Hackday in Bristol on Saturday

We’ve gleaned from our friends at Connecting Bristol that online takeaway meals ordering outfit Just Eat is sponsoring a hackday this coming Saturday, 26th July at the Engine Shed in Bristol from 8.00 am to 9.00 pm.

The programme of events is:

  • 8.00am – 8.30am: Breakfast
  • 8.30am – 9.30am: Team formation and pitching
  • 9.30am – 5.30pm: Hacking (with pizzas for lunch)!
  • 5.30pm – 7.00pm: Demonstrations, judging & prizes
  • 7.00pm – 9.00pm: Dinner and drinks

The top prize for participating teams is a Parrot AR.Drone.

Participants will need to sign up on the event’s Meetup page to attend.

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Companies House takes open data route

Yesterday, while David Cameron was rearranging his Cabinet, one significant piece of news (apart from the DRIP Bill. Ed.) seems to have escaped the personality-obsessed British media.

image of open data stickersThe news was the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced that Companies House is to make all of its digital data available free of charge. It has hitherto charged users for anything but the most basic company information on its website.

This will make the UK the first country to establish a truly open register of business information.

As a result, it will be easier for members of the public and businesses to research and scrutinise the activities and ownership of companies and their directors. Last year (2013/14), users searching the Companies House website spent £8.7 million accessing company information on the register.

The release of company information as open data will also provide opportunities for entrepreneurs to come up with innovative ways of using the information.

This change will come into effect from the second quarter of 2015 (April – June).

This is an re-edited version of a post from the chief scribe’s blog.

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EU Commission: we support vendor lock-in

EU flag with MS Windows logo inside circle of starsThe European Commission has recently renewed its commitment to a proprietary desktop and secret file formats, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) writes. The Commission is refusing to make a serious effort to break free from vendor lock-in and is ignoring all available alternatives. In doing so, the EU’s civil service fails to practice what it preaches.

In April, the Commission signed two contracts with Microsoft: firstly, an agreement for “high-level services” worth €44 million and secondly a framework agreement on software licensing conditions. The actual licences are provided by Hewlett-Packard under a separate contract from 2012 that itself is worth €50 million. The contracts cover the Commission itself and 54 other EU organisations.

“We are extremely disappointed about the lack of progress here,” says FSFE president Karsten Gerloff. “The Commission has not even looked for viable alternatives. Its lazy approach to software procurement leaves the Commission open to allegations of inertia and worse.”

The Commission recently admitted publicly for the first time (PDF) that it is in “effective captivity” to Microsoft. Documents obtained by the FSFE reveal that the Commission has made no serious effort to find solutions based on open standards. As a consequence, a large part of Europe’s IT sector is essentially prevented from doing business with the Commission.

In a strategy paper (PDF) which the Commission released in response to official questions from Amelia Andersdotter MEP, the EC lays out a three-track approach for its office automation platform for the coming years. This strategy will only deepen the Commission’s reliance on closed proprietary file formats and programs.

“The Commission should be setting a positive example for public administrations across Europe,” comments FSFE’s Gerloff. “Instead, it shirks its responsibility as a public administrations, and simply claims that such alternatives don’t exist. Even the most basic market analysis would have told the Commission that there’s a vibrant free software industry in Europe that it could have relied on.”

Many public sector organisations in Europe are successfully using free software and implementing open standards. Examples include the German city of Munich with its internationally recognised Limux project and (believe it or not! Ed.) the UK government, which has made great strides in using free software and open standards to obtain better value for money in IT procurement.

However, the FSFE says it will continue to work with the Commission in spite of this setback and will help it to improve its software the way it buys software, such as by relying on specifications and standards rather than brand names, by using open invitations to tender instead of talking to a single vendor and by incorporating future exit costs into the price of any new solution. These practices are fast becoming the norm across Europe’s public sector. The EC should practice what it preaches and adopt these practices for its own IT procurement.

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Bristol open data initiative launched

image of open data stickersBristol City Council is working with the Future Cities Catapult and the Connected Digital Economy Catapult on a new open data initiative that will help Bristolians improve their city with the help of local authority data.

The partners are working together to release Bristol civic data sets such as traffic management and land use databases to citizens. The collaboration will support developers to use the data to create new products and services to improve how the city of Bristol works, making it easier to get around, reduce waste, save energy or improve the city’s air quality.

Once the data sets are made available online in late summer, citizens and businesses will be invited to explore around one hundred data sets, supported by a series of Catapult-run events and competitions. Bristolians will be supported in testing, prototyping and commercialising their ideas.

