Christchurch hosts the 20th anniversary of linux.conf.au, one of the most respected grass roots technical conferences held in Australasia. Hosted at the University of Canterbury, the conference used 2.4TB of data over five days from a specialised WiFi access point.

Working with ChristchurchNZ’s Convention Bureau and through Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme we pulled together a bid document that was instrumental in winning the event.

Steven Sykes, Conference Chair

The 2019 edition of the linux.conf.au conference was themed ‘Linux of Things’, with the Australasian conference exploring the use of free open source software and hardware for Internet of Things devices, along with security concerns, privacy and legal aspects, environmental impacts, everyday communication, health, ethics, and much more.

The Internet of Things has become ubiquitous in our lives, with the Linux operating system increasingly behind ‘smart’ phones, TVs, fridges, cars, homes and whole cities.

“Where I am at the University of Canterbury’s Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering, it is essential to everything we do,” says Conference Chair Steven Sykes. “Depending on whose projections you want to subscribe to, by 2020 there will be over 20 billion IoT devices in the world and this doesn’t include phones, tablets and laptops. It was great to host such a strong contingent of people who are involved in the open source world.”

Exceeding expectations

Christchurch put its hand up to host the 20th anniversary of linux.conf.au after witnessing a successful edition in Auckland in 2015.

“Working with ChristchurchNZ’s Convention Bureau and through Tourism New Zealand’s Conference Assistance Programme we pulled together a bid document that was instrumental in winning the event,” says Sykes. “We received assistance to host a site inspection for the Linux Australia council and show them around Christchurch and it did the trick.

“I was hoping for about 600 delegates, so we exceeded expectations with 652 people coming from all over the world; various parts of Europe such as the UK, Ireland and Poland, North America, Japan, Korea. It was quite humbling,” says Sykes.

Delegates were met at Christchurch Airport with a dedicated welcome and registration area, which provided a hint of the New Zealand hospitality to come.

“Delegates were able to get an orientation and meet up with other conference attendees immediately and network straightaway,” says Sykes. “It really does have an impact on the way they feel coming into a new city and the memories they will take away with them.”

New Zealand’s place in the Linux of Things

From a national perspective, Sykes notes: “There were a lot of people from New Zealand who came to this conference who wouldn’t normally if it was held overseas due to cost and time. That was great.

“A lot of the submissions for the talks came from New Zealand and we did our best to accommodate those to showcase our skills in this area. We had Liz MacPherson, who is the Chief Data Steward from Statistics New Zealand talking about open source and open data. One of our PhD students at the University of Canterbury did a talk. People who didn't know about the university do now. As hosts of the 20th anniversary, we’re now a permanent part of the conference’s history.

“We also connected an attendee from New Zealand with a speaker who is working on open source diabetes technologies, including creating an artificial pancreas. That ability to meet up with international keynotes face to face in the lunch break was great - a lot of people were inspired in that way. It was brilliant.

“There were lots of little wins which when added together were greater than the sum of their parts.”

A technical feat

The programme included nine mini conferences, 80 talks and tutorials on six tracks.
“I think it showcased the university well and showed it was capable of holding an event this large,” says Sykes. “On campus everything was accessible and close.

“We did have to have a specialised WiFi access point just for our conference and pumped through 2.4TB of data over five days. The main lecture theatre holds 400 people, but we streamed content live to neighbouring theatres. There was a lot of Facebook and Twitter activity around the events. We also had 44 volunteers involved, including UC Computer Science students - the 'silent ninjas’ that made everything work! People wanted it to succeed and it did.”

Christchurch on show

“I think people were excited to come to somewhere new. A lot of the comments mentioned Christchurch was a beautiful place, particularly the campus,” Sykes adds.

“We had the main dinner at the Air Force Museum. I've never seen the hangar decked out like that. It was a brilliant venue - though we had a lot of trouble getting people to sit down to eat because they were taken in by the military history! The speakers’ dinner was at Rossendale Winery. People loved being able to go outside with a glass of wine and network and have a chat while looking out over the vineyards.

“Many people brought family because we hired Annie’s Nannies and provided childcare for children under five. Because of that people were able to stay on and see some of New Zealand as well, which really added to their experience.”