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 work fine.
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 session:
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.