I attended the Tech4Dev conference with the aim of understanding recent developments in how the social sector is using open source technology and left having more than fulfilled that objective.
First, the “unconference” format and especially how it helped strike a good balance between clarity of agenda and freedom to modify it as per public interest, which meant strong participation right through to the very end. This also greatly helped break the wall between organizers and participants, as both were suggesting changes and additions to topics being discussed and also readily volunteering to do product demos.
One of the initial sessions by Vineet from Social Alpha helped me figure out what we even mean by “open source” and the different licensing standards associated with it, from most permissive (MIT license) to most restrictive (trade secrets). I even learnt some new terminology along the way, such as copyleft, which mandates that all future distributions and modifications of code should be free from copyright).
I was particularly excited to attend demos, discussions, and hands-on sessions around data analysis and visualizations, and I did not leave disappointed. The three solutions I witnessed (Metabase, Chartio, and Superset) seemed to be really robust alternatives to the proprietary tools I’ve been using so far, particularly Microsoft Power BI. I also learned that tables and lists are still the most demanded form of visualization, partly because they are the most accessible, which to me is an lesson in listening to your audience.
I was initially unsure of attending the second “hackathon” day, expecting that we’d all roll up our sleeves and start coding. But I was glad I did attend, cause I got to know about the thriving community which builds awareness and collaboration around open data projects. Further, I was particularly impressed with Lakeer and the problem statements they had chosen to answer using GIS data, including improving intra-city transport networks by using map data to identify areas not sufficiently served by bus routes. On similar lines, I was heartened to see the Telengana government’s open data portal and all the work being done by Factly and others to make public data more “analyzable” and also understandable to common people.
I came into the Tech4Dev conference not completely convinced that non-profits, especially implementation organizations, should take up and rally the cause of open source software, because I considered the poor and marginalized to be the primary beneficiaries for civil society organizations and not the open source community. I also felt that most open-source solutions required significant investment from the non-profit to work with developers who would then customize an out-of-the-box product to suit the needs of the organization, and the costs associated with these engagements were seldom known up front. While I feel that work still needs to be done on this front, I left Tech4Dev a convert to the open source movement and confident that open source software available today caters to a vast majority of non-profit use cases.