This weekend's OpenTech was the usual wonderfully overwhelming infodump, with each of six sessions split into at least two talks a session, if not three. All you can do is scribble, listen, scribble, frantically tweet, then scribble again; you have to hope to actually digest it all at a later date.
I've got more complete rough notes somewhere, so if you want any more information on anything then do ask in the comments. Otherwise, here are some of the themes that seemed to emerge:
The day started and ended with some interesting discussion and examples about how the open community can continue to attract, involve and include the enthusiastic talent that it needs for its projects. Russ Garrett and James Aylett each presented a radically different type of hacker social: Russ was one of the key organizers of the Electromagnetic Field Camp, a temporary campsite and hacker festival with hundreds of attendees; James, meanwhile, has been involved in the /dev/fort outings, where programmers meet and hole themselves up somewhere nice and off the grid - an actual fort - for a few days, to focus on a problem while also taking some air. They both had great suggestions for how to run both similar and different events in future, and both future EMF Camps and /dev/forts are planned, if tentatively (as a kind of taster and weird fusion of the two, then the equally punning EMF Wave happened on an actual ship earlier this month.)
But the most prominent and frequent opportunity at the moment is clearly that of the NHS Hack Day. Despite claims of "hack day fatigue" in the industry as a whole, these particular days have been successful in both attracting volunteer talent to solving the NHS's problems, and in highlighting the state of NHS IT. David Miller made it clear that NHS IT and its procurement were fundamentally broken, and hack days provide a unique model for fixing that.
But I'm getting ahead of myself, or at any rate ahead of schedule: Bruce Durling's talk in the first session of the day introduced us to the benefits of NHS Hack Days. Starting with the premise that the NHS is fantastic, and it's there because we voted for it - we want it, and we want it to stay focussed and efficient and data oriented - he discussed the difficulties the NHS has with doing that in practice. There's a huge amount of potentially open data out there, but the gulf between data and doctors' and administrators' questions - are we saving lives? are we efficient - is typically filled by intuition, in the absence of geeks. Hack days permit medical professionals to bring their questions and their understanding of how to respectfully and successfully implement political change; and geeks to bring their technical skills and experiences with parsing data and making sense of it.
Inclusiveness in technology
What was especially nice this year was to hear more about inclusiveness in events. This is becoming the next big battle in technology: as Anne-Marie Imafidon said in her talk about the STEMettes: increasing diversity increases the problem solving power; but fundamentally nobody should be discriminated against. Yet two thirds of female STEM graduates don't continue in the field; and by the end of the first year, only 13% of the UK STEM workforce is female. The STEMettes hold hack days and other events aimed at children to try to counter the usual myths about gender expectations in STEM. Mostly, right now they need good volunteer role models, and funding!
Paula Graham went on to discuss the FOSSbox project, with similar principles but aimed at an adult audience. Workshops and (un)conferences are organized by a CIC, to provide a safe space for marginalized groups in the fields of "open production" (software, social change etc.) This allows people to network, create and inspire, and thus gradually increase the range of their comfort zone. Interestingly, the point was made that while doing this, one could actually challenge too many preconceptions at once, and it could sometimes dilute the effect if you tried. Harking back to the STEMettes talk, it was observed that if you were pursuing the objective of getting women into STEM, you had to accept that you couldn't always e.g. challenge traditional ideas of femininity at the same time: the end result would be to alienate most participants from both good causes.
The third talk in this session was from Meri Williams, who had helped move the gender ratio in her company's recruitment from 90% male to pretty much parity. She spoke of her unique position: in many ways, she's an intersectional diversity statistic outlier; but growing up in apartheid South Africa has made her aware of what power and privilege feels like from the inside. To implement real social change and beneficial equality, you had to see inclusion as not merely the same as tolerance. After all, as Meri made clear: "you know who "tolerates" people? People who [otherwise] hate them."
She had a lot of practical suggestions - the session was called "practical diversity", after all - including: the importance of role models; the use of altruistic rather than selfish messages of encouragement; to tell people how much they're appreciated, because the marginalized will need to hear it most. But mostly she asked us to recognise that "the 'belief that you can' is a [product of] privilege.... Belief that your innate skills get you where you are is a privilege too. Too much advice reads like 'be more like a straight cis white guy.'" If we accept that our industry should be more diverse - or at any rate has no justification not being diverse - then we have to move beyond mere tolerance - where the system continues to be loaded in such a way that we even penalize shy men, through systems like pitching for a pay rise - to ideas of proactive inclusion.
It was only a shame that all the slots on "ethics and technology" were all put at the end of the day in the last session, and hence clashed. Personally I would've loved to also hear about sustainability in electronics, or the "digital arms trade", Every conference has a clash, of course, but I'm sure there were other people with an interest in how we can still be geeks, yet live thoughtfully and tread lightly, who found themselves torn between three simultaneous sessions on similar subjects.
