Friday, February 10, 2017

Discovering the Python Community in Zimbabwe at their first PyCon

On the heels of attending a successful PyCon in Namibia in 2015, a small group of Python enthusiasts in Harare, Zimbabwe vowed to organize the first-ever PyCon held in Zimbabwe.

After months of planning on November 25th, 2016 they achieved their goal in dramatic fashion with an enormously successful sold-out conference at the ZESA National Training Center in Harare. I was privileged to give the keynote to an extremely attentive audience. For an hour, we had a tremendous time in discussing how to contribute to open-source successfully and how to grow ideas into successful open-source projects.

In all my years of speaking, I've never had such an incredible audience. Often at technical conferences audience members are more engaged with their smartphones than the speaker. Not so at PyConZim! Questions were thoughtful and engaging. Truly a pleasure.

Throughout the conference many enjoyable talks were given. I enjoyed Dennis Murekachiro's inspiring talk on how to be a game-changer as he encouraged Zimbabwe technologists not to settle for "good enough" but to work hard to use technology to better themselves and the communities they live in. Tendai Marengerke's talk on how to create reproducible research in Python was absolutely fascinating; it's a must-watch for anybody using Python in an academic setting.

Petrus Janse van Rensburg from South Africa gave an outstanding overview of challenges that low-bandwidth connections create in Africa and how he is working to solve them by re-designing the way e-commerce platforms operate. I can virtually guarantee we'll be hearing a more about him and his work in the coming months and years.

One of the most astonishing things about PyConZim is the way in which every single attendee is brilliant and, without fail, engaged with pragmatic ideas about how to use Python to make a better life for their communities. One could go to every PyCon on Earth and never find one as inspiring as PyCon Zimbabwe.

The highlight for me, though, was having the chance to meet Marlene Hangami and Ronald Maravanyika.
Marlene and Ronald have single-handedly started an organization to teach Python to young girls across Zimbabwe.

Fueled by a desire to simply improve the lives of girls in their country, they've started free workshops in community centers and now operate in over forty community centers across the country.
They've had to battle a number of difficult obstacles that would discourage most people but they're continuing on.
As a direct result of my trip to PyConZim, I've started working with Ronald and Marlene to start a program to bring female software developers to Zimbabwe to work with selected girls on Python-based projects to help out in their communities.

Mentors participate in projects that girls work on by volunteering as little as four hours of their time and conduct their mentorship via video-conference and email. It's a very simple way to advance the case for women in technology in Africa and beyond. More information on mentorship programs and application information is available here.

My humble thanks to everybody at the Python Software Foundation for sponsoring my trip to Zimbabwe and for sponsoring the conference itself.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Pythonistas (and a Python!) at PyCon Jamaica

This past November marked the first PyCon Jamaica. Held in the capital, Kingston, the conference began on November 17th with a day of tutorials followed by a single track of talks on November 18th. I attended both as a representative of the Python Software Foundation, which sponsored the conference, and as a speaker.

Python in Kingston’s Higher Education 

Kingston, home to approximately 33% of Jamaicans, boasts several institutions of higher learning including the Caribbean Maritime Institute and the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. PyCon Jamaica kicked off with tutorials at the University of the West Indies. Most of the tutorials focused on introductory topics (e.g. Introduction to Plone). Participants came from a wide range of backgrounds including mechanical engineers or undergraduates with a marketing concentration. Interestingly I was informed Python isn’t a part of the standard computer science offering at the university yet it has become a language of considerable interest in many of Kingston’s professional sectors.

David Bain, organizer of PyCon Jamaica and the local Python Jamaica user group, explained that he thinks the interest in Python has risen as students have become increasingly exposed to web technologies. Bain added that PyCon Jamaica is a way to help demonstrate to students and professionals the various applications Python has. "Jamaica wants to be seen as a viable source for local and North American nearshore developer talent, our event signals that software development talent is here," Bain explained.

Modernizing the Public Sector with Python

Conference talks were held at the Hope Zoo, a facility housing vast botanical gardens, a zoo, and a community center. There were three international speakers, Joir-dan Gumbs of IBM, Star Ying of the US Dept of Commerce, and myself, alongside several local speakers. The tutorials had been more student-centric, but the conference catered to those using Python in the Jamaican public sector.

A common theme from local speakers highlighted how Python has helped local professionals modernize outdated practices. Marc Murray of the Jamaican Ministry of Health described how he has used Python throughout his career of fifteen-plus years to automate processes and enable better data collection and data sharing. More than one speaker acknowledged that struggle of institutional knowledge silos in the local government. With Python, though, these knowledge silos have started to be disrupted. Agencies are able to share the same data sets with greater ease and promote transparency.

Python's data-processing power was the star in a talk by student Dominic Mills. Mills recently completed an internship at CERN, where he built a Django prototype for debugging hardware in future experiments. Crucial to this project was not only the collection of data via Celery but the capacity to analyze it. Mills used bokeh for real time analysis of the sensor data, permitting monitoring and alarms to be raised if unfavorable conditions were found.

Collectively the speakers at PyCon Jamaica reflect how Jamaican programmers are embracing Python for data collection and analysis in a variety of specialties. Python’s open source packages and rich community support seemed to be its biggest selling points. Speaker Joir-dan Gumbs commented that, “the best part for me was the presentations of how Python is enhancing the lives of Jamaicans, as well as the networking.”

I’m excited to see what PyCon Jamaica 2017 will hold. Already the conference is rich in data science and data visualization content. After all, if PyCon Jamaica 2016 included an appearance from the Hope Zoo’s own python what will we see next? Perhaps two pythons, and of course many more Jamaican Pythonistas.