Big Tent Conferences

Posted: September 17, 2011 in openstreetmap, postgresql
Tags: , , , ,

This past week I attended FOSS4G in Denver, a conference run by the open-source geospatial foundation (OSGEO) that also happened to be the largest PostgreSQL conference in North America.

FOSS4G is a big tent conference that attracted about 900 attendees from all over the world with over 400 of them from the United States, over 50 from Canada.
A big tent conference is a conference is similar to a big-tent political party. The idea is appeal to a broad base of people by catering to as many groups as possible while keeping true to some key common themes. Out of the 900 people at the conference I’d say 75% raised their hands when asked if it was their first FOSS4G. Last years FOSS4G was held in Europe and also had over 800 attendees.

At FOSS4G the common theme is open source geo-spatial software. This includes open-source desktop GIS systems like QGIS and GRASS. It includes open source map rendering platforms like Mapserver and Mapnik. It also includes open source spatial databases such as PostGIS and MongoDB. The tent is also big enough to include commercial vendors such as ESRI, Safe(authors of FME) who produce commercial products that interface with some open-source geospartial software. Many of the software packages (open-source and commercial) represented at the conference compete with each other but they are able to share the same tent. At the opening reception one attendee (who I won’t name) said “I’m need to find Chris Schmidt and tell him why OpenLayers sucks” conferences that get everyone under one roof for a week allow us to learn from each other so we can improve our software, our documentation and our communities. It is much harder to have a flame-war on a mailing list with someone you have sat down and had a beer with than it is to have a flame-war with someone you have never met.

At FOSS4G almost everyone I spoke to used PostGIS in some fashion, some of them used couchDB or MongoDB for tasks, others had legacy Oracle Spatial or ESRI systems but everyone was aware of PostGIS and most had used it in some fashion. If you are running PostGIS then you are running PostgreSQL. FOSS4G 2011 was the largest collection of PostgreSQL users under one roof in North America to date. As a member of the PostgreSQL community I feel we need to do a better job at making sure that geospatial types feel welcome in our community. Excluding the core PostGIS developers I recognized less than 5 people from the PostgreSQL community at the conference and most of us were there because of our connections to other communities. Having said that, most people I spoke to said that they loved PostGIS and PostgreSQL.

The flight home from FOSS4G is also a good time to reflect on what it means to be a community conference.

  • Each year OSGEO asks for submissions/proposals from the community on groups that want to host the next FOSS4G. An OSGEO committee examines these submissions and selects a host city for the next conference.
  • OSGEO moves the conference around the world each year. They won’t hold the conference in the same continent two years in a row. This makes it easier for people in different parts of the world too attend. It also means that when the conference is in your backyard you make a special effort to attend because it probably isn’t coming back for at least three years.
  • FOSS4G has a call for papers, the papers are then voted on by the wider community as an input into the paper selection processes. Anyone in the community can have input into which talks are selected.
  • After FOSS4G a financial report on the conference along with many other documents used in planning the conference are published in a subversion repository. This acts as a resource for future groups considering hosting FOSS4G. It also means that the revenues and expenses are public so people can can see where the money goes.
  • FOSS4G does not just appeal to developers. In addition to developers and sysadmins there where many cartographers and geographers at the conference

Next year FOSS4G will be held in Bejing. Various political, cultural, logistical and financial reasons will make it hard for many of the American attendees to go to FOSS4G. Some people in Denver were talking about how there should be a North American FOSS4G next year as well. My thoughts on this are

  • It is important to not dilute the FOSS4G brand, FOSS4G is the big geo-spatial conference that travels around the world. If you start splitting the FOSS4G brand you will soon end up with a FOSS4G-EU, FOSS4G-US , FOSS4G-Asia instead of a FOSS4G. Other communities do this (*BSD as an example). Figure out the relationship between FOSS4G, OSGEO and regional conferences before someone announces FOSS4G-US, maybe these regional conferences should be called something other than FOSS4G
  • If you are thinking about creating another North American geo-spatial conference think about what other communities your conference can reach out to (OSM, PostgreSQL, Python, etc…). State of the Map was fun for a lot of the same reasons PGCon is fun. You get to spend a few days meeting and hanging out with people that you regularly chat with online and everyone shares a deep passion of a very specific project. A lot of the fun I had with FOSS4G was from the energy of being at such a large conference.
  • If you do hold some sort of regional conference, for god sakes don’t hold the conference two weeks before the Bejing conference. Space the conferences out so that it is easier for speakers, attendees and sponsors to attend both. I think the next year will turn out to be a great year for the struggling OpenStreetMap community in the US because of the interest and enthusiasm generated at SOTM and FOSS4G. I hope FOSS4G in Bejing brings a lot more great Asian contributors into the open source geospatial tent next year.

It feels like the plane is descending. I will try to send this off once I’m home.

  1. […] year I attended and wrote about FOSS4G 2011 in Denver. The 2012 FOSS4G event was supposed to take place in Beijing this September. Last month […]

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