Following a successful initial data release, the Catapults and the Council will then create a schedule to release further useful city data sets in consultation with the developer community. The programme’s outcomes will be shared with local authorities, developers and organisations in other UK cities to spread the benefits to the citizens of other cities.

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FSF condemns partnership between Mozilla and Adobe to support DRM

FSF logoIn response to Mozilla’s announcement that it is reluctantly adopting DRM in its Firefox Web browser, Free Software Foundation executive director John Sullivan made the following statement:

“Only a week after the International Day Against DRM, Mozilla has announced that it will partner with proprietary software company Adobe to implement support for Web-based Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) in its Firefox browser, using Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).

The Free Software Foundation is deeply disappointed in Mozilla’s announcement. The decision compromises important principles in order to alleviate misguided fears about loss of browser market share. It allies Mozilla with a company hostile to the free software movement and to Mozilla’s own fundamental ideals.

Although Mozilla will not directly ship Adobe’s proprietary DRM plugin, it will, as an official feature, encourage Firefox users to install the plugin from Adobe when presented with media that requests DRM. We agree with Cory Doctorow that there is no meaningful distinction between ‘installing DRM’ and ‘installing code that installs DRM.’

We recognize that Mozilla is doing this reluctantly, and we trust these words coming from Mozilla much more than we do when they come from Microsoft or Amazon. At the same time, nearly everyone who implements DRM says they are forced to do it, and this lack of accountability is how the practice sustains itself. Mozilla’s announcement today unfortunately puts it — in this regard — in the same category as its proprietary competitors.

Unlike those proprietary competitors, Mozilla is going to great lengths to reduce some of the specific harms of DRM by attempting to ‘sandbox’ the plug-in. But this approach cannot solve the fundamental ethical problems with proprietary software, or the issues that inevitably arise when proprietary software is installed on a user’s computer.

In the announcement, Mitchell Baker asserts that Mozilla’s hands were tied. But she then goes on to actively praise Adobe’s “value” and suggests that there is some kind of necessary balance between DRM and user freedom.

There is nothing necessary about DRM, and to hear Mozilla praising Adobe – the company who has been and continues to be a vicious opponent of the free software movement and the free Web – is shocking. With this partnership in place, we worry about Mozilla’s ability and willingness to criticize Adobe’s practices going forward.

We understand that Mozilla is afraid of losing users. Cory Doctorow points out that they have produced no evidence to substantiate this fear or made any effort to study the situation. More importantly, popularity is not an end in itself. This is especially true for the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit with an ethical mission. In the past, Mozilla has distinguished itself and achieved success by protecting the freedom of its users and explaining the importance of that freedom: including publishing Firefox’s source code, allowing others to make modifications to it, and sticking to Web standards in the face of attempts to impose proprietary extensions.

Today’s decision turns that calculus on its head, devoting Mozilla resources to delivering users to Adobe and hostile media distributors. In the process, Firefox is losing the identity which set it apart from its proprietary competitors – Internet Explorer and Chrome – both of which are implementing EME in an even worse fashion.

Undoubtedly, some number of users just want restricted media like Netflix to work in Firefox, and they will be upset if it doesn’t. This is unsurprising, since the majority of the world is not yet familiar with the ethical issues surrounding proprietary software. This debate was, and is, a high-profile opportunity to introduce these concepts to users and ask them to stand together in some tough decisions.

To see Mozilla compromise without making any public effort to rally users against this supposed “forced choice” is doubly disappointing. They should reverse this decision. But whether they do or do not, we call on them to join us by devoting as many of their extensive resources to permanently eliminating DRM as they are now devoting to supporting it. The FSF will have more to say and do on this in the coming days. For now, users who are concerned about this issue should:

  • Write to Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal and let him know that you oppose DRM. Mozilla made this decision in a misguided appeal to its user base; it needs to hear in clear and reasoned terms from the users who feel this as a betrayal. Ask Mozilla what it is going to do to actually solve the DRM problem that has created this false forced choice.
  • Join our effort to stop EME approval at the W3C. While today’s announcement makes it even more obvious that W3C rejection of EME will not stop its implementation, it also makes it clear that W3C can fearlessly reject EME to send a message that DRM is not a part of the vision of a free Web.
  • Use a version of Firefox without the EME code: Since its source code is available under a license allowing anyone to modify and redistribute it under a different name, we expect versions without EME to be made available, and you should use those instead. We will list them in the Free Software Directory.
  • Donate to support the work of the Free Software Foundation and our Defective by Design campaign to actually end DRM. Until it’s completely gone, Mozilla and others will be constantly tempted to capitulate, and users will be pressured to continue using some proprietary software. If not us, give to another group fighting against digital restrictions.”
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EP Digital Rights hustings, Bristol: a view from the chair

ORG logoOn Friday evening the Open Rights Group organised one of a series of nationwide European Digital Rights hustings at St Werburgh’s Community Centre in Bristol. This was a chance for local people to quiz MEP candidates from the South West about their views on digital rights and ask them to sign up to the 10 point Charter of Digital Rights.

