The Calgary Open Source Symposium Festival (COSSFest, 2009)

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 21, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I long ago outgrew large conventions like LinuxWorld. They have become places for business with only token corners for community, and you can never find the people you want to meet unless you make careful arrangements beforehand. I much prefer smaller events like LinuxFest Northwest in Bellingham, Washington, or Open Web Vancouver, where you have a better chance of striking up a conversation, and talks have a way of spilling out in the hallway (where the really interesting parts tend to take place). That's one of the reasons that I jumped at the invitation to go to COSSFest (the Calgary Open Source Systems Festival) last weekend.

Well, that, and the fact that I had never been to Calgary.

Now in its third year, COSSFest is a labor of love organized by a small but dedicated community group. You can tell it's a labor of love because the officers of the COSSFest Foundation, the non-profit society that sponsors the event are the ones doing setup and take-down. As often as not, they are the ones covering any monetary shortfalls, too – a fact I didn't learn until the post-event dinner on Saturday evening, or else I wouldn't have accepted the free drinks offered to me.

I arrived at the hotel on Thursday night, because I was presenting on Friday, and wanted to be rested enough to decent job. By the time the shuttle from the airport dropped me off, it was 11PM, but Shawn Grover, the president of COSSFest Foundation and John Jardine, a director, were just leaving after having spent the evening setting up. Unfortunately, I missed secretary Simon Wood, who had come out to the airport to meet me, but missed me because he was waiting by the baggage racks, and I had only carry-ons (the next day, he was good enough to shrug off the mistake). I shook hands with Shawn and John, and then staggered up to bed.

On Friday morning, I woke early, and finished my exercises in time to get to the start of the conference. To my disappointment, I found that Marcel Gagne from the Linux Journal, whom I hoped to meet at last, had canceled for personal reasons. Nor was Ifny LaChance, the Free Geek Vancouver community organizer in attendance, although no one knew why.

However, one of the first tracks was by KDE's Aaron Seigo, whom I had interviewed last year but never met. He gave an analysis of free desktop usage in which he concluded that, while GNU/Linux installations might be lower or at least unreported in North America, world-wide they probably exceeded those for Apple, and were like in the neighborhood of twelve percent. The discussion continued in the hallway for the next two hours, with many of the local Calgarians obviously regarding Seigo as a celebrity. When he could finally get away, I accompanied him to a Vietnam restaurant, where I interviewed him about KDE, its recent past and near future. He offered to bribe me by paying for the meal, and I told him that he could do so, but it took more to bribe me – at least $15 and a movie.

This digression made me miss Brad “Renderman” Haines' talk about wireless security – or rather its lack – but I caught the gist in the hallway again as several people gave a summary of his remarks, focusing main on Bluetooth.

I wandered the sponsors' exhibits for a while, checking out, a computer recycling organization that refurbishes some computers with free software, and Userful, a local company that, because of its running of up to a dozen terminals off a single CPU, claims to have “the world's largest desktop Linux deployment” -- a claim that I find questionable, but that definitely succeeds in attracting my attention.

Then it time to deliver my first talk, “Sources of Conflict Between Business and FOSS.” As at the rest of the conference, the audience was small, but willing to make up for the fact by asking questions. A chance comment of mine introduced me to a Metis web developer who was in touch with some of the efforts to produce First Nations versions of in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, and by the time we finished talking, the programming was over for the day.

That night, the organizers and several of the guests descended on a karaoke bar. Our arrival was times so that everyone was well lubricated by the time the karaoke began. First up was Aaron Seigo, whose version of “I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues” showed that he had a tolerable singing voice (even if the same couldn't be said for his taste in music). A Userful developer started singing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” solo, but Seigo joined in and the song finished as a campy duet. Around then, I left for some sleep, but I'm reliably told that the party broke up about 2PM.

As a result, I was considerably fresher than most of the organizers in the morning. In fact, Seigo missed his morning talk, and did not appear on Saturday at all. The morning featured a presentation by Userful's Tim Griffin, and Simon Wood's presentation on the barcode program that the organizers had created for use at the conference.

I was treated to lunch by two developers from SIL, a linguistic organization that releases much of its code under a free license, and will probably become the subject of one of my future articles. We returned to the hotel just in time for me to prepare for my second talk, “Publicizing Your FOSS Project.”
That was followed by a panel entitled “The Future of Openness” in which my fellow panelists were Shawn Grover and Renderman. The topic wandered, to say the least, but the active audience participation struck me as one of the things in favor of COSSFest; at larger conferences, people are more likely to be reluctant to make comments from the audience.

The last programming of the day featured the organizers talking about the free software they used in setting up the event and Arthur Amendt's talk, “Open vs. Closed.” Then it was time for the final drawing of door prizes and take-down. A dinner with the organizers followed, with several nearly falling asleep despite the tastiness of the Vietnamese food.

Somewhere in the course of this winding down, I learned that the event had broken even, or, at the worst, not done too badly. The first thing the organizers wanted to do was rest, but they were already floating a few plans for a COSSFest next year. I was asked to return, and I definitely plan to – although, next time, I will take an extra day or two to explore the city properly. A karaoke bar and a few restaurants do not, I suspect, give much of Calgary's unique flavor. But, as for COSSFest, it more than proved the soundness of my preference for small conferences.


  • Conference Videos

    Thank you for your kind words, we hope all the attendees had a good time. We're working on getting videos of the talks up on the web somewhere so you'll be able to catch the ones you missed.

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