Highlights of BelFOSS 2017

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A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend BelFOSS, a Free and Open Source Software conference, held in the computer science building at Queen’s University. There were a lot of great talks throughout the day, from business owners, volunteers, and people who are just passionate about open source, as well as a panel discussion, but a couple of presentations stood out to me, so here are some of my highlights.

Missing Maps project

Steven Boyd spoke to us about a project he has been a part of since the launch in 2014, Missing Maps. Missing Maps is a humanitarian charity project dedicated to mapping out vulnerable places in the developing world.

Many areas of the developing world aren the map, but have nowhere near the level of detail of some other countries, like the UK or America, and many maps may be missing critical details about the location of hospitals, shops, and private homes. This kind of data is incredibly useful to response teams in times of crisis, and can help with providing aid when disasters do happen. Missing Maps uses volunteers to look at squares of satellite imagery, and trace around anything notable in them, like houses and roads.

An even easier way to contribute is with the Map Swipe app.

The app shows you some satellite imagery, and all you have to do is tap features you spot, like houses, roads, or commercial buildings, and swipe off images which have nothing in them. The areas with features in them are passed on to volunteers to trace a more detailed map.

The project relies on Open Street Map, an open source map of the world, created by volunteers based on local data, that is free to use for everyone. Missing Maps is a great example of one of the ways that open source software can be used as a force for good.

OpenDataNI

Suzanne McLaughlin, Open Data Programme Manager at Digital Shared Services, came to talk about OpenDataNI.

OpenDataNI is a collection of raw data that drives the public sector and its services, which can be accessed by anyone, and used for anything as long as the source is acknowledged.

Suzanne told us about the 2016 OpenDataNI Education competition, which asked applicants to utilise the datasets available to them on OpenDataNI to develop a teaching resource for use in schools.

Suzanne then introduced us to the winner, Rose Kane-Quin, to tell us more about the project she submitted to the competition.

Rose Kane-Quin also led a team of developers to create a teaching resource for secondary school students. Her team put together an online game to teach about databases and SQL, where the aim is to choose a place for a young family to live, based on information gathered from several datasets. The data is collected by dragging and dropping SQL commands to create queries, which will search each dataset for the information required.

I thought this was a really great idea, that teaches something which isn’t necessarily fun or easy, in a way that’s engaging and much more exciting than traditional ways of learning SQL. The game is set to be tested in real school environments in the coming year, and is another great example of open source data being used in practical, real world situations.

Open source – not about software

The final speaker of the day was Matt Curry, who currently works for Allstate as the Director of Cloud Engineering (but has branded himself the ‘Supa Fly Cloud Guy’). He has helped drive a cultural transformation which Allstate have branded ‘Compozed Labs’, a global network of Agile XP development hubs. Matt came all the way from Arizona to speak to us about the community side of open source software, in a talk titled “Open Source: It’s not about software”.

Unlike many of the previous talks we’d heard throughout the day, which had highlighted practical uses for open source software, and focused primarily on the software aspect of it, Matt turned it around and made the point that the software isn’t what makes open source great.
He pointed out that while writing code and creating software is important, the real spirit of open source comes from the community behind it. Sharing code with others isn’t as easy as writing it and giving others access to it, it requires maintenance and attention long after the first release. Without a group of people who are willing to share what they’ve created, and to contribute to what others have created, then open source software simply couldn’t exist.

Matt ended a great day of talks by reinforcing this point, a nice reminder of how important each person individually is in keeping open source software going.

From what it is, to how it can be used, to future innovations for it, everyone who spoke throughout the day had something new and interesting to say, and I think it’s safe to say I learnt a lot about open source.

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