(Re)Search Dev and Policy @ FOSDEM and OFFDEM 2024

Feb 04 2024

Event: FOSDEM 2024 (and OFFDEM 2024)
Place: Brussels Free University (ULB)
Dates: February 3-4, 2024
Author: Renée RIDGWAY, PhD, Postdoctoral researcher, Aarhus University
Department: SHAPE Centre (School of Communication and Culture Department of Digital Design and Information Studies)/BTECH


In early February, FOSDEM (Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting) happened in Brussels, as it does every year, since 2000 as OSDEM and from 2001 as FOSDEM, (at the request of Richard Stallman). Focussing on free and open-source software development and the F(L)OSS movement in general, FOSDEM enables developers to meet up and present their latest applications of free and open-source software. Saturday, the first day of the conference, I attended the keynote lecture by Laura Durieux entitled ‘Where have the women of tech history gone?’, which provided a rich overview of frequently overlooked or forgotten contributions by women to the history of technology. As most now realise, Ada Lovelace is considered the first programmer and importantly for the field of search, in the 1970s Karen Spärck Jones focused on NLP and information retrieval, developing TF-IDF (term document frequency), the relevance of specific keyword in the text that is used by most search engines (and SEO). 


Afterwards, I joined the over-crowded ‘Open Research devroom’ stream that showcased a broad range of open-source tools and applications for (re)search. Some highlights include ‘Cosma’, a visualization tool that helps create, use and share non-linear scientific documentation. Harkening back to index cards, the antecedents to modern-day search engines according to media theorist Markus Krajewski, Cosma reads plain text files interconnected with wiki links and renders them as an interactive network of index cards inside a standalone HTML file. Emilien Schultz sketched out the lineage of Jupyter computational notebooks as part of a social study of open source scientific softwares from an STS (Science and Technology Studies) perspective. Erik Borra’s lecture ‘Prompt Compass’ evaluates chatbots (LLMs) as ‘junior research assistants’ in SSH (social sciences and humanities) research, the tutorial video is here. Sofie Burgos-Thorsen introduced the Urban Belonging (UB) app, an open-source photovoice application for smartphones and the UB toolkit. This digital citizen science project engaged marginalized communities in Amsterdam and Copenhagen to capture, map and share a multitude of voices and perspectives. Suggested reading from the presentation ‘Best practices for research in open source ecosystems’ is the article ‘Why Do People Give Up FLOSSing? A Study of Contributor Disengagement in Open Source’, which showed that people’s disengagement usually stems from some kind of transition (e.g., switching jobs or leaving academia). Jean Lienard presented Detecting Propaganda on Facebook and Instagram Ads using Meta API that elucidated a few tricks and workarounds to label Facebook’s categorization of “Social Issues, Elections or Politics” and explained how deliberate mislabeling then becomes a standard modus operandi in foreign information manipulation and interference. 


Around 17:00 in the bar I meet up with some beneficiaries of NGISearch, SVP64, who take existing search algorithms and optimise a Vector ISA (at the hardware level) to increase energy efficiency. We also discussed the differences between FOSS nowadays and the F(L)OSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software) movement, where, according to Stallman, free refers to liberty and freedom, not price and the source code is shared openly without restrictions and ‘open source’. Then a group of us moved on to visit OFFDEM, ‘an intersectional festival about collective practices & free technologies production’, which embraces the concept that ‘everyone is a user’. Located in the VSP (La Voix des Sans Papiers) building close by, OFFDEM is a decentralized, satellite conference with pop-up stands offering and disseminating various publications and ephemera, along with a small art exhibition of silkscreens, with lunches and dinners ‘pay as you can’ (afford). Saturday’s theme was ‘Local Organization & Collective Data Sovereignty’ broken down into workshops, whilst a radio programme broadcasted activities and interviews. Sunday’s programme included working groups in the afternoon and was entitled ‘Growing Strong Bonds, Sharing Intelligence and Joyful Care’. At O₄FFDEM was a platform for discussing NGI Zero, which provides an opportunity for free software developers and open-source hardware grantees to share their experience and feedback with their peers and mentors. There was also the possibility of connecting and reaching out to NGI0 grantees - and those interested in applying for NGI0 funds - about the project review oriented to promoting more diversity and inclusion in FLOSS projects.


On Sunday, the track Open Source In The European Legislative Landscape devroom offered a panoply of EU policy perspectives from insiders (experts), lively engagement and debate with the general public. Succinctly: instead of developing code it was about developing policy. I tried to attend the panel: ‘FOSS policy engagement: The impact of the NGI Open Source projects on EU policy and values’ but I could enter because of the capacity limit, so I listened in on a bench outside. Clementine Valayer, director from Gartner Consulting, spoke about Next Generation Internet (NGI) from the perspective of human centric approaches to technology that embody European values (privacy, inclusion, transparency, openness, decentralisation). Some results demonstrate that of the NGI projects, which are open source, more than half provide alternatives to proprietary solutions with 75% following through and 8% creating companies or foundations, thereby promoting sustainability. Additionally, NGI-fueled companies have produced a range of business models and it is estimated that 80000 people are contributing through code, testing or bug reporting.


Afterwards, decision makers from the Free Software community (policy consultant and digital rights promoter Alexander Sander, Jean-Luc Dorel of NGI, Jules Obry, policy coordinator for the European Pirates delegation and Walter van Horst, defender of freedom of information, joined Valayer, introducing their perspectives on FOSS and open source This panel merged into a ‘share your experience event’, or Fishbowl and provided a platform for public engagement with a panel of experts regarding EU policy, moderated by MEP Karen Melchior, who is focused on digital regulation. Topics addressed ranged from the fact that 80% of software nowadays is open source to the disappointment that the whole system is way too bureaucratic. One participant stated that it is time to listen to SMEs and open source people who conduct tests (whether they are open source enough). How can and does the public engage with policy and legislation? Another onlooker complained that people used to be able to sign up for ‘Follow the Law’ where you could be notified if something happens, which has been ostensibly replaced by ‘track law making’

Thomas Depierre, who hosts the podcast ‘I am not your supplier’ stated he is more of a FREE SOFTWARE guy than Open Source and feels that we should be paid to tell the European Commission to do what they need to do, because most people doing work on open source are not paid for it.
In other words, ‘people should get paid to participate!’ Walter van Horst chimed in that he is not being paid for this (as a panelist) and provided his definition of democracy: the ‘non-violence of decision making and non-violence in the transfer of power’. It was a vibrant, engaged and informative discussion on the state of FOSS, where various perspectives at certain moments brought to light some of its contrast to open source. 

What unified the Fishbowl participants and the panel was agreeing that the EU commission needs to recognise it is not a society of the 1950s and that its approaches, funding and policy need to be updated immediately, if not sooner. Recently funded projects like the NGI commons might be exemplary of this. Only time will tell. 

EU programme:  HORIZON-CL4-2021-HUMAN-01  


This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme under the grant agreement 101069364 and it is framed under Next Generation Internet Initiative.

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