Category Archives: Activities

linux.conf.au and XO-AU 10.1.3-au1 release

I’ll be at linux.conf.au flying the OLPC Australia flag. In addition to giving a talk, I have plans for a whole range of other things, including:

Any assistance you can offer is more than welcome!

That’s not all. On Friday we made our most significant software release, XO-AU 10.1.3-au1.

This is an important milestone for OLPC Australia. It is the first XO OS build intended to be installed onto all XO-1.5s in Australia, including those in the field. XO-1.5s ordered from the factory will have at least this build installed by default. Many improvements have been made to make the software more appropriate for Australian children.

If you want to be kept updated and take part in OLPC Australia technical development, see our participation page.

OLPC support from the Prime Minister of Australia

We at OLPC Australia celebrated our first birthday with a massive bang — a black-tie gala event held at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Sydney Harbour. It was a wonderful night of celebrating Australian Indigenous art, music, culture and food. Corporate sponsors generously donated to the cause.

Of special note was our keynote speaker. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd voiced his support for our mission, extending deductible gift recipient status to all donations made to us. Also in attendance was the Assistant Treasurer and other representatives of state and federal government.

Myself and other members of the OLPC Australia team were fortunate enough to meet with Kevin before the official proceedings commenced. He took the time to converse individually with each of us. I related my experiences in Dhalinybuy, where every child has their own computer on the Internet. This ratio of 1:1 access is almost unheard of even in city schools. I was pleased to see one of our anecdotes make it into his address, not very long after our conversation.

It’s an indescribable feeling knowing that you’re on the radar of the highest political office in the land. We are a small team and have a long way to go, but I firmly believe that we are on track to empower remote communities across Australia.

OLPC Australia in East Arnhem Land

I am writing this from Dhalinybuy School in remote Australia. What’s even more impressive is that I am typing this on a production-model OLPC XO-1.5!

For those who don’t know yet, in March I started full-time as the Technical Co-ordinator at One Laptop per Child Australia. This basically means that I manage the technology surrounding the XO laptops, XS server and so on.

We are in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, this week for OLPC deployments, as well as training in Yirrkala School and the Yirrkala Homelands Learning Centres (HLCs).

There are eight HLCs in all, spread over a wide area. The closest one is close to two hour’s drive away from Yirrkala, almost entirely on dirt road. Yirrkala itself is quite remote – about 13 hours drive (again, almost entirely on dirt) from Darwin. It’s generally easier to fly to these locations (which takes at least four hops if you’re coming from Sydney), especially right now as a tropical cyclone (which barely missed us a month ago when we were out this way) destroyed many of the roads.

In collaboration with the University of Western Sydney (UWS), and with some assistance from the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training (NTDET), we have formed teams and spread out over the eight HLCs to work with children, teachers, schools and communities.

I’ll have to go into my work at Yirrkala School at a later time, but here at the HLCs we have managed some impressive feats, if I do say so myself! For instance:

  • this is to the best of my knowledge the world’s first deployment of the new XO-1.5 devices, and we’re doing it across all eight HLCs at once
  • children can write in their own language, as we installed Yolngu Matha fonts
  • we have taught teachers and students to create their own e-books using Scratch, using pictures they take with the camera and content we loaded onto the XOs beforehand

In addition, I worked with Ian Cunningham from NTDET to produce an inexpensive and simple means to deploy wireless access points to these remote communities. These are Linksys WRT-54GL devices flashed with DD-WRT. We configured each such that they will just work when plugged in. The HLCs that have satellite Internet can have their access points managed from anywhere on the NT Schools network.

I left our setup to the UWS students (none of whom are technical) on my team, and they were able to successfully set up the access point and create a workable area for the XOs to be charged.

Most of the HLCs have their electricity supplied entirely by local generators, which are normally rationed to run at night. Dhalinybuy school has its own smaller generator. This is enough for the basics, but insufficient for the four desktop PCs that they have. Consequently, these computers are rarely used, and the teachers tell me that they are too difficult to manage anyway. Being battery powered and far more power efficient, XOs are far more suitable.

We have successfully deployed XOs to every school-age child in Dhalinybuy. I’m still out here, so I don’t yet know the status of the other HLCs. I am, however, confident that they are operational, given the ease at which we got things going here.

