A review of FOSSConf

This is a “requested” post. For the PyCon conference, we used a system called FOSSConf written by Kenneth Gonsalves and others. He’s asked for a review of some kind and here it is. I’ll write shortly about the plus points and then go straight to listing what I see are deficiencies with the system that will need to be addressed. The latter is to be construed as constructive criticism. These comments should be taken with a grain of salt since now I believe that the best system to run such a conf. is a tiny app to handle registration/contact and a flexible wiki system. “Full featured” apps are too structured to provide the flexibility necessary to organise something like this. The good parts. This is the only piece of software I’ve seen that’s designed to help conducting conferences. It looks like it was written to scratch an itch because many of the features are things which I didn’t think of and which ended up being useful (eg. the scheduling system, mass mailing etc.). It’s reasonably flexible and has all the necessary things to organise and publicise a conference. The complaints. I’m going to be a little more verbose here so that I’m not misunderstood.

  1. Too complex for admins - I’m guessing that the administrative backend is automatically generated by Django. I didn’t like it. The uniformity is nice but I’d much prefer a custom admin backend which connects conceptually related items together and puts them in one place. The Django admin pages are generated (I guess) from the database table relationships which is not so hot. I say this because two of the admin chaps had to come back to the developers with questions on how to do this and how to do that. That’s bad overhead when the conference deadlines are looming.
  2. No themability - It shouldn’t be necessary to edit the source/css files to get a desired look. I should be able to construct a theme, drop it into a directory, activate it using an admin page and it should work (like WordPress). The current way of actually editing the app to make a theme is simply not acceptable.
  3. Default theme is ugly - It needs a lot of CSS/HTML love and the 3 column layout needs to be rethought. Like I said, it should all be part of the theme.
  4. No blog - While the site has a system of “pages” and “posts”, this didn’t to me seem like an acceptable substitute for a proper blog. That has to be there in order to get a conference going.
  5. Plugins - There should be a plugin API for things like registration with openid or embedding videos or uploading photos etc.
  6. Lack of documentation and limited online help - Some of the details like the privileges of the various groups (admin, staff etc.) were known only to the developer and not to the users
  7. Assumptions about conference structure - Some assumptions like how speeches are selected etc. are inbuilt into the conference system and might not be suitable for all conferences. In general, the app is doing too much and should try to aim for minimalism
  8. The scheduling system while nice and effective is not particularly well displayed. This is perhaps an artefact from the CSS point mentioned above. IT would also be nice if these things could be exported in printable forms as PDFs for printing and putting up on the venue.
  9. Registration process is cumbersome - 3 step process that’s not really necessary. A CAPTCHA should take care of the bots.
  10. Drop in page customisability - I don’t know if this is possible but it should be. The entry page to the site should be configurable to be a single or a compound/generated page (like list of blog entries).
  11. Mailing interface needs work - The mailing interface is fine but needs work if it’s going to become actually useful.
  12. Data extraction API - It should provide some kind of API to extract data from the database.

These are the things that still are in my head. The app is on the overall nice and I would recommend it if you’ve got a conference to conduct. Be aware of the limitations and give it a trial before you deploy it. I personally feel that that more unstructured and free the website (and other) parts are, the easier it is to get things going. Because of this, I would not use it again. However, the first PyCon in India would not have happened without the help of FOSSConf.

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