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From Open Government to Makers – engage with your peers at OpenTech

2011 May 5

As I attended most OpenTech, if not all (but always from behind the O’Reilly table), I thought it was high-time for me to discover what this conference is about.  I have therefore asked Sam Smith (the force behind OpenTech) to answer a few questions.  Hope to see you there on Saturday 21st May and don’t be offended if I bring my knitting.

For those who do not know OpenTech, can you please tell us more? Why should we come?

OpenTech itself is a multitude of things, all at the same time.

In its most physical form, it’s a one day conference in London on 21 May. You can get your tickets at here :)

It will be a day of great talks on all topics technical and geeky, covering a swathe of interests from knitting to the law, data to moods. And it turns out some of those are sometimes the same thing.

Most generically, and often most valuably, OpenTech is a gathering of over 600 friends who guard that fine, fine line, between enthusiasm and wearing a tin foil hat. I have no idea which of my friends said that to me, but I love the quote.

What talks are you looking forward to this year?

As organisers, we tend to be a little busy on the day, so we have a personal interest in making sure all the talks are recorded. They’ll all be published on the web after the event. If I make it to one, I’ll be lucky.

But the things that I suspect will be of particular interest across a range of themes include: Jenny and Shane talking about “The Inside Story of the Science is Vital Campaign” from last year; Visualising Big Data from ItoWorld, who did the open street map videos you may have seen (OSM are also talking); and Where Does My Money Go will be talking about their global plans. There are also some talks on Location-Based Services and Privacy, which got a lot more visible over the last few weeks, and talks on Open Hardware, Knitting and Self-Hacking (in separate sessions, not all at once).

We know that financial gains are not behind it since you are working with the UKUUG which is a non-profit organization so what drives you and your colleagues to continue the extremely hard work of putting a conference together?

Compulsive insanity? It’s a question I tend to ask myself repeatedly about 12 hours before the doors open.

We get satisfaction from helping others to do things.  Also, from direct experience of OpenTech; if you put a load of technical people in a building with a bar and interesting talks, interesting things happen. Some of the projects that come out of it really do help people do things, and while they’d probably happen sooner or later, it’s nice that they happened sooner.

ORG, LinkedGov, TheyWorkForYou, WhatDoTheyKnow, Chasing Spring, OPSI Unlocking, Show Us A Better Way; when we look at all the projects that got a boost from OpenTech, and what they went on to achieve, it seems like a pretty good use of time :)

Who goes to OpenTech? Background, location etc. What are they looking for?

OpenTech is in Central London because it’s as easy for people in Bradford to get to as it is for people from Bristol or Brighton. That aim, unfortunately or otherwise, means London.

So we get a wide variety of people who are interested in doing things with technology that it wasn’t necessarily designed to do. We talk about the design and especially implementation of new technology to do things.

One of the advantages of the scale of OpenTech (three streams) is that, for any given topic, there will usually be someone in the room who knows less about a particular topic than you do, and someone who knows more. But the next session you go to will be on a very different topic, where the ordering will be different again. As a result, not only is everyone welcome, but we actively aim for everyone to feel welcome.

Anna, one of the new co-organisers for 2011, picks some sessions to attend by looking at the schedule for the thing she’s least aware of. The best stuff comes from random things that no one is expecting:

e.g. The iPod Shuffle Shuffle from 2005

Looking through previous schedules, I am wondering what percentage of talks are follow up of previous talks (Open Data, Climate Change, Bletchley Park).  What is new and not already discussed?

All the talks are new, with one sort-of exception.  It might be that the theme of a session is similar to last year’s, but we take it in a different direction, or it’s a substantially different aspect, or introduces inordinate progress. While there were lots of open data talks last year, there was nothing on the Open Data Cities, and all the things that are happening at the local level, which is where most of the government that people engage with actually happens.

In some ways, the most similar talk to last year is from LinkedGov by the the ever-effervescent Hadley Beeman—last year she had a packed audience listening and offering feedback about what they were planning. This year, it actually exists and is being used for various things—and the question becomes, “what’s next?”  Although Hadley would probably also prefer that the two events were more than eight months apart, the project has made the equivalent of a couple of years’ progress in the last eight months. And so the talk will be massively different to that given last year, based on the evolution of the project.  LinkedGov last year was about promise; now it’s about delivery (no pressure guys :) ).

Also, we try to avoid having people give the same talk they’ve given in many other places previously.

Through the years, OpenTech has been a very successful conference, you must be inundated by proposals of talks – how do you select the speakers?

We’re not that swamped (but it’s too late for this year). It’s getting easier, but we hear wonderful stories about projects that people would love to talk about, but don’t submit because they don’t think it’s quite what we’re looking for.

JustDoIt - Last year's documentary

Last year, the only slightly crazy Izzy and Matt from Chasing Spring were in the audience listening to Emily James’ passionate talk about the making of Just Do It documentary. They’d seen a tweet by Stephen Fry about how Spring starts at Land’s End, moving North, and finally reaches John O’Groats about 3 months later, and they had the idea to cycle the distance (the long way round) and make a documentary about it. While they’d had the idea beforehand, it was the various talks at OpenTech that encouraged them to actually Just Do It. Emily’s talk was so enthralling, that while she was changing chairs to do Q&A and let the next speaker set up, she was given a donation cheque.

