Free Culture X Conference Workshops notes

The second day of the Conference was named the “Unconference” and consisted on a series of open workshops proposed by the Conference attendees. The list is quite long and impressive, but at each time there were four or more workshops taking place simultaneuslly, so I wasn’t able to attend them all. ūüėČ

Below you can find some notes on the ones I participated in.

Hacking the Hill

This workshop was about who you should contact if you want to influence the political decisions in your state inside the USA. People usually contact their most local representative, but what is important is to influence the representatives who are part of the committees where the topics you’re interested in are discussed.

The most effective method to influence their decisions is to ask them for a physical appointment and talk to them to explain your point. They don’t directly watch their heavy-loaded mail account nor Facebook (:P), but conversations can change minds!

Opensecrets.org is an amazing website where you can find a lot of data, mainly economic, about politics, politicians and lobbies. Under Politicians & Elections ‚Üí Congress you can find a list of the current representatives, and if you click on their names, the committees assignments.

On the Spanish side, the Hacktivistas group maintains a very interesting wiki page where who is who in the Copyright politics game is described. Also, they’ve recently published an article about the anatomy of the Special 301 Report lobby.

Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge

This workshop versed about the already (I hope famous) Charter authored during the 2009 Culture Forum in Barcelona. While we often are tempted to point out the bad and worse stuff of the current legislative initiatives, this Charter aims to be a positive reference document for discussing Copyright, A2K and Net Neutrality topics.

It is the work of more than one hundred experts and it’s always being improved. The current version 2.0 has been endorsed by dozens of individuals and organizations, some of the most popular listed at the end of the Charter.

Michael Johnson pointed out the existence of a similar document, the Libre Society Manifesto, by David M. Berry and Giles Moss. While (IMO) the purpose of this¬†last document is different, I’m sure we can take ideas from it to include in the Charter, and of course welcome the manifesto’s authors to join us.

During the presentation we had a very interesting conversation with one of the attendees, a photographer who was publishing her work under CreativeCommons licenses. She told us that she usually faces problems with her clients since they’re not used to this (new?) way of publishing photos, and they often look for sole rights.

We arrived at the conclusion that this open-licensing is opening a new model of payment orientation: whereas the closed-licensing (all rights reserved, can’t copy nor redistribute, etc.) built the value around the content, the open-licensing is building the value around the work itself. Instead of paying for a piece of content, you pay the people who create this content to create it.

While it can sound rather new, this has been the most natural model in the Free Software world for a long time now. Since most Free Software is provided free of charge, as a consultant you can only charge a client for the work you have to do in order to adapt and customize it to his needs. One usually releases the resulting product, when appropiate, as Free Software, so instead of having to reinvent the wheel over-and-over again, other people can just pick up your work and extend it, which is much more efficient.

For example, I work with Plone, a Content Management System widely used in government-related and NGO sites. The amount of time the Plone contributors have spent on it must be really impressive, but it’s provided free of charge, gratis! This is sustainable because we use Plone to build websites, and the better and more powerful Plone itself is, the easier it is to adapt it to the customer needs, and so the more clients that are willing to hire these skillful developers.

This also encourages a new strategy to develop products: instead of developing the product and hoping to be able to sell it to enough clients to compensate the investment, you wait until customers have commited enough funding for the development. This way you have sold the product before developing it and therefore reduces the risk of supreme failure.

Open Educational Resources tools

The open.michigan team presented the dScribe framework to extract atomic content from existing material, edit its metadata, clear copyright issues and create new material. They told us that the software powering the framework is still a bit hard to install, since it was developed to work in the Michigan University, but they can open an account in their servers for you if you ask them.

One of the problems we’re facing is how to create, maintain and publish the contents in a way they’re easy to comment and contribute to and, at the same time, high quality. One of the most advanced tools to generate high-quality documents is LaTeX, but the way it works makes it a bit hard to be converted to HTML and published in the web, where contributing is much easier and accessible than having to dive into the LaTeX source.

In this sense, Alqua is investigating plasTeX, a modular and very extensible LaTeX document processing framework written in Python. The aim is to be able to publish LaTeX documents in HTML and provide a per-paragraph and per-formula comment system like the one you can see in the Mercurial Book.

Another approach is to use a markup syntax and a wiki-style site to compose and comment the document and make use of some scripts to convert the markup to LaTeX when generating a high-quality and ready-to-print version of the content. The testing/beta veresion of Wikipedia already allows you to generate a beautiful PDF-book from a set of articles of your choice, so it’s clear that this approach is reasonable.

FLOSS in scientific education

The goal of this workshop was to ask the attendees about the approaches to free software taken in their educational environments, related to Science.

A lot of universities are using and teaching their students to use privative scientific software, like Matlab, Maple or Mathematica. These universities often have to spends huge amounts of money on multi-PC licenses for the software, or even encourage students to install non-original copies of the software in their PCs. Moreover, the internals of these software pieces are hidden to the students, in clear contradiction with the scientific spirit.

There already exist quite a lot of Free Software replacements for the privative counterparts, like you can check in the Open Source as Alternative website. One of the most interesting emerging frameworks is Sage. As their developers define it, it is a free open-source mathematics software system that combines the power of many existing open-source packages into a common Python-based interface.

The combination of different packages provides the most efficient way to deal with each type of problem and warrants interoperability. For example, Sage can use Maxima to solve a differential equation symbolically and Matplotlib to plot the results, all under the hood.

Another impressive and very convenient feature of Sage its Through-The-Web interface. You can set-up a web server for some students to use Sage in a collaborative environment from their own homes without installing anything on their computers. Try it and break your jaw at the Sage Notebook website.

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