Through the access point, every XO (and hence every child) can collaborate and share their activities in Sugar. This also facilitates an Internet connection for all the XOs, through the NT Schools network. They are now open to a wider world of information and communication.

Lew Zealand

Yes, this is quite belated. I’ll explain why in a subsequent post.

linux.conf.au this year was in Wellington, New Zealand. It just keeps getting better! It’s always great meeting people you otherwise only know online. I was especially impressed by the OLPC NZ team.

Immediately following linux.conf.au, I jumped on a plane to Christchurch to embark on a week-long tour of the South Island. Long story short, it was the time of my life! I made some amazing friends. I also saw and did incredible things, including:

  • awe-inspiring views of glaciers, glacially-formed landscapes, turquoise-coloured rivers and lakes, beautiful skies and more
  • helihike: a helicopter trip onto a glacier, then hiking on it
  • a night on a boat on Milford Sound, probably the most beautiful place on Earth
  • every extreme activity I could get my hands on, including:

I have most of my photos online now:

I think what surprised me most was how adventurous I can be when I’m not in my ‘natural habitat’. I’m not normally a thrillseeker at all, but in NZ I made the decision to take a holiday from myself as well as from work and home. I even made a concerted effort to not touch computers at all. My phone was offline for most of the trip (I was using it as a camera). I never thought that being cut-off could feel so liberating.

What is Linux Australia?

This is a follow-on from my last post, where I announced my candidacy for Linux Australia Council. I’ve posted this to the linux-aus mailing list, but thought it wouldn’t hurt going here as it raises issues that I feel are fundamental to Linux Australia’s existence.

I’m a candidate for Ordinary Committee Member (shouldn’t that be Ordinary Council Member now?). Before I repeat the spiel I made on the Elections page, I’d like to talk about what I feel LA represents in out community. There’s the obvious linux.conf.au, which proves year-after-year to be a world-class conference. Linux Australia represents the FOSS community throughout Australia (and going by LCA2006, perhaps also New Zealand in a way). It brings together the disparate groups throughout the country/region and gives them one voice. The community is thus able to be more influential as whole.

This leads into my original spiel, where I extoled the values of scalability in our community. Through enhanced support of grass-roots groups, Linux Australia will be able to grow the community in a more sustainable manner..

One pattern I discovered when examining previous LA elections is the low voter turnout. On most years the total number (not percentage) of votes was around 65-70. Why is this the case? Do we need to be doing more to engage the community? Are we not well-known enough? Are we not transparent enough? These are issues that we should be addressing.

Shameless plug

The Linux Australia Council elections are in full swing, and I thought it only fair to abuse my blog to pimp my candidacy for an Ordinary Committee Member position. You’re an LA member (it’s free!), drop in and exercise your democratic right (i.e. vote for me :p ).

My official platform is as follows:

I have been participating in the FOSS community for over ten years. I have managed Linux Australia’s presences at CeBIT and the Education Expo. I have also represented LA at other events such as the Moodle Conference in 2006, and was the lead video encoder at the A/V Team at linux.conf.au 2007.

For the past two years I have been serving on the SLUG Committee (including one term as President), organising most of its meetings in that time and running events like Software Freedom Day.

A key focus of my efforts in the community over the past few years has been to foster co-operation between groups and contributors. As an Linux Australia Council member, I feel that I would be even more effective in this endeavour.

The wonderful thing about free software code development is that it can scale so well. I would like to see a similar level of scalability with the wider community outside of the coding realm. LA is uniquely positioned to provide the resources and support to enable community members and groups to achieve great things. The benefits of this are many-fold:

  • it makes it easier to engage, hence breaking down separations between contributors and users;
  • it grows the community of contributors;
  • it allows us to do more and better things on the whole; and
  • it aids to reduce dependence on a small group of actors, thereby addressing the ever-present danger of burn-out amongst contributors.

We must remember, however, that the ‘community’ is much larger than the membership of LA and LUGs. I have come across many people who are interested in some aspect of ‘Linux’ or ‘open source’ but know very little about LA or their local LUG. In many cases, their interests are more directly served by other groups, such as:

  • industry associations (e.g. OSIA)
  • language groups (Java, Python, etc.)
  • other operating systems groups (OpenSolaris, Mac OS, etc.)
  • standards bodies (IEEE, W3C, etc.)
  • computer clubs
  • groups devoted to a field (education, embedded, etc.)

