The Chinese Chapter of OSGeo had their initial kick-off meeting a couple weeks ago. The chapter graciously invited one of the Foundation's executives to participate in the event; I had the good fortune to be able attend, and was able to bring my wife along for a bit of vacation too.
Herewith, the highlights.
- Arrived Beijing Sunday night (17 Sept), through the magic of that whole timezone/dateline thing. Professor Chen (Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources Research), the Chapter's head, met us at the airport with a car and driver and brought us to the Beijing Hyatt.
- Picked up Tuesday morning (19 Sept) by Gao Ang, one of the graduate students; driven to the conference facility for the China Chapter launch event.
- The half-day event was well attended -- maybe 100 people or so. I was the only non-Chinese person present, and was treated very well by all. Autodesk seemed to be the only commercial sponsor; other notable attendees came from various government and academic institutions.
- The first half of the event was a half a dozen short (5-10 minute) speeches from various notables and dignataries, including yours truly. All was conducted in Chinese, except for your truly. Content was largely about the importance of the open source movement in general, and GIS in particular, to China. A beautiful tea set was given to each of the key notables as a gift of appreciation.
- The second half of the event was a series of three presentations, 20-30 mins each, about the history of the open source movement, the various GIS projects out there, etc. Slides were partly in English, plus Professor Sung sat next to me and translated the highlights for me. Best bit was when one of the speakers unexpectedly said something I actually could translate on my own: "blah blah blah blah FREE BEER blah blah blah blah"'. I laughed out loud, no one else did :-)
- Lunch was held at the facility, hosted round table for many of the speakers.
- Professor Chen invited my wife and I to dinner, with Professor Sung and two of the students, Gao Ang and Tom. The restaurant was famous for Peking Duck -- yum! -- big picture in the lobby of Kissenger and Mao dining together there. I was presented with a stunning pewter plate, engraved with scenes from the history of China and "OSGeo China Chapter" - yow! If only OSGeo had a front office somewhere so we could show it off!
- On Wednesday (20 Sept), the Institute assigned the two grad students, Gao Ang and Tom, to us --
replete with car and driver -- for a day of escorted sight-seeing. "Traditional" breakfast, the Great Wall, fabulous lunch, and Prince Gong's Palace.
- Evening brought us to the university, where the Dean hosted us for a private dinner. After dinner, we went to a lecture hall where she introduced me to well over a hundred students that had gathered (on 24 hours notice!) to hear me give a lecture on open source. I was worried about the language gap, so I tried to speak slowly and my slides had lots of text -- I really needn't have worried, though, it all came across just fine. The questions the students asked were fantastic -- as deep and as incisive as I'd gotten at any other professional event I've done.
Thursday and Friday
- Picked up early Saturday by Tom, with car and driver as usual, and driven to airport for return home.
Some Summary Perspectives
- China truly "gets" the whole open source thing. The level of support for the idea reaches to the very top of their academic and governmental bodies -- university dean, heads of various institutes, etc.
- With specific reagrd to OSGeo, I'm not sure the Chinese Chapter will have much involvement with the Foundation at large in the near or medium terms. However, they are definitely setting themselves up to provide a basis for supporting their own, in-country needs and goals. I will very willingly make myself available in the future to help them in any way I can, via VisCom or petitioning the Board or whatever.
- The graduate students I met and spoke to in the GIS, enviro, remote sensing, etc, areas are a top ranked bunch. Their English skill varies; reading skill better than speaking, most have never had a native English speaker to actually practice with! All very eager to bring China into the technology forefront, but are very conscious of the language and cultural barriers which have held them back.
- My wife and I found our Chinese hosts to be exceptional hosts -- very welcoming, very gracious, very eager to make sure we had a good time. Couldn't have been better.
One More Thing
Most unexpectedly, my wife and I found the interactions with the students to be the most rewarding part of the trip, esp. Tom and Gao Ang, our hosts/tourguides. They are all very conscious of the "disadvantages" that they are faced with, both in term of not having English skills on par with, say, their fellow European or Indian students and in terms of not having the opportunities for travel and exchange that American or European students do.
When I spoke to the Dean at the Chinese Academy of Sciences about this, she agreed one of the things they lack is a robust exchange program, to get foreigners to Bejing and/or vice versa -- the barriers are financial, linguistic, cultural, and political.
I would like to float the idea of having OSGeo help out with some sort of exchange program for GIS students or professors. For example, there might be some sort of grant we could apply for which would help us sponsor for a semester abroad, or something like that. China would be my preference, based on this trip, but other countries would be interesting as well. If anyone's interesting in brainstorming on this, please drop me a line.