Open source flight, from the Drone Lab to Twitter: Q&A with Dave Lester

I recently had the chance to catch up with Dave Lester, a soon-to-be graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Information and a web developer who has been involved in a number of open source initiatives. Dave has been working on bringing technology together with the humanities and education through an un-conference he co-founded, and in his former role as assistant director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. We talked about his drone hacking project, the importance of code integration, and his upcoming foray into open source at Twitter in an email interview.

How did you become interested in open source and community building?

I was contributing to an open source web publishing system for digital archives called Omeka. The primary goal of Omeka is to make publishing digital archives of historical photographs and stories as easy as publishing a blog. We patterned our community strategy around Mozilla and WordPress, trying to create a ladder of contributions where people of varying skill levels could get involved, and I was helping coordinate developer community growth. Shortly after launching our first public beta, we realized that the community of interested users was more diverse than we imagined, not only from museums and archives but also libraries.

For me, community building began mostly as a way of understanding and negotiating the differences and needs of these institutions. You need direct, personal connections with your users in order to understand their needs; in the process, you start to draw connections between the work of others and play a role of matchmaker.

My interest in community building led me to help co-found THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp, an un-conference. THATCamp is a BarCamp-style event, bringing together technologists and humanists to create sessions related to digital humanities. Sessions vary from event to event, but my favorites have always been ones that focus on building. And since 2008, there have been over 100 THATCamp events around the world.

You’re involved in open web projects through the Mozilla Foundation, right?

mozilla-open-badgesI’ve been working as an Integration Engineer Contractor with the Open Badges team at Mozilla, mostly helping third-party developers integrate with APIs to create and display badges. Open Badges is a standard to recognize learning online through the open sharing of digital badges, It’s an exciting approach to informal learning and using badges as a way to capture achievements that are otherwise not visible on a resume.

One of my contributions to the project has been creating several WordPress plugins to make it easier to issue and display badges; it’s important that a variety of platforms adopt the standard to give the community a variety of ways to hook into our infrastructure.

You’re also interested in hacking hardware, such as drones. What has this taught you about coding?

This semester I helped organize a group of fellow graduate students at UC Berkeley to form what we’ve called “Drone Lab”, an informal group that has met weekly to hack, discuss, and investigate creative and problem-solving uses of consumer-grade quadcopters. These are hobbyist toys that you can buy at your local shopping mall, but the ability to control them using software that you script unleashes the potential to tap into their cameras and sensors from heights and hard-to-reach places that are new and exciting. What we ended up focusing our hacking on were new ways to control the quadcopters, including voice and tracking head movements.


What I found fascinating the last several months was introducing several of my classmates to Node.JS through programming these drones. Learning to program can often be a frustrating and unrewarding experience, but with just a proper development environment and a few lines of Javascript, you can fly a copter. Programming shouldn’t be limited to terminal windows, and the feedback of seeing the drone fly can be very rewarding. This also fosters creativity and unexpected things – sometimes you’ll see the drone do something in flight that seems odd, which prompts new questions about your code and experimentation that can be less common in programming.

So were you part of last year’s TacoCopter stunt?

TacoCopter is a project that I’m not involved with; I believe it’s meant to be more of a joke than a real thing. Still, there’s something intriguing and futuristic about a flying robot delivering Mexican food that gets people’s attention. We joke a lot about delivering tacos via drones.

What do you see on the horizon for programming and the open source movement?

In the age of GitHub where it’s easy for anyone to share code online and gain a following, the proliferation of projects both big and small can come at the expense of a clear way to integrate various codebases together. In my experience, it’s often the “glue code” and examples that are most valuable to users who want to use your software; the last 10 percent, so to speak. To be effective in open source community building, understanding those needs of integration is crucial and something I’ll be spending a lot of time working on.

In general, I’m excited to see more companies using and releasing open source software, not for the goal of selling it but in an effort to develop better services and give back to communities that they benefit from. The precise model for how this software will be supported, grown, managed, and sustained is still to be defined; these are often projects without a software foundation. I hope to see more coordination and partnerships among companies regarding open source contributions.

Finally, what’s next after you finish your Master’s?

I’ll be joining Twitter as an Open Source Advocate in June. I’ll be responsible for building relationships with communities to drive adoption of our open source projects and APIs. Twitter has over 100 open source projects, and as an organization has made a big investment in using and releasing open source software.

Images via, UC Berkeley School of Information