LA has a fantastic community, but in the grand scheme of things it is but one of many. I hope – in an official Linux Australia capacity – to improve networking with these other organisations to grow the overall community and extend the reach of free and open source software to more sectors of society.

Great start… but the hard work is just beginning

Donna Benjamin rounded a small group of us together to write a letter to Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education. The result was widely syndicated, hopefully building some mindshare in the process. The Education Expo proved to me more than anything else that FOSS is quickly becoming acceptable to the general public — the trick is in how you promote it.

So where to from here? How can we capitalise upon the gains we have made?

Perhaps our greatest single weakness is the perceived lack of professional support. I think OSIA should be doing more to address this (note: I’m not implying that OSIA isn’t taking this seriously). Here’s an e-mail I wrote to the osia-discuss mailing list (which is unfortunately subscriber-only):

The best thing OSIA can do is fight the popular notion that there’s no
professional support available for FOSS. We can beat the TCO and Freedom
drums as hard as we want, but few organisations are willing to entrust their
computing to ‘community’ support.

I managed the Linux Australia stand at the Education Expo a few weeks ago, and
my impression is that FOSS is on the cusp of mainstream acceptance:

http://www.dhanapalan.com/blog/2008/06/29/education-expo-report/

Schools are crying out for ways to get better value for their dollar, but they
aren’t going to even think about FOSS if they can’t get professional support.

If I run the stand again next year, I’d like to see some involvement from
OSIA. At the very least, we should have available some leaflets showing that
yes indeed there is quality, paid support for FOSS.

Also note that FOSS isn’t Linux. We got the most interest in the
OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for Windows.

On the community side, we can continue to make FOSS more acceptable to school administrations, bureaucrats and politicians. Here’s my idea:

My suggestion is for us to build a Web site focused on open education in
Australia. We already have the perfect vehicle: http://openeducation.org.au.
However, at present it’s just a messy wiki more suitable for our own
brainstorming than for being a public-facing resource.

The wiki should of course remain, but I propose that we build a proper,
presentable Web site that is directly accessible via the
http://openeducation.org.au address.

Why do this when we already have http://linux.org.au/education? Open Education
is much bigger than Linux, and certainly should not be anchored to it. Here’s
a short list of what it can include:

  • FOSS
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on servers
  • (GNU/)Linux OS – on clients/desktops
  • open standards
  • open languages/libraries/APIs
  • free content/culture
  • open learning
  • open curriculum

To be honest, I fear that we might be only hurting ourselves by tying open
education to a completely Free computing environment. That might be a worthy
aim, but few institutions are going to switch over all in one go. By offering
a migration path (or paths), a school can migrate more comfortably at its own
pace. We ought to be providing real choice, not just a binary ‘with us or
with the terrists’.

FOSS (Firefox, OpenOffice.org, Scribus, etc.) can run on operating systems
other than Linux. To use the recent Education Expo as an example, we got a
lot of buy-in through the OpenEducationDisc, a compilation of FOSS for
Windows.

Also note how I split Linux clients from servers. Linux’s place in the server
realm is very solid, but convincing an institution to accept a Linux client
solution is tougher. And by ‘client’, I mean either traditional desktops or
thin clients. The latter are often cost-effective and represent a real
strength of Linux, but are often overlooked or even have regulations working
against their adoption. On the server side, we have some great educational
tools such as Moodle and LAMS.

Open standards obviously include things like file formats and protocols, which
will become even more relevant as we see more applications (proprietary or
otherwise) pick up standardised methods of information exchange such as ODF
and PDF. This should also ease the integration of FOSS into pre-existing
environments. It also can include languages and all things related. Why are
schools still teaching Visual Basic when they could be teaching Python?

The final three points all link together. Most notably, they are not dependent
upon technology at all. Your average teacher isn’t a technologist, and
shouldn’t have to be. Knowledge can be shared and organised openly just like
code. Wikipedia has proven that great things can be built if ordinary people
are given easy to use tools.

Where to from this point? I suggest that we work towards getting a CMS running
at openeducation.org.au. We’ll have to agree upon a design and the message
that we want to purvey. Content creation should be separate from technical
ability, so the CMS should be simple enough for anybody to contribute.

