OpenTech 2010 – Interview with Sam Smith
OpenTech is the benchmark of what one-day developer conferences can be:
OpenTech 2010 is an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, politics and justice. Talks by people who work on things that matter guarantees a day of thoughtful talks leading to conversations with friends.
I think it’s fair to say that, here at O’Reilly in the UK, OpenTech is one of our favourite events in the conference calendar. We have run an O’Reilly book stall at OpenTech every time it has taken place, (there was a hiatus of a couple of years when there wasn’t an OpenTech), and as with all the best tech events, we feel we’re at the heart of something important while we’re there, and that feeling lasts for week and months afterward. It is an event that makes things happen, that inspires committed, talented people to gather around important issues and ideas and eggs them on to make the things which will have a positive benefit to people’s lives.
For this interview, Sam Smith was the main correspondent, but he deferred to his colleagues where he felt appropriate.
What is OpenTech?
OpenTech is a one-day conference where a few people who do/create things with technology talk about what they’re doing, and more people who do, or want to do, interesting things find out what’s happening and get inspired to go off and follow interests of their own.
It’s held in London, held sometime over the Summer. This year it’s on 11th September and you can register your tickets now at http://ukuug.org/opentech. It’s only a fiver to get in on the day, but you do need to register in advance.
Who organises OpenTech? What other events do they run, and how does OpenTech differ from them?
OpenTech is run under the organisational banner of the UK Unix Users’ Group. This allows the conference organisers to focus on the event, with the organisationalmembership and infrastructure supporting it. Without UKUUG’s support (and by that, as with all things UKUUG, we mean Jane in the office), OpenTech wouldn’t be anywhere near as well organised as it actually is. As organiser, it’s incredibly reassuring to wake up at 4am, send an email, and wake again at 9:30 to find that you had indeed forgotten to book projectors and that it’s now sorted. Jane is wonderful.
Paul (UKUUG chair): UKUUG runs an annual Spring conference for system and network administrators, with technical talks on subjects ranging from high availability databases and virtualisation to spam prevention and cloud computing. The next conference takes place in March 2011, and the call for papers can be found at: www.ukuug.org/spring2011. We also run a number of tutorials throughout the year, focusing on specific software packages and tools including Perl, Zenoss, Moodle, RT and Advanced DNS.
What does the ‘open’ in OpenTech apply to?
The Open applies to the talks in many different ways. Each talk has a slightly different approach to “open” and we take it many different directions simultaneously.
The name came from Dave Green, and like many things that he does, no one’s entirely sure where it came from, other than it fitted perfectly with what we were wanting to do at the time. Shortly after 2004’s NotCon – a hugely successful event which saw the launch of TheyWorkForYou.com, the people behind that teamed-up with UKUUG for the successor event which became OpenTech 2005. That was a launch event for the Backstage.bbc.co.uk project, the infamous iPod Shuffle Shuffle and one little session called “Where’s the UK’s EFF?”, in which someone in the audience stood up and said “I’d give a fiver a month, who else would?”, Danny started on pledgebank and it went from there. One thing unique about 2005 was that the wifi actually worked…
This year, the main stream opens with Phil Booth from No2ID talking about how he went from showing up to a pub meeting as a blogger against ID cards, to becoming National Co-ordinator, to winning the fight, and also where’s next in the Database State. Emily James is talking about her documentary project on the last year of the climate justice fight. Emma Mulqueeny, Hadley Beeman and others will be talking about what’s needed next after the data’s published, because just publishing the data is not enough.
We’re starting to see the emergence of platforms sitting around this data. CrowdMap.com from ushahdi being the most prominent example, but Hadley’s Project aims to do something similar for generic questions to which someone can easily find the answer (and, by OpenTech, the project will actually have a name that’s not that of it’s founder). The remaining pieces are something to do for images, what iCanHazCheeseburger does for pictures of captions of cats (although HP could easily expand to there given the generic nature of the platform). Once they’re in place, they’ll become integral pieces of infrastructure upon which the next generation of projects can be built, but without which, they can’t even be imagined.
