Freed.in and Delhi

Freed.in is one of the core open source conferences in India. And after a month riding the open source circuit, Freed was a mini-reunion of our trip. Again we saw Rene, the German wifi hacker hanging in Trivandrum, Nagarjuna from the Homi Bhabha Centre, the dynamic Jace of BarCampBangalore, etc, and a few of the Bangalore Yahoos. And there was plenty of opportunity to drink some free beers with the free software people.

We stayed in a hotel in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, actually in another Indian state, and a shock in scale and shininess to rest of India. Delhi itself is laid out in wide boulevards, has huge areas of cool forest on extensive government, military, and academic grounds, including the site of the conference Jawaharlal Nehru University (a distinguished and very politically active university), and a pretty decent Metro system. Gurgaon is reached by a startling new expressway, through a ginormous toll plaza, with long stretches lacking any proper pedestrian crossing (of course, people still darted across 8 lanes of 100+ kmh traffic to cross), lined with sparkling new complicated glass buildings straight out of downtown San Jose, a shopping mall with 1 km2 of floor space (the 1km mall), and in one section land cleared as far as the horizon to make way for a new airport in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. This pace and scale gave me just a taste of what it must be like in China. Behind the hotel, a new building was being constructed, work going on non-stop 24 hours a day (in spite of which, I slept soundly). The lot between was crisscrossed with cow paths of workers, a crazy geometry suggesting some magick design out of which a new shiny glass building would suddenly erupt. What hath globalization wrought?!

After Ludhiana, it was a nice change of pace to be the sideshow rather than the main attraction. We gave our introductory talk as a presentation to the entire conference, and then ran the workshop in nearby spaces. This proved complicated, since the nearby GIS lab had only windows machines on a locked down network, and the linux lab was a few minutes away in another building complex with no wifi. We managed to hold the survey portion of the workshop with students from the geography department, and make a movie, and that part all went smoothly. The professor for this department had been involved in discussions on an Indian SDI — with over a billion people, dozens of languages and states, it sounds even more complicated than INSPIRE. I quickly tried to suggest a more sane way forward than the heavy OGC standards and SOAP-and-friends web services being cooked up for INSPIRE, relating the wisdom that these specs are fine for controlled environments, but for cooperation among diverse organizations you must start simple (GeoRSS perchance), iterate, keep to architectural principles rather than explicit solutions, and stay human. This department had even acquired satellite imagery of the campus, had already done some digitization based on it (we wanted to hook up a quick and dirty mapserver WMS to load this into JOSM, but hosted on Windows, alas) .. so they were familiar with some of the OSM concept, though actual hands on with GPS was new. Seems like there’s scope here for the future.

Being at a conference, the second day of OSM mostly involved new people from the conference itself, and few of the geography students from the day before. So another round of surveying and some tutorials on JOSM and other tools. It was hard to gain momentum this way, which makes me think mapping parties really need to be focused events on their own to make much headway (I’d experienced this before at OSM events tacked onto conferences). Still we connected with some key people to take mapping forward in Delhi. And from the India-wide attendees, there was much interest in purchasing the NaviGPS units. So I decide to sell them all at cost after Kolkata, and arranged with Swapnil and Indictrans to coordinate payment and distribution. I suppose there’s a business waiting to happen here.

