Reg Dev-ers go EuroOSCON 2006

Another Tuesday in Belgium

O'Reilly held EuroOSCON, the European Open-Source Convention, on 18–21 September in central Brussels. El Reg's technical department had the opportunity to turn up and see what the fuss was about.

O'Reilly has been running a yearly US-based OSCON for several years. I've long heard mutterings from people on this side of the pond about the possibility of an equivalent for those who can't readily trek off to Portland, Oregon, every summer. This is only the second European instalment, though it's already billed as the "second annual" EuroOSCON.


The Monday saw a set of half-day tutorials. Damian Conway's session on better API design seemed the standout option. The other available tutorials included sessions on data warehousing with MySQL and the hot web-application framework du jour, Ruby on Rails.


Subsequent days followed a common format: brief keynote talks first thing in the morning and after lunch, with 45 minute talks across several tracks in between. The keynote talk by Tor Nørretranders on Tuesday morning was excellent: a look at openness and humanity and, well, sex. Tor gave a followup session later in the week that was a longer version of the same thing; the room was jam-packed with people standing at the back and sitting on the floor.

Other interesting talks on Tuesday included a session on using MySQL for full-text searching (noteworthy to us because almost everything mentioned as a bad idea for performance reasons is something we do for feature reasons); Schuyler Erle's look at some shiny tools for building rich web-based mapping applications on top of other people's maps; and Michael Sparks (from BBC R&D) presenting his work on Kamaelia, a crazy-but-clever visual video-manipulation system designed for (as Michael puts it) mashing up your PVR.


Those who made it to Wednesday morning's keynotes got to hear Dale Dougherty, the editor of Make, a magazine dedicated to DIY technology projects. Following the same theme, Wednesday evening saw a repeat of the previous year's Make Fest: an evening event (with free bar) showcasing a few projects that have been covered in Make. I'm quite the klutz when it comes to hardware, but a lot of these bits and bobs look like a lot of fun to build as well use. The Drawbot by Bre Pettis seemed to attract a lot of attention: a cross between a plotter and a robot, you feed it a bitmapped image, and it draws an outline version with a pen. Bre was showing it off to great effect by getting it to draw pictures of volunteers from the crowd.

Other talks of note on Wednesday included Tom Steinberg from MySociety (the people behind TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, among other projects) offering a hacker's guide to democracy. Tom's talk combined an analysis of what enabled the success of MySociety with a look at how similar projects might be set up in other countries. Almost all the MySociety code is open source, and Tom encourages people in other countries to make use of it where possible.

Back in the world of software development, Jesse Vincent took his audience on a whirlwind tour of Jifty, the whizzo new web framework built by his company Best Practical (And I do mean whirlwind — Jesse got through over 280 slides in his 45 minute slot). Jifty looks to me like yet more evidence that, hot though Rails is, there's still plenty of scope for improvement of web-application tools, regardless of what programming language you use.


The opening keynote talk on the final day of the conference was an interesting (and apparently controversial) piece by Robert 'r0ml' Lefkowitz. His thesis was that we're successfully building internationalised, localised, multilingual applications, so why not multilingual programming languages?

That was followed by a lightning-talk session, organised by certain members of the Perl community at about 12 hours' notice. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a lightning talk lasts only five minutes; if the bell rings while you're speaking, you have to leave the stage. Piers Cawley chaired, and took would-be speakers' names as they came into the room. The names were shuffled, and we kept going till we ran out of time.

Lightning talks are often immensely enjoyable, with speakers competing to say the most useful thing in the funniest way in the shortest time, leaving no time for audience members to get bored and fall asleep. This batch was no exception. A few highlights:

Corridor track

If you've been to conferences in the open source community before, you'll know that a large part of the attraction is in socialising with other geeks. We had plenty of opportunity to hang around with friends from the open source world, as well as to meet other interesting people.

The tutorial day of EuroOSCON overlapped with the invitation-only EuroFoo event. That seemed to work well: plenty of EuroOSCON attendees had also been at EuroFoo, so a lot of the topics raised at EuroFoo also turned up in EuroOSCON conversations.

And let's not forget one of the big advantages of holding an event like this in Belgium: beer. Strong beer. In large quantities. A number of people found their way through the narrow alleyways of old Brussels to one particular bar that purported to serve more than 2,000 varieties of beer. I don't think any attendees managed to put that claim to the test, but it was certainly fun trying. The only problem was getting up in time for the next day's keynote sessions...


One of the interesting ways in which this year's EuroOSCON differed from last year's is in the level of coverage of topics that aren't directly related to open source software. Much discussion was raised on a variety of social and cultural issues that bear on the open source movement, such as building open systems that mash up disparate data sources, and ways for people to interact with each other and with their governments.

But that's not to say that the more overtly technical subjects didn't also get a mention: attendees who turned up to learn about developments in Apache, Jabber, MySQL, and mobile-device programming (among other topics) were also well catered for.

This report only scratches the surface of what was on offer at EuroOSCON. The whole experience was enormously enjoyable; I'd recommend it to anyone who is (or wants to be) part of the open source world. ®

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