Techfest 2008: Bombay, India

by Jon maddog Hall

Bombay, India. While the official name of the city is now "Mumbai", the name "Bombay" is still used by a lot of the inhabitants, and its use draws images of one of the world's largest cities, a gateway to the sub-continent. Therefore an invitation to speak at Techfest 2008 (, a large student-organized technical showcase, was impossible to turn down.

Techfest is a yearly three-day event that encompasses "everything technical". While computer hardware and software had their place, the fest also included demonstrations and competitions centered around alternative energies, clean water production, recycling and included civil and mechanical engineering challenges. They even discussed cost-effective medical remedies.

The Techfest was hosted by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, one of India's centers of academic excellence. I spoke with students from all over India who attend this Institute. The Fest, however, was open to all, and the normal population of the school grew ten-fold as students from other schools and residents of the region attend to see what is new in the world of technology.

There was a mixture of International speakers, speakers from India, and speakers such as Dr. Rober Kahn, co-inventor of the TCP/IP protocol, who participated by video conferencing and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame. In addition there were many exhibitions, not only of what the students and faculty of IIT were doing, but industry participated, showing the students the value of applying their course teachings.

I was invited into a panel discussion of Free and Open Source Software (naturally) that included two veteran FOSS Evangelists from India, Venkatesh Hariharah (head of Open Source Affairs at Red Hat) and Atul Chitnis (best known for his wide range of technology knowledge in general, and his fierce support of Free and Open Source Software). Our panel session was heavily attended, with the room filled to overflowing. The moderator was Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan ("Just call me Abhi"), the Editor-at-large for CNN/IBN and it was video-taped for a segment on television. The panel was kept snappy, answering questions from Mr. Radhakrishnan, and after the taping was over we took questions from the audience, most of whom used FOSS. It was here that I heard the question that I heard over and over again from the participants of Techfest, "How do you make money with FOSS?", and I learned to patiently answer this as I was asked it the next several dozen times.

After the panel I was taken back to my comfortable room at the Institute guesthouse where I battled to get through their firewall and out onto the Internet. It turns out that the policy of the Insitute is to allow only web-based email, and my normal method of using email was not really compatible with their policies. To be fair, it would probably not be compatible with many universities' policies, but it is the way I liked handling email and it would be nice to have found a demilitarized zone, perhaps password protected and bandwidth throttled at the guesthouse that I could have connected with. Nevertheless, with a little experimentation I managed to use a combination of ssh and other tunneling techniques to get past their firewall to my mail server. Thank you, OpenSSH developers!

Even with the panel going overtime for an additional hour we still did not cover all of the questions on FOSS, as I discovered after I removed my tie and dress shirt and returned to the campus proper with my Tux Penguin T-shirt to wander around looking at other exhibits. I had not traveled far before two students stopped me to ask me some questions. As I started answering those questions other students joined, some of whom could not get into the hall for the panel discussion because it was full. I kept answering questions, and the crowd kept growing. Before long there were probably about 50 people standing there listening to the questions and answers. I talked for about an hour, and at that point the questions started to trail off, so I excused myself to go back to the guest house. Unfortunately that triggered a round of "May I have a picture with you", and "May I have your autograph." After another half hour of pictures and autographs I was released to continue looking at Techfest.

The next day was "BarCamp". For those of you not familiar with "BarCamp", it bills itself as the "un-conference". People show up, determine what the topics of conversation will be, and people make presentations and lead discussions. Unfortunately some of my "official duties" (such as awarding some prizes to the competition winners and doing an interview on the OpenMoko phone) kept me from seeing all of the talks, but I did see an interesting talk on Mobile FOSS technology by Atul Chitnes (one of my fellow panelists) and an interesting talk on the topic of using robots for creating immortality by a 13 year old. I gave a talk on using FOSS in Education that was well received.

Each night found some type of entertainment, usually centered around pyrotechnics of some type, and after three days Techfest 2008 came to a triumphant end. I return to the United States tomorrow for a brief period of time before heading down to Jacksonville, Florida for the one-day "Florida Linux Show" on February 11th.