Sunday morning was blessed. On the drive from the hotel to JNU there’s a Coffee Day, India’s answer to Starbucks, and better coffee than them too, with a genius slogan “A lot can happen over coffee”, which means absolutely nothing and everything. Coffee is blessed of course, but the real thing was this peculiar building nearby. It appeared to be a hotel or office building, and carved across the front were a series of six-pointed stars and swastiskas. In the West we naturally associate these symbols as the Star of David of Judaism and the Nazi Swastika, but naturally in India the star, with the addition of a central point, is a Yantra, and the Swastika, rotated the opposite direction and with the addition of four dots, a symbol of peace. The combination of these two symbols, carved into the edifice of a building, would be unthinkable anywhere else but India. I had the driver stop for us to take photos, and Jace had his curiousity lead us inside, where we find a large expansive room, an alter, several shrines, and beaming robe clad guru. H H Swami Sarvanand Saraswati is such a dynamic personality, quickly captivating us with explanations of the symbolism of the Yantra and Swastika, of the main half man/half woman statue, and myriad other lovely carvings. He asks after me, and it turns out he’s been in California, in Monterey and San Francisco, and we agree all of California is a powerful energetic place. He speaks about an Indian restaurant in the hills above Half Moon Bay called Hanuman, after the monkey god. So now I must have dinner at this restaurant, how often does a guru recommend you a restaurant! We explain that we are attending a conference called Freed.in, for open source software, and he exclaims “wonderful, I am now freed!” Before we leave, we’re brought into his office where he has hung pictures of the major figures of all the world’s religions, from Zorastor to Mohammad, Jesus and Krishna, even Native American holy people, and my thoughts turn to Meher Baba “bringing together all religions and cults like beads on one string”. There’s a beautiful, large Sri Yantra, with inscriptions written within each triangle. We assemble for pictures, while he softly shouts out “I _need_ world peace!” Wow, what a personality.

Back at the conference, I didn’t get to see many of the talks unfortunately. I was busy trying to pull together a workshop, and spent some time listening in on a conclave on Open Knowledge. This was a wide ranging, interesting discussion among the major participants in open source in India, to which I could only make some very half baked, half exhausted comments. Unfortunately, I thought that seperating out the most experienced people into a semi-private discussion in the middle of the conference was a missed opportunity to engage with the rest of the attendees, but oh well. The nature of the Indian educational system, and really of all educational systems, is mostly based in the efforts of the industrial revolution, to take children out of the labor force, and has exhausted its utility in a world of electronic communication and the wide open opportunity for anyone to contribute to knowledge. Yet, in some places in India, girls aren’t even sent to school because there are no girls lavatories, and books are expensive, copyrighted, and can’t be photocopied, and illiteracy is still a problem. The Indian education system produces absolutely brilliant minds, but with hundreds of millions to educate, the scale of the task is beyond daunting. Can open co-production of knowledge, help leap frog people from illiteracy into a global communication platform?

The most entertaining exchange came at the end, over a discussion of the X system, which aggregates, for university internal use, as much useful digital material as possible, whatever its copyright status. Rene made the point that not making a distinction between pirated and open material in this system was problematic, as it doesn’t confront students with the issues of free and open access to knowledge. This sparked passions of pro- and anti- piracy factions, the pro-piracy parties, such as Sunil, arguing that to some extent disobeying copyright is an act of civil disobedience against a system introduced by former colonial powers to place control in a neo-colonial economic regime. While the advocates of open knowledge, such as Nagarjuna, argued that just as important as access is the change of mind that openness requires, the responsibility of cultivating knowledge should be actively engaged by all. Myself, I tend to think that this change of mind really is the point, and that encouraging people to download Lethal Weapon 4 is not going to have any affect. But who knows how these things really make progress, sometimes we must work within the system to change it (my usual mode), and sometime fight against the system from outside it. Right on open source.

Back at the hotel on Sunday night, the work had paused on the construction site. The lights were off, but noise still carried. The workers had gathered somewhere within the depths of the proto-apartments, and were singing and drumming on spare construction materials in celebration. Perhaps celebration of some wonderous emerging India.

Thanks much to Gora and the rest of the Freed.in organizing team for taking care of us in Delhi, and elsewhere too. It was stimulating and a thrill to see India open source in fine form.

2 Comments

  1. Gunnar Andreassen said,

    March 7, 2008 @ 3:56 am

    I found your site on a old bookmark, and remebered why I bookmarked it months ago. Well written and interesting facts.

    BTW: nice info on Open Source in India.

  2. Nishant Sharma said,

    March 15, 2008 @ 6:58 am

    Good to read about nice experience in Kolkata.

    I was waiting for your email on the list for NaviGPS devices to ensure equal opportunity to everyone… Alas!

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