The ‘Open XML formats’ seminar

I guess I should go into how I ended up talking about XML document formats and openness. On Monday the 13th I got into work(well, technically my contract is over and I’m finishing up some things I felt bad about leaving unfinished) and was called in by my (ex) boss who told me that she had received an invitation from the Ghana Standards board on the previous Friday to a seminar they were holding with Microsoft for all IT stakeholders in the country on ‘Open XML formats. This was of course basically an attempt to lobby our standards board to vote for ISO certification on OOXML. The fact that they started out trying to misname what they were doing didn’t make me particularly at ease.

By the time I was briefed, the job had already sent a letter back to the Standards board outlining the fact that there were issues other countries were raising about OOXML and pointing out that a discussion on open XML formats would be better served if Microsoft wasn’t the only group making presentations. Since they were more diplomatic than I have a tendency to be, they did not also mention the perception of conflict of interest the Board was inviting by co-hosting the seminar. I was told to read up as much as I could for the seminar, which was to be the next day.

Tuesday. I showed up a little late to the seminar, which was being held at the African Regency hotel. It was attended by

  • softTRIBE (a local software company)
  • AITI-KACE (the job)
  • Ministry of Communications
  • Ghana ICT Directorate (Their chairman headed the seminar)
  • The University of Ghana
  • Atlantic Computers (Mostly a vendor)
  • K-NET (ISP)
  • IPMC (IT school and vendor)
  • 3 Microsoft representatives, Atilla, Chineye  and Andreas Eberht (Microsoft Regional Technology Officer for the EU

From the beginning it was obvious that the Standards Board had become aware of the possibility of appearing dodgy and so clarified its position in a speech read by its representative that they were not there to take sides but instead to listen to the stakeholders (the above companies + others who didn’t show up) and carry their vote to the ISO. This was followed by a speech from the GICTED boss talking about the objectives of his outfit. Then we got to the actual talks.

    The three representatives went one at a time, Chineye first, then Atilla, then Andre. Chineye gave a fairly uninteresting talk about the benefits of OOXML to Ghana that managed to say almost nothing about OOXML but try to flatter us. The CEO of SoftTribe spoke briefly about the financial reasons for supporting OOXML and actually unwittingly made a great point. Atilla talked a bit more about OOXML, mostly using all the arguments that led to the creation of ODF in the first place, but pretending those arguments were from Microsoft side. The amusement it gave me listening to him explain about the evils of closed formats was worth the entire day.

    Andre was the real big gun though. Apparently he makes a living lobbying the EU for MS, so he’s very good at framing the argument to suit his company. Purely from a sophistry point of view, he was impressive. His presentation was split into several parts, most of which attempted to again make arguments that work just as well for ODF, but with more skill and finesse. There was nothing in there you won’t find by looking at the microsoft blogs on OOXML. Well, there was also a section on the advantages of XML based formats that separates content from formatting. Obviously he didn’t mention that this applies not only to OOXML, but to any kind of XML based document type, and also to LaTeX. Then we got lunch before the Q&A session.

    sidenote: setting all the talks before a big lunch and then getting back a bunch of satisfied,semi-sleepy people to ask questions to was a beautiful stroke, or maybe I’m just cynical.

    So, the Q&A section rolls around, I asked some questions and an attempt was made by the MS reps to paint me as ill-informed and obtaining all my information from blogs on the internet run by anti-Microsoft fundamentalists. Oh, and of course IBM was mentioned as the prime company lobbying everyone and providing them with groundless reasons to vote against OOXML. Then came the best tactic of the day. Dismissing my questions as ‘too academic’ and ‘concerned with the needs of other nations, not Ghana’. After I stopped being annoyed at the attempt to shut me down, I was highly amused.

    Anyway, at the end of the thing no real conclusions were reached as most of the people there had not read the specification, so another meeting was scheduled for Monday the 27th. That will be my next post.

    Observations:

    • A lot of IT stakeholders in Ghana are very connected to Microsoft it seems. I suspect I know why, but that is also a topic requiring its own post. It does taint the process though
    • After the seminar there was a storm of calls and emails to the Standards Board from IBM and a bunch of other sources. I didn’t have anything to do with that did I?
    • Microsoft’s people are slick , Especially Andreas, then again I get the feeling that defending Microsoft in the EU takes a substantial amount of sophistry. And that I can honestly respect.
    • To be fair to the standards board, they have made every effort to be neutral and keep the discussion purely on the merits of the proposal at hand. The problems with the process aren’t their faults really, the nature of our IT industry makes it easy to subvert

    More on this later


    I met Kofi Annan

    Yup, I stood face to face with the most famous(and at one time most powerful) Ghanaian in the world. Since The Job exists basically because of him, I guess he decided to come around and see what we do there.

    This of course was a huge deal and the staff were basically warned to be on our best behaviour or else. I got to shake his hand and explain to him what the Scientific Computing wing does. And I somehow managed not to come across as a blabbering idiot (I hope)

    Here’s the thing, I’m usually not the starstruck type. You can put me 5 feet away from someone who is supposed to be important and I usually will not care. Not this time. This time it was someone I actually respect. I was hugely nervous when he showed up. I think I still came off as halfway smart though.

    Anyway, that made my week. Hence it makes it on here.

    sidenote: sorry about the absence people. Regular programming has now resumed. More cool news to follow


    My impressions of the I2CAP northern regionals

    For those of you unfamiliar with I2CAP, it is a secondary school level programming competition. We train the teachers who go back and train the students. Then we have regional competitions and finally the nationals. At the moment their tutors are taught in the Ruby programming language. Prior links here and here

    This competition was held on Saturday in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. That’s about 400 odd miles from Accra, where I work. Now owing to nature of Ghana’s road networks that is about a 12+ hour drive. Hence, since we have private sponsors with somewhat deep pockets and that drive is supremely uncomfortable, we flew on Friday afternoon.

