Open Source Junction 3: mobile technologies and the cloud, Oxford, 20-21 March 2012

by Michelle Pauli on 10 April 2012 , last updated


A report from the OSS Watch Open Source Junction 3, held at Trinity College Oxford, 20–21 March 2012, by Michelle Pauli

Sharing is good

‘Share early, share often’ is a maxim that is important in open development and central to the concept of Open Source Junction (OSJ). Nowhere was this more evident than at the third edition of OSJ, a two-day meeting dedicated in topic to open, mobile and the cloud, and dedicated in spirit and practice to open sharing.

OSJ’s aim is to bring together academia and the commercial sector to foster communication, collaboration and open innovation, and this edition of the event was the most interactive yet. The first day was a series of ice-breakers and introductions leading to the second day that was designed to generate concrete ideas for collaboration. Participants had come prepared with a short pitch about their interests and the kinds of partnerships they were looking for, and presented these in 50-second slots. OSS Watch’s Sander van der Waal then ‘matchmaked’ each participant with one or two other people with shared interests for a discussion about possible partnerships.

There were early signs of success from the initial talks - one small group had a serious discussion about setting up a new hack event on developing lightweight tools for non-developers, another looked into transfer funding for a new project around health, while a further group considered working together on a project around open bibliography.

The sharing and collaboration process was developed and deepened on the second day through a series of ‘mini barcamps’. These interactive sessions were based on the type of unconference where the participants decide what they want to talk about. Everybody was free to start their own discussion or move between conversations, and the ideas flowed freely. In the final mini barcamp, ideas were expanded and many attendees committed to spending a couple of hours after the event exploring an opportunity for further collaboration.

Improving accessibility

Some of these ideas developed themes that had emerged during the event, building on the knowledge of the participants and creating new synergies as they learnt more about each other’s areas of expertise.

Accessibility was a topic that had been examined by Ross Gardler, vice president of community development at the Apache Software Foundation and co-founder of OpenDirective, in his presentation of Cloud4All. He explained that while computing devices have highly customisable user interfaces, common configuration requirements such preferred input device, language, font, text size or colour have to be repeated on each device used. Cloud4All is an EU project working on an open public infrastructure which defines a personal profile to be used to configure any device. The profile is stored in the cloud and retrieved by the user whenever they encounter a new device. This gives a consistent experience on personal and public devices, such as cash and ticket machines. The project is aiming to simplify accessibility, increase built-in accessibility (such as in browsers - one of the partners is Mozilla), and grow the market for accessible technologies and services. The current situation is about identifying steps towards solutions focusing on individual adaptation and generic accessibility features.

‘With Cloud4all the idea is to have automatic personalisation of systems - I lend you my laptop, you boot it up, and it looks like your laptop with all the accessibility systems you need,’ said Ross.

Ross added that Open Directive is part of the Cloud4all project consortium and its contribution includes the development of a prototype application. This application, Maavis, provides ultra simple access to cloud and local media or communications and is designed for use cases that include older people and those with dementia or other disabilities.

During the mini barcamp session, one group, involving the University of Sheffield and SME Cellularity, was inspired by Ross’s presentation to consider how their hardware project could help bring IT into care homes. They looked at the idea of a local cloud with personal and impersonal information, simplified access to IT through Maavis, in-built training and ‘internet buttons’ (a way of asking a series of questions to get older people using IT - it gives them a one stop shop to links on the internet). The group also saw scope for incorporating mobile phone use and identified several possible funding streams to move it forward.

Yet another collaboration involving Cloud4All took a step forward with a ‘connect session’ between Ross of Cloud4All and John Lyle and Shamal Faily of Webinos, an EU-funded project that aims to deliver a platform for web applications across mobile, PC, home media and in-car devices. The potential for useful partnerships between the two projects had been identified at previous OSJs and OSS Watch’s Rowan Wilson led the two project representatives through some possible areas to consider, including Cloud4All working with Webinos on usability and the persona it has developed for accessibility. The issue of non-disclosure agreements was raised as a possible barrier to collaboration with projects such as Webinos, because some commercial partners raised that issue. However, other projects such as Cloud4All, find their commercial partners do not need NDAs.

Mashing-up privacy

Mash-ups also proved to be of interest after Scott Wilson from the University of Bolton and Claudia Villalonga from Logica Spain presented the wonderfully named OMELETTE project and demonstrated MyCocktail, a web app to develop mash-ups. OMELETTE builds on several existing open source projects (including Apache Wookie and Apache Rave) to create an open mash-up platform that draws on telecommunications services to deliver mash-ups across multiple devices - from service clouds to personal devices or enterprise workspaces. The project involves collaboration between developers based in universities and commercial developers.

It led one group in the interactive session to consider the question ‘how do I, as an individual, manage my personal data across different websites?’ It stemmed from the idea that while it might be fine for data to be used by one web application, if it is then included in a mash-up of several applications, the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts with potential implications for personal privacy and safety. An example is a mash-up of Twitter and other publicly available information that would allow a burglar to find out when your home was empty. Might there be work to be done on mash-ups and privacy? OSJ 3 has prompted a small team to explore the issue.

