Dronefly relicensed under copyleft licenses

To ensure Dronefly always remains free, the Dronefly project has been relicensed under two copyleft licenses. Read the license change and learn more about copyleft at these links.

I was prompted to make this change after a recent incident in the Red DiscordBot development community that made me reconsider my prior position that the liberal MIT license was best for our project. While on the face of it, making your license as liberal as possible might seem like the most generous and hassle-free way to license any project, I was shocked into the realization that its liberality was also its fatal flaw: all is well and good so long as everyone is being cooperative, but it does not afford any protection to developers or users should things suddenly go sideways in how a project is run. A copyleft license is the best way to avoid such issues.

In this incident – a sad story of conflict between developers I respect on both sides of the rift, and owe a debt to for what they’ve taught me – three cogs we had come to depend on suddenly stopped being viable for us to use due to changes to the license & the code. Effectively, those cogs became unsupported and unsupportable. To avoid any such future disaster with the Dronefly project, I started shopping for a new license that would protect developers and users alike from similarly losing support, or losing control of their contributions. I owe thanks to Dale Floer, a team member who early on advised me the AGPL might be a better fit, and later was helpful in selecting the doc license and encouraging me to follow through. We ran the new licenses by each contributor and arrived at this consensus: the AGPL is best suited for our server-based code, and CC-BY-SA is best suited for our documentation. The relicensing was made official this morning.

On Discord platform alternatives

You might well question what I, a Debian developer steeped in free software culture and otherwise in agreement with its principles, am doing encouraging a community to grow on the proprietary Discord platform! I have no satisfying answer to that. I explained when I introduced my project here some of the backstory, but that’s more of an account of its beginnings than justification for it to continue on this platform. Honestly, all I can offer is a rather dissatisfying it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Time will tell whether we could successfully move off of it to a freedom-respecting and privacy-respecting alternative chat platform that is both socially and technically viable to migrate to. That platform would ideally:

  • not be under the control of a single, central commercial entity running proprietary code, so their privacy is safeguarded, and they are protected from disaster, should it become unattractive to remain on the platform;
  • have a vibrant and supportive open source third party extension development community;
  • support our image-rich content and effortless sharing of URLs with previews automatically provided from the page’s content (e.g. via OpenGraph tags);
  • be effortless to join regardless of what platform/device each user uses;
  • keep a history of messages so that future members joining the community can benefit from past conversations, and existing members can catch up on conversations they missed;
  • but above all else: be acceptable and compelling to the existing community to move over onto it.

I’m intrigued by Matrix and wonder if it provides some or all of the above in its current form. Are you a developer writing bots for this platform? If so, I especially want to hear from you in the comments about your experience. Or in any case, if you’ve been there before – if you’ve faced the same issue with your community and have a success story to share, I would love to hear from you.


Introducing Dronefly, a Discord bot for naturalists

In the past few years, since first leaving Debian as a free software developer in 2016, I’ve taken up some new hobbies, or more accurately, renewed my interest in some old ones.

Screenshot from Dronefly bot tutorial
Screenshot from Dronefly bot tutorial

During that hiatus, I also quietly un-retired from Debian, anticipating there would be some way to contribute to the project in these new areas of interest. That’s still an idea looking for the right opportunity to present itself, not to mention the available time to get involved again.

With age comes an increasing clamor of complaints from your body when you have a sedentary job in front of a screen, and hobbies that rarely take you away from it. You can’t just plunk down in front of a screen and do computer stuff non-stop & just bounce back again at the start of each new day. So in the past several years, getting outside more started to improve my well-being and address those complaints. That revived an old interest in me: nature photography. That, in turn, landed me at iNaturalist, re-ignited my childhood love of learning about the natural world, & hooked me on a regular habit of making observations & uploading them to iNat ever since.

Second, back in the late nineties, I wrote a little library loans renewal reminder project in Python. Python was a pleasure to work with, but that project never took off and soon was forgotten. Now once again, decades later, Python is a delight to be writing in, with its focus on writing readable code & backed by a strong culture of education.

Where Python came to bear on this new hobby was when the naturalists on the iNaturalist Discord server became a part of my life. Last spring, I stumbled upon this group & started hanging out. On this platform, we share what we are finding, we talk about those findings, and we challenge each other to get better at it. It wasn’t long before the idea to write some code to access the iNaturalist platform directly from our conversations started to take shape.

Now, ideally, what happened next would have been for an open platform, but this is where the community is. In many ways, too, other chat platforms (like irc) are not as capable vs. Discord to support the image-rich chat experience we enjoy. Thus, it seemed that’s where the code had to be. Dronefly, an open source Python bot for naturalists built on the Red DiscordBot bot framework, was born in the summer of 2019.

Dronefly is still alpha stage software, but in the short space of six months, has grown to roughly 3k lines of code and is used used by hundreds of users across 9 different Discord servers. It includes some innovative features requested by our users like the related command to discover the nearest common ancestor of one or more named taxa, and the map command to easily access a range map on the platform for all the named taxa. So far as I know, no equivalent features exist yet on the iNat website or apps for mobile. Commands like these put iNat data directly at users’ fingertips in chat, improving understanding of the material with minimal interruption to the flow of conversation.

This tutorial gives an overview of Dronefly’s features. If you’re intrigued, please look me up on the iNaturalist Discord server following the invite from the tutorial. You can try out the bot there, and I’d be happy to talk to you about our work. Even if this is not your thing, do have a look at iNaturalist itself. Perhaps, like me, you’ll find in this platform a fun, rewarding, & socially significant outlet that gets you outside more, with all the benefits that go along with that.

That’s what has been keeping me busy lately. I hope all my Debian friends are well & finding joy in what you’re doing. Keep up the good work!