President's Report 2016-17
To start with, I'd like to recognise our streamlined NZOSS Council with whom I've been honoured to work this past year:
- Steve Ellis (Auckland)
- Danny Adair (Wellington)
- Daniel Reurich (Wellington)
- Tim McNamara (Wellington)
- Rob Elshire (Palmerston North)
I'd like to thank Tim McNamara for joining me for a second term on the executive as Vice President, thanks to Daniel Reurich for yet another term as Treasurer, and many thanks to Rob Elshire for taking on the Secretary role!
NZOSS Web Services
To fulfil our missionover the past few years the Society has set up a number of online web services using exclusively Free and Open Source Software. We figure the best way to share these things is to make them available for people to try, and to use, and for us to use them as well.
The following lists some of our current offerings - a full list is available.
We greatly appreciate the substantial sponsored New Zealand-based hosting capacity that we have been provided by Catalyst IT and Rimu Hosting!
We continue to use our Etherpad-lite instance to record what transpires at our Council Meetings. Here for example:
November 2016, December 2016, January 2017, February 2017, March 2017, April 2017, May 2017, June 2017, July 2017, August 2017 (note, our 2016 AGM was held in October).
Next Cloud + Collabora Office Online
To provide some useful data synchronisation, making large files available for download, shared calendaring, and concurrent online document, spreadsheet, and presentation editing, (fully supporting proper open standard document forumats) we have set up a NextCloud and Collabora (online, collaborative LibreOffice) instance. This combination provides functionality similar to Google Docs and we are planning to shift our Council meeting minute taking our faithful Etherpad-Lite instance next month (dependent, of course, on the make up of the post AGM Council!). To avoid spam accounts, we are not allowing open registration, however if you're interested in giving it a spin, just let us know!
Our NZ-focused Git repository has been moved to a dedicated cloud computing instance to accommodate its substantial resource requirements. It's now approaching 70 projects - you're welcome to add yours!
Over the past year, we've seen good growth in the use of our fully FOSS chat system built with Rocket.Chat, for realtime and asynchronous communication. It can be used with any recent browser, and there're desktop and mobile apps (all FOSS) available for all major platforms (including Linux). It also provides searchable archives and the ability to initiate WebRTC-based end-to-end-encrypted video conferences (give it a try!).
This year has seen the unexpected emergence of a new social networking platform called Mastodon, which is a fully FOSS messaging platform in some ways similar to Twitter. It offers a superb user interface, mobile apps, excellent multi-media support, and a powerful API for integrating other applications.
Unlike Twitter, Mastodon messages are not limited to 140 characters (they can have up to 500, allowing for far more interesting conversations). Also, unlike Twitter, Mastodon is decentralised: anyone can set up a Mastodon instance, and these can be "federated" into what is now called the Fediverse. That means you don't have to entrust your online reputation and history of correspondence to Twitter (where you are the product) but instead can elect to join an instance run by someone you trust. The NZOSS is now running such an instance. Please feel free to join up and have a play!
Since April 2016, we've had a monthly physical "FOSS Meetup" in Christchurch, usually with 5-15 people, from a list rapidly approaching 400 subscribers turning up each month (thanks to Catalyst Chch for providing a venue!) for presentations, demos, and general FOSS discussion. We keep meeting notes in Etherpad, for example - the others have "guessable" URLs.
This year, we have also added Meetups in Auckland and Wellington, both of which have already had well-attended physical meetings and attracted large subscriber groups!
This year the NZOSS was proud to be a sponsor of a number of events, including ITx, OS//OS 2016, and the 2016 NZ Open Source Awards.
In addition to being a fan of FOSS, our new Councillor and Secretary, Rob Elshire, is a genomics research scientist who has developed a novel method for "looking at differences at the DNA level" called "genotyping-by-sequencing". The very specialised community in which he's active, based both here in NZ and abroad, is refining this approach - using the "open source" development model - to automate and improve the reproducibility of this method. The group, calling itself "biospectra-by-sequencing", or BBS, has asked the NZOSS to act as the caretaker of their "BBS Project".