Here is some inspiration from the UK:

The UK education sector appears to be much further ahead of us in terms of
embracing openness, and I think we can take some lessons from their efforts.

To clarify one thing in the above, I wrote the text for http://linux.org.au/education, but I never felt comfortable with it being there. So much of open education has nothing to do with Linux and Linux Australia shouldn’t be diverting its focus to dwell on it directly. With a more independent Web presence (in collaboration with Linux Australia), I feel that we can be much more effective.

LotD:   Open sourcing Australia: OpenAustralia.org goes live

Education Expo report

Two weeks ago, we had the Education Expo.

Here’s my report, as co-ordinator of the Linux Australia stand:

Education Expo
Sat 14 to Sun 15 June
Rosehill Racecourse, Sydney

The Education Expo is an annual trades show targeted towards the K-12 educational space. Visitors consist of families and educators. Linux Australia once again had a stand, with volunteers spreading the word about free and open source software.

As always, we were very successful. With each passing year, the level of awareness of FOSS noticeably improves. Whereas at previous shows we would spend much energy expounding the basic concepts of FOSS/Linux, this year most people had either heard of it or were already using FOSS products such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org.

One thing we did differently this year was place more focus on FOSS running on Windows. Our past efforts have been meet with some resistance, as installing a different operating system posed a barrier to entry that many would not surmount. We had plenty of copies of the OpenEducationDisc to distribute, in addition to Fedora, Ubuntu, Edubuntu and Mandriva.

The fact that the NSW Dept of Education is migrating over 40,000 PCs across the state to OpenOffice.org was a useful selling point as well.

Our marketing efforts have been improving with each event. Our message is becoming more refined, and our leaflets are becoming more relevant. On the technical side, FOSS is becoming easier and more accessible, with projects such the aforementioned OpenEducationDisc and Wubi leading the way.

Our Web presence is improving, too. It’s far easier to point a newbie to just one easy-to-remember URL instead of confusing them with a list. In addition, I built an education portal for Linux Australia just in time for the expo.

There were at least two other stands that were FOSS-friendly. In fact, one of the largest stands were demonstrating their Web-based software product on about ten computers, all of which were running Ubuntu. Other stands expressed real interest when approached.

Other highlights of our presence included:

  • OLPC XO laptops (from OLPC Australia)
  • Intel Classmate PCs (from Mandriva Australia)
  • ASUS Eee PCs
  • laptops showing Edubuntu

Rodger Dean has some photos of the event.

A big thanks to everyone who helped at the stand:

  • Ashley Lynn
  • Ashley Maher
  • Brendan Puckeridge
  • David Andresen
  • Gloria Arnold
  • Harrison Conlin
  • John Arnold
  • Megha Kanth
  • Pia Waugh
  • Rodger Dean
  • Vicki Burke

A special thank you goes to Melissa Draper, who was instrumental in ensuring the success of the stand in more ways than one.

LotD: Insurance company bets health on open source — I’m quite heavily involved in this project, so needless to say I’m proud of what we’ve achieved 🙂

Education Expo, this weekend!

The Education Expo is on this weekend. I’ve sent a couple of missives to our helpers. The second one contains some advice that would work well in many situations regarding FOSS (especially where marketing is concerned), so I’ll reproduce it (slightly edited) here:

Subject: Education Expo, this weekend!
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2008 23:29
From: Sridhar Dhanapalan <sridhar@dhanapalan.com>
To: SLUG Activities <activities@slug.org.au>

Thanks again to everyone who has volunteered to help with the Linux Australia stand at the Education Expo.

The expo itself runs from 9am to 4pm on Saturday and Sunday. Entry is free. It’s a fun day for families with children in the K-12 space, so feel free to bring along your kids and make a day (or two!) out of it.

This year, the expo will be held in Rosehill Racecourse’s brand new Events Centre, and our stand is in a prime position right in front of the door. If you haven’t already, take a look at the original announcement and the Education Expo Web site.

I asked in my previous message if people could tell me when they would be available to help out. If you haven’t already, please let me know. If you’re unsure, that’s fine too: just show up and grab me at the stand.

I’ll be there at 8am on Saturday (an hour before it starts) to set up the stand, and probably at 8:30 on Sunday. I might need some assistance to set up, and also to pack up afterwards.

