Its been a busy month. A few months ago I set things in motion by
advertising for interns to come and work and learn about FOSS GIS at
linfiniti.com. In tandem with that I invited Anne Ghisla to come out to
South Africa from Italy to act as mentor for the interns.
When Anne arrived we interviewed various candidates and selected two -
Robert Makondo and Samantha Lee Pan. You will no doubt read postings
from them elsewhere on this blog as I have encouraged them to start
writing articles and sharing their learning post publicly.
The aim of the internship programme is simple: transfer real-world FOSS
GIS skills to interns so that we can build up the skills base in South
Africa and eventually greater Africa. One day I would love to be running
a kind of academy where we have a continual succession of interns from
all over Africa participating in our internship programme and taking
FOSSGIS skills and enthusiasm back to their place of work or study. What
we are doing now is a small step in that direction.
Unfortunately Samantha (Sam) could only stay with us for the month of
February as she is going into permanent employment next month. I decided
to bid Sam farewell by taking the group out for a morning at the Lion
and Rhino park about 30 minutes from our Linfiniti Offices in Lanseria,
near Johannesburg, SA. Of course being a bunch complete geogeeks we did
a GPS drive as we went (i.e. we captured our route using the new GPS
plugin for QGIS that Marco and I wrote). Here is a little map of our
trip (click for larger image)!
Capturing data in this way is a fun and entertaining way to expose
interns to the process of primary data capture. The location was also a
great choice as some in our group had never before seen lion, buffalo,
wild dogs and other charismatic wild animals.
Sam and Robert sat in the back and learned to operate the GPS and the
GPS Tracker plugin for QGIS.
We finished our little outing with a short walk to look at the hippos
wallowing in a pond. Heres a shot of us all on the hippo viewing
platform (sorry we couldnt get the hippos into the shot too :-( ).
Next week we will say 'goodbye' to Samantha and 'hello' to Petronella, a
Zimbabwean lady who will be joining us as an intern for the months of
March and April. We will also be joined for the week by two other
interns from the start-up company of my friend Andiswa Silinga. Andiswa
is going to be getting her interns to do some digitising work using
FOSSGIS so they will come to Linfiniti for occasional visits to get up
to speed with the FOSSGIS way of doing things.
One of the cornerstones of my setup for providing a training environment
has been LTSP (the Linux Terminal Server Project). I have blogged
previously about my testing experiences with LTSP. For the LTSP
server, I purchased one fairly good spec quad core pc which then acts as
a server for up to four thin clients. I bought 3 Fujitsu Futro 100 units
for thin clients which connect to the LTSP server. The system works
admirably well and we have had 'nary a hiccup over the month of solid
production use. There have only been a few small issues. The GIMP for
example causes X to hang when opening a file.
Using thin clients has many advantages - it is extremely simple for
users to share files since they are all logged on to the same system.
Also, there is only one server / machine to manage. We can get connected
to the internet using a single 3G modem which we plug in to the server
and then everyone on the thin clients gets internet access.
Since buying the Futro clients I have also being experimenting with
using other clients. I dug out a very old and mostly dead thinkpad
laptop and set its bios to do etherboot. I plugged it in to the power
(its battery is long since deceased) and into an external CRT monitor
(its lcd display has also given up the ghost) and voila we have another
client for our network. I will probably avoid using old desktop PC's for
this purpose since they consume a lot of power and make a lot of noise,
but if you are in the position where you want to maximise value and
minimise your landfill contribution, using old desktop pc's would also
One more thing I wanted to mention is the the iTalc application that you
can run on top of LTSP. iTalc lets you view a gallery of connected thin
clients, broadcast a message to any client, share your screen or a
window with all clients (e.g. while doing a demo), lock, reboot etc. the
clients. I think if I scale up to a classroom environment, it really is
going to prove to be a great option.
We have established a pattern of having morning 'geekout' sessions of
around an hour long where we discuss a topic for the day. I don't
rigidly plan what the topics will be - they either relate to some work
we are trying to produce, something I have been thinking about, or
another piece of the FOSSGIS jigsaw puzzle I want to let the interns
know about. Here is a pic of our whiteboard doodlings from such a
After the morning 'geekout' session we task the interns with some work
for the day and then I usually run off to a client or try to knuckle
down to some work. Anne continues providing mentorship to the interns
through the day. The system works really well - although if I had one
complaint it would be that my productivity has been reduced somewhat by
the extra activities surrounding the interns. I really can't praise Anne
enough here - if it wasn't for her, having interns would probably
consume far larger amounts of my time. She is patient and enthusiastic
and she instills her sense of FOSSGIS enthusiasism into the interns. I
will be really sad to see Anne go at the end of March. However, I've had
a couple of other folks in europe interested in providing mentoring
services so stay tuned for the musings of other FOSSGIS celebrity guest
mentors on this blog!
Biting off more than I can chew
Maybe we are biting off more than we can chew trying to launch a
internship / mentoring programme from such a small company, but the
wheels of government and NGO support and funding turn slowly and I wield
little to no influence in the circles where decent funding gets
allocated for these activities. So in the spirit of Open Source we are
starting something small (like a little bit of code to scratch and itch)
and hoping that others will pick up on it and let us expand the concept
out to the larger African audience out that is starving to get a leg up
in a GIS world dominated by expensive proprietary software that does
them no favours.
Note: Edited Feb 27 to fix some 2am typos and bad grammar.