Open approaches seem to be a good way of turning the slightly silly concept of the "mashup" into a tool to actually empower people. The star-turn projects here were two welcome returns to OpenTech: Chris Taggart talking about Open Corporates, and Peter Hicks about open rail data. Both projects had clearly come a long way, both in maturing as projects, but also in changing attitudes in the non-crowdsourced sectors they each sat alongside: Open Corporates giving information back to the governments whose records they were using, and Peter Hicks found himself - possibly unwittingly! - at the centre of a minor revolution in transparency at the DfT.
It's worth pointing out that Jonathan Raper showed us all that there was still a long way to go, with examples including the way in which National Rain Enquiries still cling to their somewhat dubious status as exclusive data aggregator for the rail network; but here were clear examples of how "geeking out", in a constructive way, could be a form of activism. You can work out that NRE always show trains a minute less late than the raw data, or discover companies that nobody knows exist, or who have submitted surprisingly misspelled mandatory filings....
Finally, we had two interesting and quite different talks about odd behaviour in state data. On the one hand, Lisa Evans has been trying to get quite subtle information on the possible impacts of cuts from the mandated transaction data that local councils provide on their payments to external companies. In the absence of the (in some ways) sorely missed audit commission, it's difficult to get a big picture of councils' spending, especially a rolling one; but by careful cleaning and managing of this payment data, there were opportunities to work out e.g. when a regular payment was cut or stopped altogether, and hopefully gain a picture of the impact of cuts.
On the other hand, John Sheridan talked about law and the Statute Book. He took us through the complicated mess of dependencies that permit a law to come into effect when its date of commencement is not initially defined, and presented the statute books to us as not just lots of bundles of paper (or the electronic equivalent) but as a living, breathing and changing organism. From this point he explained that statutes can and do affect other statutes; indeed, acts like the Interpretation Act can be seen as machines, affecting future acts by explaining how courts should interpret those acts' definitions and implied assumptions. With Hansard now brought in as well, to determine parliament's intent in the event of an ambiguity, more and more it feels like building open-legislative applications requires a completely different appraoch: object-oriented concepts, where acts and laws are merely interconnected and related actors, need to be thrown out; a subtler, functional model might take its place, where texts impinge on and affect other texts, and no text is an incunabulum, entire 'pon its shelf....
Commercial players in open technologies
This year provided Raspberry Pi with their well-earned day in the sun. During a double slot, Rob Bishop took us briefly through the technology of the Pi - how USB "standard" devices and PSUs are anything but; how that affects the new integral camera; and how when you accidentally end up shipping 100 times as many units as you expected, you suddenly find that edge cases become important! - but then quickly moved onto discussions about the intended effects of the Pi, in education and society.
It's clear that their unparalleled success meant that the Pi Foundation was on the back foot this year, but that looks set to change. Alongside hardware improvements, the emphasis going forwards will be on establishing some kind of educational syllabus - Pi-friendly and Pi-suitable, but not at all Pi-specific, to avoid any kind of technology lock-in - and helping teachers and pupils both get more out of ownership and use of a Pi. The out-of-the-box experience needs improvement, and someone mentioned that Pi-sanctioned PSUs would help ensure the Pi at least works! Explaining to children why they should us a Pi and not an iPad remains a challenge, but most interesting was to hear that they're glad, very glad, that so many Pi units have ended up in the hands of hobbyists: it's the hobbyist network that will build things to excite the original target audience, the programmers and hobbyists of tomorrow.
Bethnal Green Ventures came along to propose their interesting incubator model: if your hack-day project looks interesting and hopes to improve people's lives or somehow change society - a more worthwhile variant on the "dent in the universe" - then rather than letting it stagnate you can apply for their six-months incubator support, including funding and office space in return for a percentage of equity. It was a nice surprise to hear that they were incubating among other things the Fairphone project, attempting to build the (pretty much only) sustainable, equitable and socially responsible mobile phone. And Peter Hicks' experience was also a commercial success story of sorts: after becoming the go-to guy for open rail data, he ended up employed by Rockshore, who built the major API platform on top of it.
Mostly, while commercial success is no indicator of your idea's worth in itself, it was still great to hear that people's investment of time and energy, sweat and tears, into open projects was reaping deserved rewards for them too.
OpenTech is invariably inspirational and fun, so this year was a welcome return. I wonder if the year off might have affected attendance slightly - the first session in the big hall felt quieter than I've seen in previous years - but it's possible that it was just a judicious choice of starter sessions that spread people around the venue; or maybe people arrived later in the day. Certainly the room for the Pi talk immediately after lunch was packed.
Mostly because of time pressures, I spend most of my time merely on the margins of the open-technology communities and projects, like some kind of weirdo "openness groupie." So in some ways there's a limit to what I'm able to take home from the conference. But I hope that through my own enthusiasm, and through the Oxford Geek Nights, I'm able to do my bit to help these initiatives gain the approbation, respect and interest that they deserve. After all, as with previous years, OpenTech 2013 provided glimpses of a better world and, occasionally, tantalising pieces of the map that might lead us there.