Green European Parliament candidate Audaye Elesedy signs the Charter of Digital Rights at St Werburgh's Community Centre

Green European Parliament candidate Audaye Elesedy signs the Charter of Digital Rights at St Werburgh’s Community Centre. Picture credit: Brent Longborough

As Chair of St Werburgh’s and having a keen interest in digital rights, I volunteered my services and was surprised to be asked to chair the event.

When I arrived, Ed Paton-Williams from the ORG had already shown up and there was little to organise in the room apart from setting up the wifi, a couple of notices with the wifi details and the last minute provision of water for the top table.

In alphabetical order, the candidates who attended were:

We were supposed to have been joined by Julia Reed from UKIP, but she pulled out at the last moment. Could this have had something to do with a little Twitter bother?

After a brief introduction from Ed Paton-Williams and a warm welcome to all to the Centre from me, we were off with candidates’ opening statements. All stuck fairly well to the 2 minutes limit for speaking (and many thanks to Hadleigh for the use of his phone with the stopwatch app! Ed.).

As chair I got to ask the first question: has the EU done enough to allow open source software to compete with proprietary products such as Microsoft Office?

Some interesting answers followed: Hadleigh and Jay both raised the cost of licensing for small businesses; Audaye raised the use of open standards such as Open Document Format.

The meeting was then thrown open to questions from the floor. The first concerned data protection and the UK’s government’s desire to make money from selling data provided by citizens. Once again there were some fascinating answers of which I’m reminded of two points in particular: Jay believed people should be compensated financially for the use of their data, whilst Hadleigh stated that companies shouldn’t be buying people’s data. A point made from the floor was that people are very mistrustful of the way the government uses – and loses – data.

The next question from the floor raised the matter of TTIP. Some candidates, particularly those with links to business, favoured TTIP’s implementation; Georgina said it should be given a chance. Other, more wary candidates feared the consequences of TTIP’s proposals to allow corporations to take governments to court for changes to the competitive commercial landscape. TTIP was also seen as a big threat to personal control of data. Snowden’s revelation of US spying on the EU during TTIP negotiations were mentioned by Audaye.

This led neatly into the next matter: surveillance. Georgina thought there was too much scaremongering going on about data collection. It’s there to protect us from paedophiles and terrorism, adding: “States knew perfectly well that surveillance happening… on the internet there’s no such thing as privacy.” Jay responded that we’re struggling with oversight in the UK and that access to communications data shouldn’t be a habitual thing. Hadleigh remarked that the public have to be given a guarantee that they won’t be spied on unless they’ve committed crime. Audaye stressed that Germany has gained a competitive advantage in digital sector because its far stronger privacy culture compared with the UK.

Thangam Debonnaire, Labour’s candidate for the Bristol West parliamentary constituency and a former musician, asked about how the EU should make sure copyright law helps creators protect their income. There was general agreement in the responses that Digital Rights/Restrictions Management (DRM) hadn’t really done anything to stop so-called ‘piracy’, (better known to some of us by its correct definition of ‘copyright infringement’. Ed.). Furthermore, artists deserve better compensation from the likes of iTunes and Spotify. The general impression is that this area still needs attention as the music and film industries are still struggling to come to terms with the internet after a couple of decades.

In one of the final questions, the power of the UK in the EU was raised from the floor. Candidates pointed out that the UK hadn’t really lost any power, but had lost influence due to its attitude. As regards attitude, the behaviour of UKIP in the European Parliament was criticised severely by the candidates. Proceedings in the Parliament were described as generally civilised and polite. However, UKIP’s MEPs were criticised for being rude to their fellow parliamentarians and failing to do any work on the committees on which they are supposed serve.

The hustings concluded with closing statements from all candidates and a vote of thanks to them from the chair.

For me it was a baptism of fire, never having chaired a hustings event before. But the candidates were – apart from a minor bit of mudslinging – models of politeness and made my job in the chair a pleasure. There was none of the two speakers talking at once that I witnessed the previous week at Radio 4′s broadcast from Bristol of Any Questions?

