Summary PICISOC E-Talanoa (inaugural): FOSS (free and open-source software) is free and its open but how does it work? Confirmation

By Will Tibben

Thank you to all those who participated in the first “PICISOC E-Talanoa (inaugural): FOSS (free and open-source software) is free and its open but how does it work?”

Special thanks to panelists Edwin Liava’a, Ken Katafone and Ashley Maher. To learn more about these gentlemen check out their bios below. All are on linked-in and are very generous with their knowledge.

In summary, the webinar attracted about 16 participants (in addition to our panelists). There were a few technical issues (mea culpa). In the spirit of talanoa the quality of the discussion was excellent. Following are my notes from the discussion.

Edwin took us back to his early experience with SOPAC and his installation of a FOSS application that was deployed throughout power utilities in the Pacific which was later transferred to. He made the point that FOSS is well represented in many back end systems.

Ken backed up this observation by naming a whole range of installations at USP, Forum Fisheries Agencies and other examples. It is in the area of desktops where FOSS is yet to make an impact. Same can be said about mobiles. Ken is currently focusing part of his efforts on blockchain repositories which is free and open. There is ongoing support for hackathons which he hosts and use of social media data to develop social media analytics. This is one recent and important FOSS-related development.

Ashley provided a useful perspective of FOSS from an Australian perspective. He was able to provide details of a variety of high-profile FOSS deployments involving Australian Government Dept of Finance NSW Gov, UNSW and UOW Medical Informatics research.

The most pertinent points.

  • People don’t want software – they want their vision realised.
  • FOSS can be deployed in a variety of ways which can involve closed source applications. FOSS can be deployed in ways that provide autonomy and minimal lock-in with a vendor. This was seen in the Australian Government Finance Department deployment.
  • The NSW Government (Finance) deployment leads one to an understanding that value propositions are not always about money. Reflecting on the Pacific Ashley emphasized the autonomy that FOSS can deliver. Another important observation is the potential to localizing software to local language.
  • The discussion among panelists initially was led by WJT who asked Ken about his leadership in entrepreneurship. Hackathons have been held in Fiji, Samoa and Papua New Guinea. I was interested to see that his experience across all three countries was quite uniform. Disappointingly, he has found that there seems to be a diminishing skill set among young people who are interested in IT. Given the volume of relevant information that is freely accessible on the Internet (ie FOSS = Internet = ISOC) the absence of interest from young people to mine this free resource is indeed curious.
  • This eventually became a theme of the webinar where two members of the audience also supported this observation. One outcome suggested by Rohitash Chandra (UNSW) is to meet again in a webinar to develop a paper that can crystalize this issue and suggest some strategies that Ministries may want to address.
  • There was also a perception that free does not equal good. In order to get the feeling has acquired something worthwhile, it helps to spend money. Anything that can be obtained freely is perceived of less value when in, fact, the opposite is the case.
  • From the audience, there were questions about the impact of improved connectivity on future FOSS deployments. Both of the Pacific specialists indicated that the issue is connected to “bigger picture” issues about wholesale and retail availability of broadband. At this point it seems to be constrained by government regulation.
  • WJT adds at this point that bandwidth is only one constraint that needs to be over-come. Human thinking is still working at the same pace that it has since humans evolved into what they are today – it takes time for new ideas to emerge, communicated and then accepted. As Ashley pointed out, one factor that constrains FOSS is the reality that many IT specialists who have developed their careers on Windows are not going to voluntarily make their store of knowledge redundant by introducing new concepts. Learning new concepts takes time and effort – its much easier to stick with the
    familiar.
  • Another audience question focused on the mindsets that students bring to closed source v open source. Ashley responded by saying that there is essentially no difference in terms of teaching them. However, he took the opportunity to highlight the benefits that FOSS may have when going for a job. Students who are able to demonstrate an open source project on Github (for example) have an advantage over students whose code is locked away in a university-owned repository.
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