Friday, 09 December 2011 12:44

Ada Initiative to hold first camp in Melbourne

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A non-profit group that aims to increase the participation of women in free and open source software and culture will hold its first camp in Melbourne on January 14.


The group, called the Ada Initiative, was set up in February, jointly by Linux kernel developer and consultant Valerie Aurora and Sydneysider Mary Gardiner, an academic and a long-time member of Australia's free and open source software community.

AdaCamp is aimed mainly at women and is timed so that delegates who will be arriving from abroad to attend the 13th Australian national Linux conference, which is scheduled to be held in the Victorian regional town of Ballarat from January 16 to 20, can also attend if they are so inclined.

Aurora told iTWire that an in-person event was being organised for the same reasons as all conferences: "to make progress quickly on difficult problems, to share knowledge, and to network with each other. As is standard practice, AdaCamp is funded entirely by outside donations made specifically to support it.

"My best example of the importance of meeting in person is the Linux file systems workshop. I organised the first one in 2007, and it was amazing how much progress we made on long-standing arguments and open problems in just two days. The workshop was a huge success and has run every year since then.

"The biggest change I noticed in discussion is that someone would describe a solution, and then everyone in the room would nod their heads in unison - then we knew we could all get behind the solution as a community. 

"But on a mailing list, you'd only hear from the one person who didn't know much about the problem (and) who wanted to play devil's advocate, and we'd never get anywhere on the problem. I like to say, 'On the internet, no one can see you nod'."

Since the Initiative was set up, it has organised funding from several sources, including Linux Australia, to ensure that both the co-founders can be paid for their efforts.

It has also made a first draft of what it calls Ada's Advice - a guide to resources for women either in, or aspiring to join, FOSS projects; planned Ada's Careers, a career development community, advised several organisations on PR incidents and how to attract women; and written and encouraged adoption of a formal anti-harassment policy for all FOSS conferences.

However, when a policy goes into too much detail, there is always the danger that people could be lulled into thinking that one could legislate for everything and that it will work out fine thereafter.

I pointed out to Aurora that things could well come to the point where if I - as a journalist - found a talk at a conference to be really useless and criticised it in no uncertain way, that could be well interpreted as being intimidatory.

She responded: "I think conferences are doing a good job of only using policies for the most egregious problems. I haven't seen any tendency towards increasing the amount of 'legislation'. The way conference organisers usually deal with a boring talk is that they take it into consideration next year if the same speaker applies again with another talk that sounds boring."


I also pointed out, having had to complain once at a conference myself, that it appeared that it was not only the complaint that mattered; who was doing the complaining seemed to matter more.


"I can't comment on a specific situation in which I have no particular insight," Aurora responded. "Having a written policy makes it more obvious when one person is being treated differently than another unfairly.

"For example, more famous or well-known speakers have occasionally made it clear they don't think the rules apply to them, only less important people. Conference organisers so far have responded by applying their rules equally, as far as I've seen."

She said there had been specific cases of harassment where advice had been sought from the Ada Initiative.

"We've been called in to give advice on specific cases of harassment - so far there hasn't been any doubt in the minds of the organisers about what constitutes harassment. We point them at documentation of past incidents, like the Geek Feminism Timeline of Sexist Incidents in Geek Communities, and share our knowledge about how people have reacted in the past to various responses.

"For example, a faux apology never works, but a genuine and honest apology usually ends the story quickly and positively. Occasionally they ask us to help write a policy for future events, but usually they write their own, based on one of the dozens currently in use.

She said organisers could find themselves in a very difficult position if they were involuntarily associated with opinions with which they disagreed.

"In our experience, they handle it with grace and a great deal of serious internal discussion. Linux Australia, for example, has been working with all deliberate speed for nearly a year now on its policies.
O'Reilly Media is also taking the subject very seriously and working hard on its policies."

 

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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