The tenor of the meeting is perhaps summarised by this tweet from local councillor Rob Telford.

This was echoed by others who said very similar things to me afterwards.

There are still a few more ORG Digital Rights hustings to come. Details here.

This post originally appeared on the chief scribe’s personal blog.

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Computing to get slimy?

Were you aware that Bristol’s University of the West of England (UWE) has a Professor of Unconventional Computing?

Professor Andrew Adamatzky (for it is he! Ed.) and a German colleague have recently been engaged in some interesting research according to a UWE press release.

Professor Andrew Adamatzky and Theresa Schubert (Bauhaus-University Weimar, Germany) have constructed logical circuits that exploit networks of interconnected slime mould tubes to process information.

The slime mould involved – Physarum polycephalum – is more likely to be found living somewhere dark and damp rather than in a computer lab. In its vegetative state, the organism spans its environment with a network of nutrient-absorbing tubes. The tubes also allow the organism to respond to light and changing environmental conditions that trigger the release of reproductive spores.

image of slime mould

Slime mould – the future of computing?

In earlier work, the team demonstrated that such a tube network could absorb and transport different coloured dyes. They then fed it edible nutrients – oat flakes – to attract tube growth and common salt to repel them, so that they could grow a network with a particular structure. They then demonstrated how this system could mix two dyes to make a third colour as an “output”.

Using the dyes with magnetic nanoparticles and tiny fluorescent beads allowed them to use the slime mould network as a biological “lab-on-a-chip” device. The work suggests this represents a new way to build micro-fluidic devices for processing environmental or medical samples on the very small scale for testing and diagnostics. The extension to a much larger network of slime mould tubes could process nanoparticles and carry out sophisticated Boolean logic operations of the kind used by computer circuitry. The team has so far demonstrated that a slime mould network can carry out XOR or NOR Boolean operations. Chaining together arrays of such logic gates might allow a slime mould computer to carry out binary operations for computation.

“The slime mould based gates are non-electronic, simple and inexpensive, and several gates can be realized simultaneously at the sites where protoplasmic tubes merge,” conclude Adamatzky and Schubert.

Stewart Bland, Editor of Materials Today (in which Adamatzky’s and Schubert’s research is published. Ed.), believes that “although more traditional electronic materials are here to stay, research such as this is helping to push and blur the boundaries of materials science, computer science and biology, and represents an exciting prospect for the future.”

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Happy DFD 2014

DFD 2014 logoToday is Document Freedom Day (DFD) 2014. DFD is an annual celebration of and opportunity to promote the use of open formats and standards for digital documents and takes place on the last Wednesday in March each year.

Document freedom means documents that are free can be used in any way that the author intends. They can be read, transmitted, edited, and transformed using a variety of tools.

Open standards are formats which everybody can use free of charge and restriction. They come with compatibility “built-in” – the way they work is shared publicly and any organisation or person can use them in their products and services without asking for permission. Open Standards are the foundation of co-operation and modern society.

Below is a cartoon strip to illustrate the importance of open formats and standards. Click on the image for the full-sized version.

open standards cartoon strip

Here at Bristol Wireless we’re reliant on open standards to function. Open formats are important to us too: we’ve been using ODF as our standard format for sharing documents internally ever since its inception.

Isn’t it about time you ditched closed formats and embraced openness too?

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New round of Gnome OPW internships now accepting applications

The Gnome Outreach Program for Women (OPW) helps women get involved in free and open source software and has just announced the opening of a new round of internship applications. Women can apply for an internship to contribute to an open source project from May to August; and OPW is not just asking for applications from programmers either.

Gnome OPW logoSuccessful applicants can obtain a Gnome Foundation internship from 19th May until 18th August 2014 under the aegis of the OPW. The outreach programme is intended to increase the proportion of women in open source projects and twice a year promotes the contribution of women to projects such as Gnome, Wikimedia and OpenStack. The deadline for applications for the next round is 19th May 2014.

As previously stated, the programme is not restricted to women with programming skills; those with design, documentation or marketing skills can also apply. All participants will be supported by a mentor in the participating organisations. Details on how to apply are on the Gnome Foundation’s dedicated OPW site.

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Pi day for LTSP

It’s Friday, so it’s Pi day! ;)

Bristol Wireless volunteer Michal has currently got a Raspberry Pi – the credit-card-sized single-board computer developed in the UK – up and running as an LTSP thin client.

Raspberry Pi in use as LTSP thin client

Could this be the future of cheap computing devices?

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