hands dirty. I began by using open source applications on my desktop – email client, web browser, office suite and more. Soon I was able to speak with some authority on a variety of open source applications. I then moved on to exploring the variety of GNU/Linux distributions available, installing at one time or another Mandrake (now Mandriva), Suse, Fedora Core, Knoppix, Debian, and Ubuntu. I have probably installed some variety of Linux more than 50 times in the past year or two. Gradually I have learned a thing or two.

Still, it’s not enough. There is no way to avoid the fact that to really get involved with open source software just means to get involved in open source software development. So how does a non-programmer with a broad theoretical knowledge of free and open source software development and deployment get involved in the practical aspects of open source development?

I’ll find out the hard way by doing it.

I will record what I learn here as I go along.