Some tips:

  • Wear comfortable casual clothing. It might get hot in the exhibition hall.
  • If you’ve got any Linux or FOSS themed clothing, wear that 🙂
  • Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be standing most of the time.
  • Keep some water handy.
  • Talking to stand visitors can strain your throat. Some mints can help.

Make it clear to visitors that there is a vibrant FOSS community in Australia, and especially in Sydney. Invite them to SLUG, which meets in the city on the last Friday of every month (next meeting on 27 June). SLUG has a segment known as ‘SLUGlets’, which is intended for newbies.

Familiarise yourself with the leaflets that we will distribute:

Have a read of Linux Australia’s guides to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and FOSS in education. Remember to promote these to stand visitors as the best place to start with Linux and FOSS:

One important point to remember is that Linux is not FOSS. We will be handing out copies of the OpenEducationDisc, which is a CD full of education-oriented FOSS for Windows. Not everyone is able to switch over to Linux cold-turkey, but we can get them started with FOSS on Windows first.

Similarly, open standards are not FOSS, but they are a good start. Inform people about the dangers of proprietary file formats, as seen with Microsoft Office, and promote in their stead open alternatives such as OpenDocument and PDF.

Show people that Linux isn’t strange and new. Many don’t realise it, but they are already using FOSS. For example:

  • Firefox and OpenOffice are becoming increasingly popular. The NSW Department of Education is in the process of switching over >40,000 school computers to OpenOffice.
  • Wikipedia is built around the idea of open knowledge, inspired directly from the FOSS movement (and it’s built on FOSS too!).
  • Even Mac OS X has many important components based on FOSS, such as the kernel, file sharing, printing and the Web browser.
  • About two-thirds of Web sites are served by the FOSS Web server, Apache.
  • Most of the large Web companies (like Google, Facebook and Yahoo) are built with FOSS.
  • It is normal for Hollywood films to be created using Linux.
  • Linux is prevalent in a range of consumer devices.
  • The popular ASUS Eee PC, and many of its competitors, come with Linux pre-installed.

Show people that Linux is easy to install and use. Ubuntu has an installer called Wubi, which is a Windows application that installs Ubuntu as a file without partitioning the hard drive. It behaves like a normal dual-boot system, but it can be uninstalled from ‘Add/Remove Programs’ just like any Windows application. We’ll also have copies of Edubuntu. Remember that this is an add-on companion, not a stand-alone liveCD as in the past. Give a copy of Ubuntu with every Edubuntu disc you distribute.

Linux is more secure. While nothing can claim to be 100% secure and virus proof, Linux has an excellent track record. It doesn’t need ‘band-aid’ solutions like anti-virus and anti-spyware software because the software was built sanely to begin with. The Internet was built for UNIX, not for Windows.

Linux and FOSS is great for families. It’s affordable and reliable. It won’t get infected and show unsolicited porn adverts to your children. There are heaps of great educational software installable with just a few mouse clicks.

Some caveats:

  • As a community stand, we are not selling anything.
  • Avoid unnecessary Microsoft-bashing. We’re running the stand because we love FOSS, not because we hate Microsoft.

Open CeBIT

The second Open CeBIT in Sydney ended last week. Forming a section of the much larger CeBIT expo, Open CeBIT focused on open source technologies and solutions. I was involved in three stands: BizCubed (my employer), Linux Australia and Open Source Industry Australia.

In the market, FOSS is clearly maturing and becoming more mainstream. At a CeBIT a couple of years ago, I’d be answering basic questions like, “what is open source?”, “what is Linux?” and “how do you make money?” This year, I didn’t get any questions like that at all. Most people knew something about Linux and FOSS, and just needed some direction to get started.

We had much interest in community and general usage at the Linux Australia stand. Our Fedora, Ubuntu and Edubuntu discs were popular. Of immense popularity were our OLPC XOs, thanks to OLPC Australia. Visitors were genuinely interested in the units, and I didn’t hear any negative feedback at all. I do believe that a lot of people did understand that this is an education project for children in the developing world and not just a laptop project.

At the Open Source Industry Australia stand, I spoke to many people who were interested in deploying FOSS solutions to solve specific problems. Many of these people would not have considered FOSS in the past, so clearly our message is resonating.

Coming up in a couple of weeks (June 14-15) is the Education Expo. We’ve always been successful there, and all signs point to us repeating that.

LotD: MacGyver is favourite disaster hero