Sunday, September 29, 2013

My history of webmaking

I resumed dabbling in making websites earlier this year. My association with the web is actually very ancient. The story begins in 2001. When I was in class 12, I learnt HTML from an online tutorial which I had to download page by page. It was the study break before our 12th exams (called 'Higher Secondary' in my state) and I needed some recreation. I had a non-existent social life and I didn't play with other kids (which has a long history, about which I'll blog some day). In those days, internet was something you had to connect to once in a while. Charges were high and I was rationed to one hour of internet every Sunday evening. I had to download whatever I had wanted to surf all the week for offline viewing.

Coming back to the story of HTML -- I found that the format (it was version 4 at that time) was pretty much human-readable. I started reading and writing HTML and soon I created a site for our school batch. I also started dabbling in Javascript -- which was my introduction to functions, loops and other elements of imperative programming. Soon after when I joined college I continued with my experiments with HTML and Javascript but they became less and less as I became busier in other interests. The only things I remember doing are a site for a consulting firm (this was a paid assignment) and the site for Mensa Kolkata.

In those days creating websites was seen as 'designing' them. It was not considered programming. Imagine my surprise five-six years later when I saw the very languages which once seemed very minor with limited capabilities become the hot programming languages of the day! Back in school or college I used to envy people who wrote programs in C and C++. I never thought my knowledge of HTML (I used it for writing regular documents, including my resume) would ever come to any use. In the last few years the trend reversed --  I started looking with awe at people who were creating amazing sites and apps.

Cut to the present -- what I set out to write today was actually my experience with python+flask. It was extremely easy and fun! I'll write more about it later.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Software Freedom Day 2013 in Delhi

I really can't believe there was a six-hour-long celebration of Software Freedom Day in Delhi, of all places. There were three big sessions on different parts of FOSS, followed by parallel sessions with smaller groups of participants. A lot of people were definitely from college. But there was a sizeable number of people who were working -- in their own startups, in law, in the social sector, or in companies.

Anyway I have no mind to write a report on what happened. I want to write about what I learnt. And it is that free software is a very large thing today, and it is not only about code. FOSS has inspired the concept of free data which has given birth to initiatives like Open Access (providing free online versions of journals).

More interesting were the sessions on Openstreetmap (by Sumandro) and Wikipedia (by Noopur).
The power of openstreetmaps is that they provide all the data behind the maps they show. Google maps, which is more commonly used, lets us embed their maps and do certain things with them via APIs. But the data behind the map is more powerful than the map itself. Anyone can use the map data for generating maps without even having to connect to the openstreetmaps server.

The Wikipedia session revealed how strict Wikipedia's policy is for ensuring that the highest quality of information is recorded. Every article is reviewed by multiple people, and there are mechanisms in place to ensure that incorrect articles are removed and vandalised articles restored in seconds. I thought about it and really felt how big Wikipedia is in human history. Since the beginning of writing, history and encylopedias were written by powerful people, and were supported directly or indirectly by the kings or later, by the government. This is the first time human knowledge is being recorded by a worldwide community of humans from all backgrounds. It is just like humankind is writing its diary.

Apart from this the work done by Subhrangshu on's new data visualisation engine was really interesting. I remembered trying my hand at data visualisation using Highcharts and Google charts in a Hacks n' Hackers hackfest earlier this year. This engine removes the need for such hacking for basic visualisation. It is still under development, but the entire source code is available on github.

All in all, a very energising day with much hope for the Delhi Free Software community.