Monday, February 24. 2014
Last week I drew the blue line from Sudbury to Ottawa you see in the above map by running MozStumbler on my phone as we headed out to celebrate Winterlude. One day, that line might help you figure out where you are on your FirefoxOS phone! Here's what's going on:
GPS triangulates your position based on satellites, requires a line of sight to those satellites, and can take minutes to get a lock on your location. If you have a smartphone, you've probably noticed that running a maps application will return your location in seconds, not minutes; that's because modern smartphones use cell towers and wifi routers for triangulation purposes. Unlike GPS, your phone is usually continuously scanning for cell and wifi routers, so the data is immediately available at no extra cost to your phone's battery or CPU.
However, while the major smartphone operating system manufacturers have built databases that correlate cell towers and wifi routers with coordinates (and raised some privacy concerns while they were at it - Apple, Google), this data is not openly available. A new operating system, such as Mozilla's FirefoxOS, must licence a service such as Skyhook's, or build their own.
True to its open principles, Mozilla is building its own database of location information--the Mozilla Location Service--that aims "to provide an open service to provide location data" (that page needs wordsmithing but I digress). To collect the data, Mozilla offers an Android application called MozStumbler that you can run while you're out and about; it will build a collection of coordinates with wifi access points and cell towers, and then upload it to Mozilla (either via your data connection, or later when you have wifi connectivity if you prefer). Currently you have to sideload the APK onto your phone; it is not available on the Google Play Store (although it is on F-Droid).
While the fledgling location API is already available, it remains to be seen how Mozilla will run this service: if, for example, it will make data dumps available, or if it will rate-limit calls to the service. But given Mozilla's long and laudable track record, it seems worthwhile to trust that they will do the right thing and help them build their database. They have a long way to go. Comparing Mozilla's stats to Skyhook's, Mozilla has collected observations about 0.7 million cell towers and 17.5 million wifi access points, vs. Skyhook's 30 million and 1 billion respectively.
So why not fire up MozStumbler on your phone? Hey, if a lowly guy from
Sudbury can, in a little over a week, get into the top 200 data
contributors (me =
Friday, July 5. 2013
On August 10, 2013, I'll be giving a twenty-minute talk at PyCon Canada on A Flask of full-text search with PostgreSQL. I'm very excited to be talking about Python, at a Python conference, and to be giving the Python audience a peek at PostgreSQL's full-text search capabilities. With a twenty minute slot, I'll be leaning on my code4lib experience to compress the right amount of technical information into an entertaining package.
Setting aside my talk, the line-up for PyCon Canada looks fantastic; the keynote speakers are Karen Brennan, Hilary Mason, and Jakob Kaplan-Moss, and there are a ton of great talks. Did I mention that I'm really looking forward to this conference?
Update 2013-07-11: Now that the schedule is official, the presentation URL needed to be updated. Also, the impetus for this proposal came straight from PGCon 2013, where the PostgreSQL community was urged to get the good word out about PostgreSQL to other communities. Et voila!
Monday, December 26. 2011
A few days ago I made a small donation to the Software Freedom Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered in the United States. There are many organizations to which I could have donated, and indeed Lynn and I have donated to a number of charities again this year, but I felt it was important to direct some funds to the Conservancy for a number of reasons - which I will attempt to describe and hopefully convince you as well.
First, for those who know that the Evergreen open source integrated library system is a member project of the Conservancy and the the project on which I invest much of my professional and person time, an obvious question might be: "Why didn't you just donate to Evergreen?". Donating to Evergreen does result in a small percentage of those funds being directed to the Conservancy. Currently, Evergreen directs 5% of its income to the Conservancy, but I feel that even with $20,000 passing through the project's hands for the purposes of the 2012 Evergreen conference, that $1,000 that goes to the Conservancy is far below the value our project has received in return in the form of Conservancy services.
One of those services is the provision of a trusted third-party home for project assets such as the aforementioned finances, but also including domain names, trademarks, logos, and (if desired) copyright. While distributed ownership of these assets is not a problem for projects when everything is going fine, personal disputes, a change of business strategy, or new ownership of a contributing company can lead to severe difficulties for a project. Evergreen's sister project, Koha, found itself forced to change its domain name and fight trademark battles over its very name when one company adopted an aggressive business strategy.
Another service from which Evergreen has thus far derived great benefit is access to legal counsel familiar with software freedom issues. In September the Conservancy added Tony Sebro as General Counsel to offer basic legal assistance to its member projects. The Conservancy was most recently involved in a discussion about Evergreen documentation licensing that evolved from an unfortunately adversarial position to, shortly after the Conservancy became involved, a mutually satisfactory agreement. I believe this result was due not only to Conservancy's legal expertise and familiarity with the specific licenses in question and the general mechanism of granting licenses, but also with their ability to understand the goals of the project and its participants in helping to guide all parties to their desired goals.
The Conservancy also has a wealth of experience to draw upon to offer guidance expertise on many matters that free software projects have in common, but which each project tends to rediscover on its own. For example, the Evergreen project has been able to run conferences on an annual basis for the past three years, but has historically relied on Equinox's willingess to assume the financial risks when signing venue contracts. This year, due to the positive results of the previous conferences, the Conservancy was able to provide the deposit for the Evergreen 2012 conference in Indiana. While personally I deeply appreciate the role that Equinox has played in helping to build such a core part of our community experience, it is an important step for our project that the Conservancy be able to assume this role.
In addition, the Conservancy's experience with various conference management packages and the payment fees associated with online financial services such as Google Checkout and PayPal provided some important guidance early on in the Evergreen conference 2012 planning process. That advice probably paid for itself!
I expect that the Evergreen project will continue to benefit from our membership in the Software Freedom Conservancy as we work towards a mechanism for electing members of the Evergreen Oversight Board and continue growing and evolving the project. The $1,000 or so that the Conservancy has earned as a result of the 5% of revenue that Evergreen directs its way is far below the value that we have derived from our relationship thus far, and that is why I have chosen to donate to the Conservancy again this year.
P.S. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, donations to the Conservancy are tax-deductible for American citizens. As a Canadian, this particular benefit does not apply to me - however, the rest of the benefits that the Conservancy provides to free software projects are international in scope and deserve to be supported.
Sunday, June 27. 2010
This conversation on identi.ca has prompted me to publish the rough notes I had prepared for a proposed discussion on making the Android operating system experience more free-as-in-freedom at the Google I/O 2010 Conference Bootcamp "unconference". Unfortunately, my proposal was not one of the top vote-getters (it missed the cut by two votes), so we didn't get to have the discussion there, even though I'm sure we would have had an interesting discussion. But perhaps there's something worthwhile in the roughly formed thoughts that follow...
Making Android more "Free as in Freedom"
What do I mean?
We have opportunities to win interesting development investments on Android over proprietary platforms; see the Wockets - open source effort to create very low cost motion measurement devices for hobbyists, researchers, and developers interesting in creating software and devices that measure or respond to movement that is developing with Windows Mobile first, and Android second. It's a shame to see an "open" research project being built on a closed base, but there might be some clues in these researchers' rationale that suggest ways that the freedom of Android could be improved.
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