Open Source Inspiration at FOSDEM 2015

On 31 January I attended the Free and Open Source Developers’ European Meeting. FOSDEM is a collection of over 550 lectures, attended by over 5000 developers who have a passion for open-source software.

Set in the Université Libre de Bruxelles which, astoundingly, provide the venue to the organisers free of charge, the conference runs over two days and holds talks ranging from deep-dives into low level programming languages, theoretical challenges to what we know of as the operating system, and top down overviews of the principles of accessibility on the web.

As the Money Advice Service has spent the last 18 months developing a new responsive website out in the open I was eager to see how other developers (working on a range of hardware and software products) also make use of, and are inspired by open source principles.

However, as a frontend developer I am not afraid to say that a great many talks were well above my grasp of computer science. Nevertheless, after two days of lectures I believe my take-away from FOSDEM is that the conference is inspirational, over and above instructional. As a developer working to help improve the financial capability of the UK through the creation of useful and informative digital products, there is much we can learn from, and be inspired by, diverse open-source projects.

The lectures “A GPS watch made of free software and hardware” and “Living on Mars: A Beginner’s Guide. Can we Open Source a society?” as I describe below exemplify this.

A GPS watch made of free software and hardware

It is typical for a longstanding colleague, when retiring, to receive a watch as a gift. At European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), that watch is not commercial product however, but an example of ingenuity and open source development.

Federico Vaga and Matthieu Cattin created a GPS watch designed with freely available software and manufactured using 3D printing technology. They created F*watch to be “an infinitely hackable GPS watch with many sensors” that showcased all that could be achieved with open-source design and production. Every component in the watch was free, from the PCB and watch housing, to the software that ran on the watch.

The plans for the watch are available online for anyone to download and use, and while both speakers encouraged the attendees to build a watch themselves, the talk was more inspirational than instructive.

Often it is easy to think that product development is only achievable by large companies and that open source product development produces feature restrictive products at a large cost. Instead Federico and Matthieu showed what was capable in their spare time, with freely available resources, and produced a very inspirational prototype.

The F*Watch can be found here.

Living on Mars: A Beginner’s Guide. Can we open source a society?

Nothing exemplifies FOSDEM as inspirational more than the last lecture of the conference.

Ryan MacDonald, a physicist from Oxford University (and an aspiring candidate in Mars One’s Astronaut Selection Programme) spoke on how humanity will begin to colonise Mars in 2025. The charge will be led by the private company ‘Mars One’ who will be using open-source principles to fund their endeavour to send four astronauts on a one-way mission to establish and grow a colony on Mars.

Ryan posited that, if successful, the colony will face an interesting dilemma – how to govern themselves. Not bound by an edict from Mars One or a national government they could attempt a technocracy, or embrace a yet untried form of government. If this proved successful, or better yet, more effective than the forms used back on Earth then lessons could be relayed back and, just perhaps, influence change on Earth.

The most interesting aspect of Ryan’s overview of the Mars One mission was how close it felt to reality. Often we are bombarded with theories of living in the stars. These predictions are usually reliant on technology which has yet to be invented. Even NASA’s later mission to Mars relies on a 500 billion dollar research and development budget to create a method of launching a vessel from the surface of Mars upon completion of the mission. Mars One, however, is based on currently existing technology, and has developed a feasible plan to send four astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars within the next decade.

Seeing how close we are coming to colonising another world, and how free and open-source principles will be used to support this was inspiring. Listening to the passion in Ryan’s voice we wish him success in the upcoming second round selection programme.

Open Source Development

Observing two engineers create a GPS watch from nothing in their spare time, and a physicist speak so passionately about the reality of colonising another planet, it is clear that free and open source software plays is inspirational to many developers, and key to the success of many major projects. This is what is celebrated every year at FOSDEM.

The Money Advice Service website is an open source software project. While it may not allow you to print a 3D watch, or help you colonise Mars, it does showcase how we think code should be written and structured.

This is what Ben Barnett wrote about when describing our recent work on the Dough component library in the previous post Making with Dough. Having made many of our best practices open source we hope we can help shape, for the better, the way other component libraries re built and frontend projects architected.

Additionally, for FOSDEM 2016, if it is possible we would like to volunteer to help the team at FOSDEM make their website responsive, and consequently increase its performance to better serve next year’s attendees.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this year’s free and open source software developers’ european meeting was inspirational. It solidified just how important open source software is to both the developer community, and to many commercial projects, and reinforced why we keep our code at the Money Advice Service open for all to see, and use.

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