Fantasy 2010

I won’t be at LCA, but since I wish I was, here’s what I wish I could see most. (Note that I haven’t picked something in every timeslot and so this wouldn’t be my complete talks list. This is just my personal highlights.)

I’ve never seen Mako Hill speak, but you can’t be interested in free software and culture activism without stumbling across his name. Because he’s involved in the FSF. And Debian. And Ubuntu. And Wiki[mp]edia. And OLPC. And Among others. I actually don’t know what his keynote is about, the webpage is just the speakers’ biographies, but I’m just going to go ahead and assume that whatever it is, I’d enjoy. I’m also sure Gabriella Coleman‘s Tuesday keynote would be interesting.

Build Your Own Contributors, One Part At A Time. I don’t know that the Dreamwidth project has good name recognition in the LCA community: consider this an attempt to rectify that. It’s a blog hosting company on the Livejournal model with a fork of Livejournal’s codebase. It’s also very, almost uniquely, innovative and successful in mentoring new and non-traditional contributors. (Kirrily Robert has some information, mostly focusing on their very unusual developer gender ratio.)

Loyal fans of my writing will remember that I’m generally suspicious of how to run an Open Source project submissions to LCA, because so many members of the audience have either run one or seen one run at close range. But I really wanted to select this one because it’s successful at something very unusual. There’s a lot more talk than action on mentoring and diversity in Open Source development; here’s your action.

Introduction to game programming. Yeah, this clashes with Build Your Own Contributors, but since I’m not going at all, it can still be a Fantasy LCA pick, can’t it? Richard Jones is an import from the OSDC scene, he’s a good speaker, he wrote a good chunk of the tools he’s talking about and he regularly puts them to use and watches others put them to use in the PyWeek challenge.

I’m very curious about how Matthew Garrett’s Making yourself popular: a guide to social success in (and for) the Linux community goes and I’d also like to see Claudine Chionh’s Unlocking the ivory tower: Free and open source software in collaborative humanities research: luckily, again this is Fantasy LCA and I don’t have to choose. I’d also get along to FOSS and Māori Language Computer Initiatives later in the afternoon: it’s not exactly my field, but close enough that I’m interested in language and computer interfaces in general.

I don’t know that I’ve ever actually made it to one of Matthew Wilcox’s talks, but I heard great things last year, so I’d get along to Discarding data for fun and profit for sure.

Gearman: Map/Reduce and Queues for everyone! sounds like something I’d enjoy hearing about and might put to use. Can’t lose.

I was accused of being a fangirl when reviewing Adam Jackson’s The Rebirth of Xinerama, if I recall. I don’t think I qualify without, say, asking for autographs, but I enjoyed his 2009 talk a lot. It was not at all aimed at the Mary demographic (short version: I know nothing about X, long version: I know nothing about X) but was still accessible even while totally ignoring my demographic. I love that kind of technical talk. And the more competent parts of the audience seemed fine with it too.

After seeing Andrew Tridgell’s OSDC keynote in 2008 I am wretched about missing Patent defence for free software. Just as you can find Mako Hill everywhere when it comes to free culture activism, you can find Andrew Tridgell everywhere in building… anything. From chess playing server software to homemade coffee roasters. And on the side he’s spent a long time with the Samba team testifying and advising on aspects of the EU’s antitrust investigations into Microsoft. And because of that and because he’s a great speaker and essentially is LCA, it would be a great talk to get to.

Finally, thank goodness this is Fantasy LCA, so I don’t have to tell you which I’d choose of Rusty Russell’s FOSS Fun With A Wiimote, involving Rusty, who is a marvellous speaker, and babies, who… are babies, and Wiimotes, which are white and blue, or Liz Henry’s Hack Ability: Open Source Assistive Tech about the advantages of hacking up assistive tech and thus adapting it to individuals. What a cruel world that timeslot is.

Ethics of Free Software community research

Most of this entry is exactly a year old today and it’s just sat around in draft form all that time. Since I posted something similar on Geek Feminism about research into women in tech and similar topics, I thought I’d get it out there.