One way of phrasing that potential is, if CrowdMap.com is to geo-related events what iCanHazCheeseburger is to pictures of kittens; what’s the equivalent of 4chan?
[answers in sans-serif block caps over a picture of a kitten should be posted on the board by the bar at OpenTech].
Are the organisers developers? How do you pick the speakers? Will you be speaking yourselves?
David, Emily and Sam (me) are working on a variety of interesting projects of our own, and get interesting projects we either know of, or which get suggested though our public submission process. We aim to run an event made up of sessions of people who work differently or similarly, to see where it goes …
While the organisers don’t usually speak (we’re a touch busy), if we do slip onto thestage, it’ll be to thank all the volunteers, speakers, helpers, attendees, and the many other people that it takes to make OpenTech happen each year. It’s a huge amount of effort, and it’s everyone behind the scenes that make it work.
While only a few of the helpers on the day get the coveted gifts of Paul A. Young fine chocolates (kindly donated by Paul and James), everyone gets the thanks of a grateful audience.
What talks are you personally looking forward to this year?
There are many talks that I look forward to, but the ones that I especially value are those which will get people talking in the bar afterwards, and actually move something forwards. Phil Booth on No2ID’s past and future, and Emily James’ “Just Do It” will hopefully be another (plus, they’re looking for a WordPress theme designer to volunteer a bit in September – email them to help; they also take donations). I’m also expecting some spontaneous activity around one of the data.gov.uk data usage sessions, but that can happen with pretty much anything.
One of the nice things about OpenTech – and which makes it a pain to schedule – is that sometimes what looks to be the most esoteric will actually be the most popular. OpenTech friend Anna says how she looks for the most unusual thing on the schedule and goes to that.
What are your highlights from previous years?
Emily: The all-female panel, though only caught a little bit of it. The random conversations you have with people between sessions. The drawings of the people’s impressions of the internet.
Sam: I’d forgotten about that: http://www.kk.org/internet-mapping/
David: Gosh, there’s been so much! To pick a couple: I thought The Web Is Agreement poster that Paul Downey made for Osmosoft was absolutely delightful, and I cheered when Bill Thompson argued in his “10 Cultures” talk last year that, rather than merely knowing how to format text nicely in a word-processor, we should be teaching school children real computing skills.
Sam: That’s something that’s got so much more prominent in the last few weeks. I suspect it’ll come up again from the audience this year. As I’m not in the sessions, I’m not actually aware of what goes on, until people tell me really excited later that something wonderful happened in X, and I’m like, “That’s great. Erm, hold on a second. What did you just say?”
We also asked on twitter for some people who attend to say why, here are the first two:
Oli: It’s the best geek day out of the year. No company pitches, no social media tossers, and super amazing price.
Shona: I went to Open Tech for the first time last year. I was despairing that I’d never find a fulfilling job where I could save the universe through digital means. But I metanother girl there who spent hours and hours of her spare time translating complex UK government documents into plain English… which made me see that some of the most important changes might be achieved simply by finding other people who were equally passionate, and tinkering about in your spare time!
Several projects have used OpenTech as a launch pad in previous years. What were they? Can we expect any this year?
So far, no one has told us about pyrotechnics this year, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the type of launchpad you meant (someone has asked previously; we said no). But ask me again about 8pm on 11th September. Until then, anything might happen. And, if some speakers get their way; probably will (but still no pyros).
You use the Tim O’Reilly quote, ‘Work on things that matter’ on the OpenTech website – what does this mean to you?
We think Tim intended the quote as a call to arms to the technical community.
OpenTech isn’t just one day of talks, it is a medium to start the conversations about things that you think matter. Whether it’s through inspiring or reinvigorating people to work together on fundamental issues, or find new ways to create solutions, OpenTech exists to catalyse a community of like-minded, technical and passionate people who want to make an impact.
