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FOSS Nigeria 2010 report

It’s a cold and windy day here in Kano; that’s comparable to a nice warm day in summer in Nijmegen, so I keep explaining, and sitting around in shorts on the steps in front of the university guest house at BUK old campus this morning was very nice.

Frederik has already blogged a bit about the conference and talks and added some pictures — pictures which are quite similar to last year’s bunch, which you can see at a-ig’s blog from last year. I will try to write about the way we prepared for the conference and what our contribution is. We sort of go to the conference as rock stars, but in all honesty there is a great deal we don’t know (and we say so). Just last night, over a fanta at the CS student’s joint here at BUK, I learned a great deal more about Debian packaging and how to effectively share packages when only limited bandwidth is available. Something to add to my trove of knowledge and to share when someone needs it.

So in a sense we (Frederik and myself) act as catalysts, triggering other people to come forward and share their knowledge.

In these past two editions of the FOSS Nigeria conference, the conference schedule has not been fixed beforehand except in the broadest terms (Friday the whole day except for Juma’a prayers, Saturday afternoon, Sunday the whole day until 4 for the closing ceremony) and it hasn’t been clear just how much we’d be speaking anyway. So we prepared some introductory talks on Free Software: what is it; what do software licenses do; what is Linux; what is GNU; how do Free Software projects work; why (and how) you can contribute. For these introductory talks we had slides prepared beforehand; on the evening before the conference we discussed with Mustapha what the schedule should be and how long the talks would go on.

During the conference itself we take questions on paper. The conference writing pad is heavily used for that. The reason we don’t take the questions at the end of each talk from the audience is that that takes too much time to do right — it would mean more mikes, walking into the audience, etc. Also, some of the questions take some serious thought before answering. So we take notes. All the questions are collected and we type them up into slides during breaks or during each other’s talks. Then whenever convenient we do a Q&A session where we go through the question slides and answer them as best we can. Typically that gives us a 45-minute session right after lunch and one at the end of the day. Some questions we got this year:

  • Can you tell us about some Free Software application for agriculture?
  • Can VirtualBox access my Windows partition directly?
  • Can I have your autograph?
  • Is there a Free Software replacement for SPSS?
  • Please demonstrate some 3D and animation tools under Linux
  • Is there a good forms and reports generator for MySQL?

Dear Lazyweb: do you have good answers for these questions? Because we could say “umm .. maybe” ; “probably, but I think it requires guest additions” ; “yes, see me later” ; “I think R does the stats part but I don’t otherwise know” ; “there’s Blender, but I don’t know how to use it” ; “I don’t know”. Really makes you feel useless going over answers like that.

Fortunately a local business is specialized in using Blender for architectural modeling and walkthroughs, so they gave a presentation on the third day of the conference on how they use a Free Software tool (Blender, of course) in their business. “Using FOSS to be your own BOSS”. They said they decided to give their talk after hearing our rather limited answer about 3D, so that was a great catalytic moment.

After day 1 we sat down to plan day 2: who else is talking, how long, what makes the most sense for the audience based on the questions we have had now. So day 2 got a bit more of a practical slant for the afternoon — the morning was taken up by LPI exams. At the end of the day we still had 30-odd questions left in the queue to answer, and not much material for the next day, so we spent the evening writing up slides for new topics and dealing with the bits of paper we’d been handed.

Day 3 turned out to have no slots for us except Q&A sessions, because there were four other speakers including the Blender guys. That’s a great sign, so we skipped our KDE multimedia and Javascript and Python talks to listen to what was happening in Free Software in Kano and surroundings. Blender; databases and web portals; how to make money with Free Software.

There was also an announcement of a Kano Python users group (PyKano) in an effort to get some more Python development off the ground here. I dare say that was one of the best moments of the conference, the launch of a concrete, short term project to improve the software development and ICT community in Kano and promote Free Software at the same time.

A number of translation efforts have been pushed forward as well during these three days. The keyboard stuff I’ve written about is part of an effort to make it easier for everyone to type translated strings. I believe that we’ll get a big influx of Hausa translations over the next few months — probably by email through me, so I’m going to end up as translation coordinator for a language I don’t speak — as well as new work on Kanuri, where first we’ll have to figure out what the language code for it even is.

Next day or two I need to get a translation environment set up here so I can explain better how to begin doing the translations, including tools for testing and whatnot. That means running Lokalize and figuring out how it works. It looks rather intimidating compared to vi applied to the same data.

Anyway, returning to conference planning and the like: the schedule here is a living, changing thing that requires plenty of flexibility, but that makes speaking here such fun. It’s also a broad conference and a great chance to learn many new things — not in the least because we get asked about everything so we have to research a little about everything as well. Expect the unexpected, I guess.

Planning is underway for next year, probably in a different city and with any luck there will be some satellite events as well in outlying towns; if that means traveling around for a few days extra to help ICT in Kano and other states and to spread Free Software (low-cost, freedom-granting, straightforward and by-the-rules Software) then I’m looking forward to FOSS Nigeria 2011 already.

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