Rob's work was discussed recently on RNZ due the improvements he has made to his very powerful genetic analysis method which is being used across the agricultural sector, making it even less expensive.
We are delighted to be able to assist in this way, helping to keep their work open and moving forward rapidly without artificial limits. It's also refreshing to be adding another string to the society's bow: open biological science.
In a few months, a group Rob coordinates will be holding a Bioinfomatics conference in Palmerston North at the start of November, and the NZOSS is a proud sponsor.
2017 Tech Manifesto
The Tech Leaders' Forum in which I have been participating on behalf of the NZOSS will allow us to magnify our impact, particularly with influencing government behaviour and policy, although we may also learn useful procedural lessons from successes (and failures) experienced by the other organisations.
In May, the Forum members published our 2017 Tech Manifesto to inform the various NZ political parties, developing their platforms for the upcoming national election in September, what the technology community would like to see.
The document is perhaps a bit too cautious in suggesting really interesting and positive changes to NZ's policies, although I think we managed to get some useful information in there from the NZOSS' point of view. Most compelling, I think, is the desire to see some tangible progress towards the lofty ambitions of the, up to which outgoing Minister Peter Dunne signed us in 2014.
Due to problems achieving necessary quorum at monthly NZOSS Council meetings, the Council last year opted to reduce its size to a maximum of 7 members (and only 6 stood, so that's how many we have). This is in line with similar moves by our colleagues at Linux Australia.
We encounted a bit of a hiccup when, despite a careful reading of the NZOSS Constitution to ensure we weren't transgressing any Council rules. The Constitution specifies a maximum Council size, not a minimum, and it states (with one exception which we found later, to our chagrin) all quorums and voting requirements in terms of proportions of the number of councillors. The one exception was a mention of an absolute number which our (numerical) searches of the document failed to pick up: "The quorum for meetings of Council shall be seven members."
We will be endeavouring to correct this oversight by asking the NZOSS' voting members to approve a Constitutional Amendment making quorum for Council meetings similarly a consistent portion of the total number of Councillors rather than an absolute number.
Outside of that problem, we have found that our meetings have been more focused, far quicker, and with quorum usually achieved on time. The only downside is the reduced diversity of views in the smaller group. We are all hopeful that the diverity of views will improve in subsequent Councils (but, in part, it depends on who is nominated, so please help us by nominating yourself or someone else who you think will improve the Council's diversity in future!).
We're quite intrigued to see what happens in the coming election - it may mean that the NZOSS gets to work in a more amenable political landscape than what have at present. Or perhaps not.
Our mission is far from secure. Most of us are highly involved in ubiquitous cloud platforms which entrust unprecedented control of our day-to-day lives, privacy, and data security to profit-driven corporations who jealously guard control of their platforms, and record staggeringly vast amounts of data on the off chance that it might be used for commercial gain without any useful oversight. Similarly, governments - even those which are founded on democratic principles of justice, individual rights, and transparency - are demonstrating that they easily succumb to the temptation of wanton information gathering.
We in the NZOSS need to remain vigilant in the face of these powerful, well resourced forces, and do what we can to educate people (especially in government) about what they are losing by giving away control, and show them that very effective alternatives exist (and might have the side effect of saving money as well).
Other pressing issues include the substantial energy and funding now going in to improving Digital Technology education in NZ. We need to ensure that this education work is doing the right thing (i.e. isn't co-opted by vested interests) and does not veer towards indoctrination of our young learners into unquestioning dependence on closed technology ecosystems which
- thwart their learning with artificial barriers to exploration with closed source,
- creating a dependence on specific vendors' software through closed proprietary file formats and high-ongoing costs, especially after school, that make the software functionally similar to "ransomeware", and
- requiring them to agree to dodgy terms and conditions, waiving rights to privacy and indemnifying vendors (the infamous "I ACCEPT" everyone is forced to click - but no one reads) before getting access to most software services.
We think there are better approaches to these problems and many more that involve engaging a broad and diverse community of technologists and enthusiasts at all skill levels, and helping them to bridge gaps of knowledge, access, and attitude.
I'm certainly looking forward to what will surely be an exciting year for the Society.
(for reference, here's last year's President's report)