Monday, 23 September 2013

My Contribution to FOSS4G

The purpose of this post is to log all the stuff I did for FOSS4G 2013 in Nottingham. I'm excluding stuff we all did, like writing the proposal, choosing presentations, proofreading and general help. We all did lots of that. I tried to keep my tasks to those that required more communication with computers rather than with human beings, and left that messy business  to others on the committee.
Its in sort-of chronological order, but plenty of these tasks overlap.

Setting up the WP skin

After Jo and Barry K had set up the Amazon server and installed WP and MySQL, we all messed around styling it for a bit until I worked out the basics of WP skinning, and built the current skin. That involved some CSS and understanding the WP method for getting page templates. I found a simple WP plugin for handling the sponsors which we thought might be useful for more of the conference data systems. I did the image carousel for the home page. Some PHP was written. Sorry.

Sysadmin duties

Jo set up email backup of the MySQL DB. I set up incremental network backups of the database and sections of the filestore to a large external USB device on my work desktop.
I requisitioned a spare server from work and used it to set up a development environment with WP and MySQL on it. Changes tested there were pushed to the live server.

OJS selection setup and admin

Before deciding on OJS for the Academic Track submissions, I looked at other possibilities including hosted solutions such as EasyChair. Eventually I installed, adminned, and themed slightly an OJS instance alongside WP on the Amazon box, and our academic chairs managed the process from there.

Graphic design and logo from contest winner

Naomi Gale's logo was selected as the winner, and I tweaked it a bit to make some usable SVG and PDF files. I also produced some sample style guides, as well as B+W and inverse colour versions. I also made some A5 flyers (laid out 2 on an A4 page for slicing) early on for publicity.

OSGeo-discuss mailings

Somehow I got the job of keeping the OSGeo-discuss list up to date with progress. We felt this necessary after the previous year's FOSS4G fell apart - one of the criticisms was lack of communication between that local team and OSGeo. So every two weeks or so, after our committee meetings, I'd summarise progress and write up a little note for the mailing list. These mailings were linked on the OSGeo wiki site.

Maptember - concept, website, logo, shirt design

I can't remember who first noticed all these good things going on in September. I think the first phrase was 'Geotember', which was a bit jarring to my ears. So I coined 'maptember'. I designed a simple web site, animated logo, and hosted it on the same Amazon server. I handled incoming event requests and found some myself to add to the page. I designed the t-shirts (and Rollo sorted the printing).

Workshop booking system

We opened registration before we had the workshops arranged, or even chosen. At that point, people could book one day or two days of workshops. Given that they might have ended up wanting to attend two half day workshops on different days, we decided to go for a one- or two-day of credits scheme, and allow flexibility.
So I built the booking system. At this time I was also investigating conference management solutions, including hosted solutions from Eldarion (using the open-source Symposion system). However, most of what they do we had already done (conference registration, paper submission) so instead I took large chunks from the German python user group's Django site (pyconde) and built the workshop reservation system. This was developed on a home Linux box and managed via github - changes were simply pushed to the live server.
Most of the user handling stuff was already there (logins, passwords etc). I created a new Django app to create a few tables for the workshops in the database. The user front-end for booking carefully made sure the user didn't book more than they'd paid for or book overlapping workshops. In all it registered about 300 people.
User data came into the system via a spreadsheet emailed daily from Claire, taken out of the main registration system. I ran this through a python script that updated the database and then printed a list of new user email addresses to whom I would then send an announcement. This step could have been automated completely, but I wanted to keep a close check on the process so ran it by hand most days.
Some custom reports were written for the workshop system so that the admin desk staff and workshop presenters can check off attendees and possibly open up new spaces if people don't show.

Conference timetable system - data integration from submissions and OJS. 