The random business generator: open innovation in action

Another take on interactivity at OSJ3 was the ‘random business generator’. Here, participants were invited to get together with one or more people to brainstorm business ideas that use their complementary skills. The groups then fed back to the whole group and benefited from gaining a wider perspective on their ideas.

For example, having heard Alex Howe and Lisa Harrop from Getronics present their work at King’s College, London (deploying the first private cloud solution in UK higher education to support a ‘bring your own device’ scheme for students and staff), one group discussed shared services and the fact that all the universities in the UK have similar problems that they all tackle in their own unique ways - a clear waste of money. Why don’t they have cost-effective, robust solutions to these shared problems? It should be possible with open source. The group swiftly learnt from Scott Wilson that shared service solutions all face the same problem - it’s easier to spend capital (eg to buy a server) rather than acquire recurrent finance to rent a service. That’s the weakness of it. It’s not a deal breaker but it’s certainly something that any partnership developing shared service ideas would need to bear in mind. This OSJ 3 group gained the knowledge quickly through sharing their idea – open innovation in action.

Building Molly

Open development in practice, and the community building essential for sustainability, was demonstrated by Mobile Oxford and the Molly project. Tim Fernando from the University of Oxford, set out a step-by-step guide to the development of the project, from choosing the licence and deciding where to host the code to methods of communication and lowering the entry barrier to the community. Giuseppe Sollazzo from St George’s, University of London picked up the story to explain that he got involved in Molly ‘because it was evident that it was a community-based project. The mailing list, the IRC etc which seem like small things are part of the reason we got involved in it. You don’t need to be a code wizard to get involved in an open source project or community. You can get involved in testing, for example, which doesn’t need you to be able to code, or documentation.’

Is elastic so fantastic?

Paul Fremantle, the CTO of WSO2, offered a provocative take on the cloud which inspired discussions and ideas about data as service. Paul suggested that while the cloud is conventionally thought to be about elasticity, for him, the scalability from 1-100 is much less interesting than the scalability from 0-1.

‘For most people it’s 0-1 that’s the biggest problem. It can take one month to build the code then three months for the infrastructure team to build somewhere to host it. That scalability is the challenge that cloud is addressing for most people,’ said Paul. He went on to argue that ‘running your own platform as a service is where it becomes interesting - it’s what it means to take your business and make it cloud native,’ and offered a couple of examples based on WSO2’s Stratos Live platform - a betting site and Connected Car Architecture with T-Mobile in Germany.

‘As soon as I explain the concept, people come up with ideas of how they can use it in their industry. It allows creativity,’ said Paul.

Above the cloud

The cloud, a mobile phone, rapid prototyping, open source and an academic-commercial collaboration are all being used to ingenious effect by Steven Johnston, research fellow at the University of Southampton, who offered an insight into low cost, high altitude science with his presentation about the ASTRA project.

Researchers currently use balloon-based sensors (radiosondes) to predict weather conditions or test the air quality above natural phenomena such as volcanoes. The problem is that they are currently not retrievable so they litter the earth when they land, and it is not worth attaching a very expensive (and possibly more effective) sensor. Steven’s project is looking at the rather cool idea of putting the sensor – in this case a phone - in a glider so it zigzags through the airspace, collects data and then flies itself home. The gliders themselves are 3D printed very quickly – ‘when a launching window opens we need to move quickly,’ explained Steven – using a Microsoft rapid prototyping platform called .NET Gadgeteer. All components of this platform, both hardware and software, are open source.

‘We’re using a mobile phone app, a Bizspark spinout and .NET Gadgeteer, so it’s using phone + cloud + rapid prototyping for science. This project involves quite a variety of angles – a university project, Microsoft project etc. But, fundamentally, we are also doing a piece of science and as a result we have been able to tell researchers that they are able to get their sensors back, which could be really important if there is another big volcanic eruption,’ said Steven.

Mobile plus cloud plus open source plus an academic-commercial collaboration with an added element of cool, all for the good of humanity? It could be argued that Steven’s project summed up the very ethos of this edition of Open Source Junction.

In practical terms, OSJ3 built on the solid foundations of the past events with connections that had been made at previous OSJs, such as Cloud4All and Webinos, taking concrete steps forwards. With the ever increasing focus on interactivity at this event, many new connections, such as linking Maavis and Cellularity, were formed. OSS Watch continually seeks to assist in the further development of these relationships in order to ensure that they continue to feel that sharing early, sharing often is both comfortable and productive. For starters, OSS Watch is working with the OMELETTE and WSO2 teams to explore whether MyCocktail should enter the Apache Software Foundation alongside the Wookie and Rave (which themselves benefited from previous OSS Watch support).

Further reading


Related information from OSS Watch