Picked up pieces from the Global 2016 FOSS4G Conference in Bonn, Germany


Note: Here in Boston, we are privileged to have some of the greatest sports writing in the country on the pages of the Boston Globe. Once again, this blog is modeled after and is in homage to Dan Shaughnessy’s (@Dan_Shaughnessy) “Picked Up Pieces While…” columns…

  • After 30 years in the geospatial business and after numerous international visits to North American places (yeah, Canada and Mexico) this was officially my first business trip to Europe. This trip was catalyzed due to my role in leading the local organizing committee (LOC) that will lead the 2017 global FOSS4G that will be held next August in Boston. Quite literally, I and the co-chair of the conference (Guido Stein, @GuidoS), went to observe and learn from the proceedings and to bring the “Torch” back to Boston.

Group Photo

Hanging with Till Adams, Chair of the 2016 FOSS4G Conference, and Sanghee Shin, Chair of the 2015 FOSS4G Conference at the B2B session.

  • As per earlier blogs, this is one of my favorite conferences (both the global, and North American editions) and Bonn represented my third attendance at a Global event (which rotates among the continents).  I have also attended all four “FOSS4G North America” events, including the recently concluded and excellent one in Raleigh, NC last May. It is hard to describe, but there is a unique energy at these events. It feels like a mashup of a developer’s conference surrounded by enthusiastic users and boosters of the software created by those developers. There is an overwhelming vibe of two-way sharing as the users share their successes and appreciation for the tools, and the developers share what’s “coming soon” and listen closely to what else is needed/desired.
  • Huge kudos are due to Till Adams and the entire Bonn LOC. FOSS4G 2016 Bonn, was a productive and super well organized event and overall attendance exceeded 900 people. One of the unique things about FOSS4G is that it is organized and hosted by volunteers in the host community. The OSGeo Foundation “hosts” the conference and generally there is some professional support in producing the conference, but in the end it is 1,000’s of hours of volunteer time that give the conference its flavor and feeling. And I think there are 900+ people who now like the flavor and feeling of Bonn! Ultimately, this volunteerism is part of the “giving back” ethos  that pervades open source (as not everyone is positioned to commit lines of code to the major projects).  
  • The World Conference Center Bonn  venue was magnificent and was literally the former home of the West German Parliament. Sitting at the plenary sessions you felt as if you were a United Nations delegate with comfy chairs and impeccable video and audio.
Conference Room

The main plenary hall at the World Conference Center, former home of the West German Parliament.

Not only that, but Till and his team went out of their way to make us feel welcome and to share both the stresses of the day, and the key learnings they had acquired in planning the event. We also experienced their new innovations for FOSS4G, such as the highly successful Business-to-Business (B2B) session held on the Tuesday before the main conference. The deserved pride and feeling of “team” was palpable across the Bonn LOC.

  • A huge part of any conference is the people that you meet and the interactions that you have. We were lucky to meet Heather Hillers, an ex-patriot American who married a German and has lived in Germany for eight years, and her co-worker, Franziska Hoecker, a native Berliner. Both of them work at a regional watershed association not too far Bonn and have helped that organization through a transition to open source. In addition to their great work stories they took us under their wings and helped introduce us to German food, beverage and culture. A highlight of the trip was Heather leading us to Cochem in the Mosel Riesling wine region on the Saturday following the conference. These encounters felt very much a part of the conference: new friends sharing their work experiences and some of their favorite parts of the local geography.
  • Another chance encounter – he asked us if he could join us for dinner – led us to meeting Dakota Benjamin, a 20-something who was attending his first FOSS4G conference on his first ever trip to Europe. Dakota works for the Cleveland Metroparks as a Geospatial Developer and is heavily involved in OpenDroneMap, an open source tool for “postprocess(ing) drone, balloon, kite, and street view data to geographic data…” As with our interactions with Heather and Franzi, it was interesting and enlightening to see the range of organizations that are actively investing in and receiving benefit from the geo open source ecosystem.
  • Since our company, AppGeo, has been pivoting to open source technologies over the past eight years it was interesting to see what our European counterparts are doing and to realize that the Bonn-Cologne-Dusseldorf part of Germany is really a hotbed of geo firms (i.e., it felt a little bit like the “Denver of Europe”). Participation ranged from sponsoring companies like geOps, GeoCat, WhereGroup, Terrestris and Oslandia who have been highly committed to open source, to companies like Norkart who are in the midst of their own pivots. Norkart is a major Norwegian consultancy with approximately 150 people and a long history, and continued work in the “proprietary software” ecosystem. As with our own experiences, during their presentation at FOSS4G, Norkart described how an important part of their current activities are “evangelizing” the maturity of open source and making it more and more real to their existing customer base. And, as with us, Norkart is finding that more and more minds are more open to the new possibilities and are eager to learn more about the cost and flexibility advantages of the open ecosystem.
  • One of the other highlights of a FOSS4G is seeing the incredible technical talent in attendance and hearing first hand what they are working on. A personal highlight for me was seeing Mapbox’s Vlad Agafonkin (@mourner) the author of Leaflet and the memorable Ivan Sanchez (@RealIvanSanchez) give their personal take and spin on developments with WebGL and vector tiles. Equally memorable was a long conversation with Martin Isenberg of rapidlasso, the LiDAR expert and author of LASTools, during the fabulous gala social on a Rhine River boat. A FOSS4G conference provides unique opportunities to meet, and interact with the people who make the software.
  • Last, as the incoming Chairperson for the next global FOSS4G 2017, which will be held in Boston, this was our first opportunity to meet many of the OSGeo Board members as well as most of the Conference Development Committee members. And, as expected from an open source/sharing organization, these meetings couldn’t have been more friendly and useful. Without exception the OSGeo clan welcomed us and liberally shared their perspective on what makes a conference successful and provided offers of assistance. My interactions with three of the past Chairpeople of global FOSS4G events – Steven Feldman, Chair of the 2013 show in Nottingham, England; Sanghee Shin, Chair of the 2015 show in Seoul, Korea; and Till Adams, who chaired the 2016 Bonn event – were particularly enlightening and productive. And, we very much appreciated the opportunity that Till provided to “welcome the world to Boston” in 2017, and to show our “welcome video” (now available on our web-site) during the closing session.

In the end, we are all the more confident that the Boston team has what it takes to produce this kind of event, and we know that we are not going it alone. We look forward to the energy, collectivism and bonding (and even some of the stress) of our volunteer efforts. And, we can’t wait to see you in Boston in August of 2017!

Steven Feldman & Michael Terner

Steven Feldman, past-Chairpersons of FOSS4G 2013 shares his wisdom, and distributes his “May the FOSS be with you” buttons.

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