Kosovo Software Freedom conference

by Andrew Betts,

At the weekend I presented a talk on HTML5 to the Software Freedom Kosovo conference at the University of Pristina. It’s not every day you’re invited to a conference in Kosovo, let alone one that is the largest open source software conference in the Balkans, so I jumped at the chance to be involved, and I’m so pleased I did, because the whole experience was positive and stimulating at every turn.

Pristina international airport

When you arrive at Pristina Airport, the first thing you see is a large fairly sad-looking military tent with ‘UN’ printed on the side – a reminder of the UN’s continuing presence in Kosovo and the somewhat precarious state of the peace in a country still only recognised by around half the governments of the world. The airport’s immigration hall also reminds you of the country’s recent struggles, with a large portrait of Adem Jashari, who was killed in the 1998 conflict. But beyond this there’s very little obvious dwelling on the past – and the first surprise of my trip was to find free wifi blanketing the whole airport.

I was met by Ardian and Behar, two of the organisers of FLOSSK (Free and open source software Kosovo), and my second surprise was to find they were both high school students. We then had to swing by the cargo terminal so they could pick up a box of swag sent to them by Mozilla, who had sponsored the conference. Unfortunately, Mozilla had declared the swag to have a commercial value, and we spent around 2 hours negotiating with the customs officials to get the package released without paying a prohibitively expensive customs charge. This was fascinating to watch – and in the end Ardian had to agree to pay a fee of around 60 euros.

We drove into town in Behar’s car, a VW Golf that had seen better days (and hadn’t seen them for a very long time), and arrived at the UNICEF-funded Innovations Lab Kosovo, where around 30 delegates were attending an unconference day that was running prior to the main conference. The audience was mostly students from Kosovo, though Albania and Macedonia were represented, along with one or two adventurous westerners. One of those lounging on the colourful bean bags was Mancunian Tim Dobson, and it turned out we’d both been to the same hacker festival the previous weekend, though we’d never actually met. The only other Brit was Peter, a weathered C-coding hippy who had spent the last 6 months roaming Eastern Europe on a ‘career break’ of indeterminate length.

I was inspired to give an unconference talk (on what exactly an ‘app’ is – one of my pet peeves), and the others included auditing Wikipedia deletions and an introduction to Drupal. Later I met up with Tim, and as luck would have it, downtown Pristina was hosting an Children’s festival of dance. Young dancers in colourful traditional dress from across the Balkans performed folk dances on a stage at the end of the pedestrianised shopping district. The dancing was fun to watch, though the acts involving singing were mysteriously lacking any microphones.

SFK conference venue
(left to right) The faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; The main lecture theatre that hosted the talks.

The conference began the following morning in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Pristina. It didn’t start well – one of the organisers had an electical socket explode in her hand, but eventually we got under way.

The talk room was a huge lecture theatre – wonderfully old fashioned with tiered rows of wooden seats and slanted desks (but no air con!), to which the organisers had added a makeshift projector screen and installed a sound system. The range of subjects was diverse and the enthusiasm of those asking questions was inspiring. The first talk addressed issues of privacy in social networking, and the trend for talks to deal with social and political activism continued – next up was a talk on the use of open source software in education, which is seen as a way of keeping innovation and economic development benefits in Kosovo rather than exporting them to Western software companies. Later in the day Laurence Marzouk, the editor of Kosovo’s only English language newspaper, described how open data and freedom of information was helping them to uncover and expose corruption, and underlined the importance of free, unbiased and principled journalism to public confidence in democratic institutions (something we can certainly relate to).

My own talk introduced the audience to the FT, and our challenges of distributing our content in the new age of varied devices and technologies, the importance of user experience and some of the tools and techniques we use to make HTML5 work for us.

After the conference closed for the day, I joined Tim, Peter and many of the FLOSSK team for drinks, and then pizza at what Ardian assured us is “the second best pizza place in Pristina”. I couldn’t help but be impressed by what the small team had achieved, all the more so for the fact that most are still at school and their citizenship makes travel outside Kosovo very difficult (though FLOSSK’s founder Mike is American). In some ways most are an ordinary bunch of teenagers (Ardian and his girlfriend Bleona are amusingly inseparable) and at the same time they have incredible nerd cred: Behar is fluent in morse code and appears to have memorised the ASCII character map for fun, and the next day I found Heroid busy making virtual machine images on a laptop with a keyboard configured to use the Colemak keyboard layout. They are all at least bilingual, with some casually juggling four languages.

Enjoying Pristina
(left to right) Ardian and Belona; National Library of Kosovo (geodesic domes!); a ‘London’ black cab in Pristina

On the final day I took some time out to see Kosovo National Library (one of the weirdest buildings I have ever seen), the Kosovo Art centre and the national museum (which was closed for rennovation). When the taxi arrived to take me to the airport, it was a London black cab. Apparently an enterprising taxi company is importing them to differentiate itself from the competition. Fortunately they didn’t import the meters from London as well: this was probably the cheapest London black cab in the world.