The program selection was done via shared google docs spreadsheets on which the committee recorded their votes and the community votes were added. After the process Rollo arranged the selected presentations on a spreadsheet in timetable format with sessions. I created the first provisional timetable on the web site by basically saving that as HTML and tweaking it greatly to make it a bit more usable. However this was not easily maintainable so I set about thinking of a better system.
Meanwhile Rollo was refining the order of presentations on the timetable. To make this easier for him I developed 'slotdrop', so he could drag-and-drop presentations between slots on the web page, with the changes in slot assignments being reflected in the database. The database now had presentations, sessions, people, locations, tags and so on.
Parts of the pyconde system already being used for bookings could have handled this, since it had facility for submissions, rooms, and schedules. However I considered that we already had a lot of this functionality already sorted and it would be easier to simply build a few more Django database tables and construct it all in custom views. 
We were now considering the Django database as the master record of presentation sessions, and all changes were being made against that. This was becoming out of sync with the web site's provisional timetable and people were starting to notice. So I then spent a few days developing the database-driven timetable pages, including plenary sessions and other special events. These pages included a python-whoosh search index, tags to highlight certain talks, hyperlinks between sessions, presentations, authors, buildings etc. A simple cookie-based favourites system was implemented, with an ICS calendar file download option.
I used Leaflet.js for the first time to produce building location map pages.

Mobile App

Although the timetable was usable on mobile apps it wasn't completely optimal - for one thing it needed a live internet connection. I went looking for suitable mobile apps with disconnected operation, although not having an iOS device meant I knew it would be hard to find one for that platform.
There are a number of companies who will take your conference and produce a stylish mobile conference app for it. For a price (and when the price isn't specified, you know its a big price). I looked for free and preferably open solutions.
"Giggity" provided that solution for Android . It is an open-source app that reads schedule files and keeps them for off-line use. It can show a timetable, room streams, give reminders and so on. I wrote a Django view to convert our conference programme into the right XML format and publicised the URL for it.
For iOS, I did find a similar application, but the file format wasn't documented. It was plain text, and I started a reverse-engineering effort, but without a device to test it on I didn't want to waste my time to much. The app came with a Windows program for creating schedules but for one of our size that wasn't an option. Recently that app's web site has been down, so I'm not sure if it is well-supported.
I also looked at using HTML5 offline storage for a mobile solution. The Chaos Computer Club (a group of hackers I first encountered in 1985, but that's another story) have an HTML/JS/CSS solution for their conference schedule which I attempted to convert to using the HTML5 Application Cache. I did have this working but I was unsure about exactly how the cache worked. And anyway, we plan to have good connectivity at the conference.

Volunteer system

Abi Page took on the job of volunteer wrangler for the conference. I created some Django database tables for recording volunteer activity and some reports so she could see what volunteers were signed up for. This included daily volunteer roster sheets and tables showing where volunteers were needed. Abi entered the data into the system.

Pledge site, concept, implementation, admin

During one of our fortnightly conference calls I had this pledge page idea. I pitched it to Steven and he loved it. First I thought I could implement it using Google Forms, and investigated ways to customise Google Forms pages and collect pledges that way. However at the time I was also setting up Django for the workshop database and decided it would be easier done that way. The site is one form with some client and server-side validation and a simple mathematical CAPTCHA field. New pledges are notified by email. I can then use the Django admin to accept, reject or delete the pledge. The page of pledges shows ten random pledges and allows the viewer to 'like' a pledge. A simple cookie is used to stop trivial multiple voting. For the end of the conference I quickly re-purposed a Javascript "Star Wars" style scroller found online to display all the pledges during the run-up to the closing session.

Map Exhibit

I created the web page with the voting system, and the screens for the iPad wall. Ken supplied some static graphics from each map entry and produced the movie for the large plasma screens. I wrote a web page that showed thumbnails of all the entries in random order, using Isotope for a dynamic box layout and fancybox to popup a larger preview. A link went to the URL for web entries, the PDF for static maps, or YouTube for movie entries. Voting used a similar system to the pledge voting to count the popular vote. I wrote a report to list the current vote count, and checked for obvious ballot-stuffing.
The wall of iPads was driven by a web page that took a range of map entries and displayed each one, with a title and author overlay, with a 'Ken Burns'-style transition between them. This was all made easy with various jQuery plugins. With 77 entries we had 7 maps on each of 11 iPads, and a 12th iPad was used to display a set of credits and information.


I suggested we try and hire The Festival of the Spoken Nerd for the Gala Night after seeing some of their performances on TV and on YouTube. I contacted their agent and despite only two of them being available we decided they could still put on a great show. And they did.