How do you choose OpenTech’s themes each year?
We start from the two core themes of “technology, democracy”, and then have something else as the “third pillar” which varies a bit. That said, last year was focused on “environment”, but it turned out that we have more environmental talks this year than last. Mainly because things are moving more mainstream, environmental issues and sustainability are mostly merged now, and social justice is getting close. At theend of the day, almost everything the people who speak at OpenTech does has some environmental impact – be it Will Perrin (Kings Cross Local Environment) which talks about engagement of people and quality of life (rather than the hippy green environmentalist style of the word); to linked data for research; to ORG which is spending a lot of time on the justice issues around internet access, disconnection; and across to Apps for Good and the Tactical Tech Collective (who aren’t speaking this year); to Symbian whose phone OS powers a vast amount of can’t afford Android-or-iPhone market. But whatever it is, we take very wide terms of “technology”. This does mean that many of the talks at OpenTech are connected in somewhat fundamental ways, which makes scheduling an exercise in disappointing as few people as little as possible; but that often means “everyone, sometime. Sorry.”
OpenTech has a policy* of not going back to sponsors, and we prefer only a single sponsor per year. Open data has clearly been a “big thing” this year.
We’ll decide the 2011 date in September (we try to announce with a 10+ month lead time). Although if you have up to £4K handy, now’s the time to get in touch (email@example.com) about 2011.
OpenTech 2010 is sponsored by data.gov.uk – why is that a good fit for OpenTech?
data.gov.uk has been instrumental in getting the open data agenda in progress throughout Government, and we think this sponsorship is additional evidence of their fundamental belief in helping the developer community and part of their commitment to making this data usable and effective outside of government, with the political will from both the previous Government and the current one.
As more data gets opened, the scope for interactions between multiple datasets is significant, as a network effect starts to develop around both the data and the community.
Open Data is a rising trend – can you give us examples of local and national open data projects?
Projects that spring to mind include OpenlyLocal.com chock full of council data, www.WhereDoesMyMoneyGo.org for government spending, Issy’s wonderful www.GovSpark.org.uk for power usage, or ArmchairAuditor.co.uk for accounts – those all help to illustrate what open government data could be about in a relatively simple way. But it’s also about projects such as TalkAboutLocal.org.uk which focus on hyperlocal blogging, and Matthew’s iconic Live Tube Map. The more infrastructural type service will take more time to be developed or for requirements to evolve to a point where the service becomes obvious to someone who is then able to build it.
But the above list will be out of date in the 3 days it takes us to check this interview for typos. There’s so much going on, so quickly, that I’m impressed with those who keep on top of it. As I write this, the Guardian.co.uk/DataStore project has just published their “we think we’ve got every gov opendata site in our search engine” post, which reminds me a little of Yahoo in 1996. The Altavista/Google’s of that world aren’t yet here, but if one 15-year old working alone for a week can produce this – http://rewiredstate.org/projects/natusearch – it wont be long before the area has moved on quite a long way.
OpenTech is one place where the people working on this spend some time together in the bar and then things happen even faster.
What are you hoping to achieve with OpenTech Friends?
It came out of a discussion at OpenTech a few years ago that while there are many people at OpenTech who can do things with technology, there are also a number of organisations at OpenTech who would benefit from help with projects they are working on. Matching the two up is a relatively difficult task. This is our small attempt to get the people who are at OpenTech to find skills that each other have/need. We’d scale that up, but we’re not entirely sure how.
That’s probably something that’s beyond the OpenTech remit; but OpenTech attendees have started organisations somewhat by accident before…
OpenTech will be in London on 11th September 2010. It’s only a fiver. You can find out more and should register in advance at http://ukuug.org/opentech
Photos from O’Reilly, OpenTech, Bill Thompson, Chaily, Snowblock & Tony Hall (all: CC-BY-NC-SA)