In January 2009 a researcher named Anne Chin of Monash University Law emailed the chat list for the 2009 conference asking for research subjects to be interviewed about licencing and Open Source software. There were several responses criticising her use of HTML email and Microsoft Word attachments. I’ll leave the specifics of this alone except that people should be (and probably are) aware that this is almost always an unknowing violation of community norms.

I did, though, think about making some notes on research ethics and Free Software research. A bit about my background: I am not a specialist in ethics. I’m somewhat familiar with ethics applications to work with human subjects, but not from the perspective of evaluating them. I’ve made them, and I’ve been a subject in a study that had made them.

For people who haven’t seen this process, the ethical questions arising from using human subjects in your research in general covers the question of whether the good likely to arise from the outcomes of the study outweighs the harm done to the subjects, together with issues of consent to that harm. (There are many philosophical assumptions underlying this ethical framework, I don’t intend to treat them here.) Researchers in universities, hospitals, schools and research institutes usually have to present their experimental designs to an ethics committee who will determine this question for them and approve their experiment. Researchers who work across several of these (eg, a PhD student who wants to interview schoolchildren) will need to do several ethics applications, a notable chore when the forms and guidelines aren’t standardised and occasionally directly conflict. Researchers working for private commercial entities may or may not have a similar requirement. Researchers who use animals also have to have ethical reviews, these are done by animal ethics committees, which are usually separate.

At my university, essentially any part of your research that involves measuring or recording another person’s response to a research question and using it to help answer that question needs a human ethics application.

The good/harm balance may include very serious dilemmas: is there a health risk to subjects? how will the researcher manage the conflict between maintaining subject confidentiality and research integrity and the good of her subjects or the requirements of the law if she uncovers, say, episodes of abuse or violence? But it also involves less immediately obvious and serious ethical questions. Is this study a giant waste of subjects’ time? is considered a question of ethics by ethics committees, and is in fact the most serious problem for linguistics research, since there’s very seldom an outcome of particular interest to the subjects themselves.

The study in which I took part a few years back was towards the serious end actually: it was a study into the psychological profiles of people who have an immediate family member who had cancer as a child and involved both questionnaires and a phone interview with a psychologist. Both because the study explored memories of the illness and because the profiling included evaluating depressive episodes, suicidal ideation and so on, it came with a detailed consent form and with information about a counselling service that had been informed of the study and was prepared to work with its subjects.

In the case of the Free Software community the ethical questions are often more towards the waste of time? end of the spectrum than the more immediately serious end. It’s important to understand that this isn’t necessarily the case though. Here are some more cutting ethical problems:

  • getting findings that expose your subjects and/or their employers to intellectual property claims; or
  • revealing that your subjects are breaching employment contracts in some way (generally also related to IP) and thus exposing them to job loss and possible civil action.

Getting ethics approval to carry out workplace studies can be fairly hard precisely due to problems like these. But in the rest of this post I will treat the waste of time problem.

Firstly the basics: are your subjects going to be identifiable in your final reports or to the general public? If not, who will know who they are? Can a subject opt to have their responses removed from the study? When and how? All this should be explained at the start. (Usually if an ethics committee has been involved, there’s a consent form.) If doing a survey look into survey design, in order to construct non-leading questions and such.

Now, for specifics. Most of them arise from this principle: there are a lot of researchers working, in various ways, on the Free Software community, possibly making it a slightly over-studied group if anything. This places the onus on the individual researcher to demonstrate to the community that their project is worthwhile and that they’re going to do what they say. Thus:

  1. demonstrate some familiarity with the background. Depending on your research level this could mean anything from demonstrating a knowledge of existing anthropological work on Free Software (say, if the research project is for your anthropology PhD) down to at least understanding the essential concepts and core history (say, a project at high school level). This can be demonstrated by research design, eg asking sensible well-informed questions, but actually mostly requires a bigger time investment: making appearances in the community, either virtually or physically, ideally for a little time before asking the community to help you get your PhD/A-grade/pass.
  2. don’t get the community to design your experiment for you. Have a specific goal, more specific than get people to write me lengthy essays about Free Software, and get ideas from that and write about them. In the general case, the ask people incredibly vague stuff and hope they say something interesting technique fails the waste-of-time test.
  3. give your results back to the community. The most common problem with the various surveys, interviews and questionnaires sent to the Free Software community is that responding to them is like shouting into a black hole. It is not unheard of, of course, to see the thesis or essay or roundup that comes out of these, but it is unusual, relative to the number of requests. Most of the time the researcher promptly disappears. Researchers should come to the Free Software community with an explanation of when and where they will make the results of the study available. They should explain the aims in advance unless this would compromise the results. (On that note: Anne Chin is giving a talk this year.)

Donating our OLPC XO

Way back at 2008 there was a large OLPC XO giveaway, but with the rider do something wonderful with this, or give it to someone who will. Neither Andrew nor I received one directly, but Matthew Garrett gave his to Andrew essentially on the grounds that he wasn’t going to do anything wonderful with it. (If I have the chronology right, Matthew had a stack of laptops in his possession at the time and did things to them regularly, generally making them sleep on demand.)

In any event, neither Andrew nor I did anything wonderful with the XO: Andrew intended to look at some point at Python or Python application startup times (the Bazaar team have a bunch of tricks in that regard), but two years is a lot of intending.

Still, better late than never. In the spirit of the original giveaway, we’ve handed it over to be taken to New Zealand by someone going to 2010. It will be donated to the Wellington OLPC testers group, who meet weekly to work on various projects and who are somewhat short on machines.

If you are similarly (morally) bound by the 2008 giveaway conditions, aren’t doing anything wonderful with your XO, and are going to 2010 or can get your XO there, you could do likewise. You could drop off to Tabitha Roder at the education miniconf, the OLPC stand at Open Day or otherwise get in touch with her. (You probably want to let her know yours is coming anyway, so she has a sense of whether to expect one or two, or a truckload.)

Other possibilities include getting involved in the Sydney group or checking if they’d have a use for laptop donations. (They meet more regularly than that wiki page implies; they are now meeting at SLUG.) I don’t know what the status of the OLPC library is. The webpage being down is probably not a great sign, but perhaps collaborators would help John out there. You’d at least be doing something meta-wonderful.

Plans for 2010

I don’t intend to write much about my just announced pregnancy over on the thoughts/geeky side of my weblog, but there are a couple of geek implications, assuming all goes well:

  • it’s unlikely in the extreme that I will make it to OSDC 2009 in Brisbane in November (it’s very close to the deadline when airlines will stop letting me fly, in addition to discomfort and so on); and
  • it’s completely impossible that either Andrew or I will make it to 2010 in Wellington in January.

I’ll not be especially available for additional volunteer tasks in 2009, since I will be trying to finish my PhD work with a small human trapped in my abdomen.

For Andrew’s other 2009 and 2010 availability check with him, I can’t see that I’ll be volunteering to travel before at least April 2010 and that might depend on someone donating a nanny to accompany me.

I am cut about lca2010, especially considering the effort I’m sinking into it. I really hoped that wouldn’t happen, but it’s turned out to have the worst possible timing. If a generous donor offers to fly, say, 20 of the speakers to Sydney afterwards and re-stage the conference for the sole benefit of me, I will not say no. 2010 miniconf idea

I’m not taking on additional tasks for 2010 (above co-chairing the presentation selection committee with Michael Davies) and so won’t run with this, but an idea for someone with more time on their hands: a FOSSCoach miniconf or co-located event. I’m not sure whether you can call it FOSSCoach precisely (or would want to, I dislike the FOSS acronym), but the idea is an event teaching people how to work on Free Software projects. It could possibly be extended into, say, editing Wikipedia. If anyone wants to do this, go for it.

The 2010 call for miniconfs is out now and is open until July 17. 2010 will be held from 18–23 January 2010 in Wellington, New Zealand.