    Unfortunately for us we got a pilot who has probably seen “Top Gun” a few too many times and insisted on flying the plane in ways I am fairly sure small commercial aircraft are not meant to be flown. The only thing holding back my irritation at that were the 10 or so missionaries from Ohio on the plane presumably here to show my predominantly Muslim northern brethren the error of their ways and bring them to the light. Or,more likely judging by their inability to shut up at any point in a 1 hour flight, talk them all to death.

    Once we actually landed though, things got better. We all checked into our hotel and then went off to the Tamale Islamic Secondary school to look at their lab and set things up for the competition. Luckily for us they have a well equipped lab with about 35-40 working machines and a great computer teacher. It was also very obvious during the setup process that they had been practising hard for the competition. There wasn’t a machine I saw without a lot of Ruby code on it.

    After setup we checked in on the students from the other regions(the northern regions are relatively large and have fairly crappy roads, meaning that most of the schools from the Upper East and Upper West regions came in a day early and stayed overnight in a hostel, all at our sponsors expense) and then went back to the hotel, got some food and then dispersed. I went to bed early, though what I really should have done was go out and see Tamale at night. Its a very different kind of city from Accra. With a surprising number of expats doing NGO work too.

    Competition day: We woke up, rolled down to the school and discovered that the electricity corporation had been nice enough to turn off the power of the entire region. Hence, we had to go looking for a generator. The first one we found was powerful enough to handle the 22 computers we needed working, but not their CRT’s. Hence, we went looking for a bigger one.

    While all this was going on, a co-worker brilliantly kept the kids entertained with riddles and brain teasers. Interestingly enough the two schools who answered most of the questions were the same two who won for the Upper East and Upper West Regions.

    Finally we got every machine powered using two generators and got the competition going. 3 hours of kids solving problems in Ruby and us going around helping out as much as we could.

    The host school’s team. Remember this is an Islamic school in a predominantly Muslim part of the country

    Another of the winning teams

    Working hard

    Another of the winning teams

    Then we got to judge their work. Generally the teams that did the best also tended to be the teams who had practiced the hardest and had the most elegantly written code. Some of it was seriously impressive considering how little training their teachers got

    As usual, this was fun and refreshing. The schools need more support than they currently get from the government by far but they are doing a lot with what they have and I suspect the nationals will be seriously competitive. Still, I’d rather not have to hear stories of high performing schools only doing well because a teacher brought in his 3 year old laptop and trained his kids on it.

    Still, the sights made me happy.


    A CNN article on supercomputers

    Just because I’ve had to give about half a dozen talks on what they are and why they are interesting.

    Sadly the one at The Job is probably the fastest in this part of the world. I’m not counting the South Africans though. I know they have us beaten by a long shot.

    link here


    Some road show pictures

    Me holding a crocodile tail at Paga, just south of the Ghana – Burkina border
    Me and the Crocodile

    The Physics Department at KNUST. I gave a talk there on open source scientific computing
    tech physics

    Yeji, A fishing town on the banks of the Volta lake. We grabbed a ferry here
    scene2

    Two Women on a motorbike in Tamale (a very common sight actually)
    Women on motorbikes

    A good shot out of the bus door
    scene1

    Maybe I’ll throw up some more later


    My trip across the country

    The weekend before last was spent mostly in the seat of a bus as the Job took me up and down the country. Literally. We went all the way from Accra through Kumasi , Tamale and Bolgatanga to the Ghana – Burkina Faso border. Along the way I got to see a lot of the country that I really had never seen before.  Prior to this the farthest north I had been was Kumasi.

    This country is beautiful people. There’s a lot to see and admire. Plus, if you’re actually paying attention, there’s also a lot to think about and comment on.

    Oh, and I do have pictures. Job bandwidth has been keeping me from getting them up but I’ll try to do it this weekend when the crowd is small and bandwidth is available


    Linux in areas of low bandwidth

    I’ve been meaning to complain about this for a while.

    One of the things I do here is help in linux outreach. Getting people to at least consider the use of open source software in their daily work.  I end up helping quite a few people install linux on their machines. Usually Kubuntu, because i am partial to that and make sure I have an ISO of the latest release lying around, but also other distributions. In the office I’d say the biggest distributions are Ubuntu, Debian, Mandriva, CentOS and SUSE.

    Back on course anyway, the biggest issue with installing Ubuntu is the fact that you need a fairly substantial amount of internet access to create a proper installation. In order to get basic mp3 support, DVD support, restricted codecs, firefox, Java, flash etc. I need access to a fairly fast internet connection. And that’s assuming that the default packages that come with kubuntu are the ones I(or whoever I am helping install linux) happen to be looking for. Now, the last group of people I introduced linux to are all grad students from the newly formed School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences(don’t panic, they are IAEA funded. We aren’t creating the bomb or anything) and so their software needs tend towards open source scientific and engineering software. And, like most parts of Ghana, bandwidth is minimal and spotty where available. Hence, once linux is installed, there becomes a definite need for localized repositories with all the packages they need on them.

    By localized I don’t mean ‘on a server in the same country’ although that would be a start. Imean something more along the lines of a CD/DVD/External hard drive set up as a package repository. Currently I create custom repositories myself following this guide by another Linux Accra member. I’d love for there to be a faster way to do this though. Maybe I should look into creating a tool to automate the custom repository creation. Or does one exist already?
    I just wish there was some  awareness on the part of the people who are trying to promote open source in developing countries that bandwidth can be a huge issue here and can affect how ‘free’ something is vs. readily available pirated software.