In many ways, we select speakers based on what they’re doing and whether it is something that would benefit from a wider audience of technically astute and interesting people. It seems to work pretty well.

We do try and keep the OpenTech mailing list up to date with what’s happening with various projects throughout the year as they go from what they were to what they become. Just Do It has just finished editing, and is prepping for a June 2011 premiere and country wide showings. You can find out more at here

Last year the event was sponsored by HM Government Can you see any changes in the area by the current Government?

There are huge differences.

Full house

The coalition Government has come in with a set of ideologies and supporting ideas, which it is implementing, and sees Open Data and Transparency as mechanisms for making that happen. That these areas of the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos were very similar helped quite a lot, and meant that this could be pushed much more front and centre than many expected. And in politics, profile matters.

It also helped that, as it was a new administration, there was effectively no political legacy that needed protecting. Much of the data released was from the previous Government’s tenure, so this Government had no responsibility for it. Things like the release of the COINS spending database in June covered the previous Government, and is missing pieces. It remains to be seen what happens over the course of the next six months, as data starts to be scheduled for release which covers the period after the spending review. That will be the real test of the claims of transparency.

There are already indications that the Whole of Government Accounts won’t be released (which Lisa Evans is talking about, and is also relevant to Where Does My Money Go, who are talking separately); and hospital waiting time data is no longer being collected by central government, which means it can’t be released. That’s where the cuts/efficiencies come in to play directly—if the data that is vital for some purpose is no longer collected, for whatever reason, it can’t be released as it no longer exists.

I suspect that will come up a fair bit in many of the various talks which relate to the public sector throughout the day. Even things like Art Finder, at their core, require various government processes to continue, and some of them may not.

In many ways, OpenTech has been involved in the UK Open Data movement since before it was called that, being involved in the launch event for in 2004, the BBC Backstage project in 2005, and various others since then. Both of these are now relatively high profile reference projects (although Backstage no longer exists in that form).

But while last year the open data focus was almost entirely on central government data, this year it seems to have moved to local, and other data sources in various ways. That wasn’t particularly intentional, it’s just how it shook out this time.

Unfortunately, the recession has hit a lot of people in the private and public sectors. What changes do you see in the environment around OpenTech?

That’s a really interesting question.

The environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken says that it’s only in times of restriction that you get (large numbers of) breakthrough developments—because there are far more things to break through. It seems obvious on some level, but goes quite deeply.

While OpenCorporates could have been created at any time in the last five years, it’s only with the recent focus on multinational jurisdiction-hopping that there’s been a widespread interest in that information. I vaguely remember Chris wondering how to potentially match up companies owned potentially by the same organisation—it’s a task where low-hanging fruit can be automated, but the really interesting stuff is hiding in the high branches. That’s a perfect task for crowdsourcing, and UK Uncut (and US Uncut etc) has a pretty large crowd of people who might be up for some of that. The small companies aren’t that much of an issue (and don’t do very much); but something which lets people who are focusing on one particular company engage and add cross-references might be highly useful. However, the important point is that this wasn’t even worth considering before OpenCorporates existed. I’m sure there are a dozen other similar ideas that just OpenCorporates alone could potentially do, each equivalent in impact to Amazon’s API for ISBN numbers (but their ToDo list is insanely long already).

OpenCorporates is speaking in a session about “Interesting Questions”—followed by a session on “Interesting Answers” on different topics.

There are a number of similar projects being presented that do similar things. Some of the work by the Tactical Technology Collective is similarly great, but focuses on the implementation and protection of all the things you need to make something pretty online. Also related is the One Click Orgs project, which was represented two years ago when it was no more than a vague idea. Now finished the highly complicated process of taking everything you need to start a legal organisation, and turning it into a very simple (and pretty) online form/flow which guides you through starting a legal company for your group, in a way which you don’t need to know what you’re doing, you just need to answer the questions in the right order (and can go away, have meetings, come back, and continue).

One Click Orgs does for the process of starting a company what is doing for Government websites. It’s hugely valuable if you need it; and probably of direct relevance to a good percentage of people who go to OpenTech – at some point, they’ll be involved in some form of group that needs a structure.

In previous OpenTech we saw the launch of, etc. What will it be this year or is that a secret?

There will be at least one project launch, but they’re in silent mode at the moment.

Of course, it often happens that the most interesting announcements are things that I know nothing about.

Coming to ULU on 21 May will be a good way to find out—you can get your tickets here.

Some of the talks are very much in the “Make” area, will you soon invite Makers to the conference to exhibit their work?

As long as it’s not flammable (someone did ask), we’re very open to Makers showing off their things. We have plenty of space—the hard problem we have is getting the message out to people in plenty of notice. Get in touch if you’re interested:

Any closing thoughts?

OpenTech is a low cost event taking place on 21 May in London. Look at the schedule and reserve your place.

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