One of the most common complaints I’ve heard about FOSS4G this year is the lack of information coming out of the conference. As far as I’m concerned, that’s down to one simple fact: being held in a developing country leaves much to be desired with regard to connecting to the rest of the world in any number of ways.
Whether it be the lack of SMS (too costly to use idly — messages ending up in the US at a service like Twitter end up being $0.25 apiece, even with a local SIM) leading to less Twitter activity, limited internet bandwidth making even getting to a website — much less updating one — far more difficult, lack of decent hotel internet, and paying an arm and a leg when it does exist… the end result is a situation where simply getting online to chat on IRC was far more than many people had an opportunity to do during the conference, and the more regular ‘datastream’ that comes flowing out of most conference attendees during a conference in a more well-connected part of the world was simply nonexistent.
A slightly less technical and more social aspect to this may be the fact that Cape Town bars stay open til 4am, and I know I wasn’t the only FOSS4G attendee they were kicking out at closing time every night.
Combine that with the distance of the trip, and right now, I bet a lot of people are still either here in Africa (as I am: Posting from a Cape Town hotel) or still recovering from their trip, and haven’t had the opportunity to do the detailed breakdowns that people had hoped for.
My take on the conference is that it was great for the people who attended. There was a huge crowd of people who had limited or no experience with Open Source software, or had just recently heard about it and were not really understanding what it meant, or how it worked, or why it mattered. I think that there were a number of people who were interested who were able to learn more — even people who work in communities which are not traditionally open to that kind of solution.
There were a number of presentations on many things that I don’t think we would have seen at a more software developer oriented conference. The uses of GIS — to track water pipeline breakages, to visualize the spread of malaria, to track the best places to plant grapes for growing better wine — are something that we saw much more of at this conference than at previous conferences. I think that this was directly tied to the fact that this conference was clearly a merging of two generally distant groups, and I think the end result was productive for both groups.
The attendance was, from what I heard, 50% ‘locals’, from around South Africa and the rest of Africa. There were many new faces who clearly would not have been able to attend a conference in the US or Europe, and for that alone, there was a benefit to the community as a whole to have the conference in Cape Town.
The organizers did a great job arranging the event: the venue, activities, and sessions were, on the whole, well set up. Also, the food that was provided was some of the best I’ve ever had — at a conference or anywhere else.
Overall, the conference was educational, helped to establish Open Source GIS software in a new location, helped to spread the worldwide knowledge and usage of Open Source software, and introduced the concepts that we in the OSGeo world would like to push onto others wherever appropriate. There was a huge cross breeding of information and cultures that wouldn’t have been possible in another setting, and — despite the distance, cost, and other possible pitfalls that could have befallen the conference — I think that placing the conference in Cape Town was a huge success. There have been a number of doubts voiced as to whether this was really the right decision — certainly, it made attending more difficult for a number of people who would have been at a North American or European event. These doubts and complaints are not to be ignored: It’s true that FOSS4G is meant to be a meeting of the tribes of OSGeo, and that aspect of it was more limited this year than in the past. However, the end result is that hundreds of people who would have had absolutely no chance of making it to an event in the Northern Hemisphere did so, and a number of them have been introduced to and hooked on Open Source software in a way no other event would have been able to.
Placing the conference in Cape Town had a specific goal of spreading Open Source software to someplace that it had not been as successful as possible in the past. With that in mind, this Cape Town conference succeeded in more ways than I can count, and that’s a big win for the conference and for OSGeo as a whole.