On Saturday I went to OpenTech 2011 and had a brilliant time. This year's event was very much moving out of the shadows of the excellent data.gov.uk and legislation.gov.uk projects: last year's (quite rightly) gave these two some time in the limelight; the one before that (which I missed) apparently had a fair amount about how these projects were coming our way. So this year, while the equally impressive alpha.gov.uk was lionized in its own workshop and talked about in every third conference, there was a much more hetergenous feel to the event.
There are clearly a lot of projects out there that are simultaneously proven to work yet also need help to have further successes. Sukey, the demonstrator-safety application - usually referred to as an "anti-kettling" system, hence the name - needed developers for both web and applications; but also more than anything need advice on infrastructure and documentation so that other groups can deploy a Sukey for their own use. Dave Cross needs more people to read and fact-check occasional tabloid news stories: easier than you might think. Tim Ireland suggested that others pick a random bullshitting MP and shine a welcome light on their opaque parliamentary career. And Judgmental, an online repository of case law, wants help working out exactly what to do with their wonderfully detailed corpus of court judgments.
Some aspects of the picture were bleaker than that. While not all of government is the enemy, nonetheless the talks from PoliceStateUK and someone from UK Uncut suggested that a lot of government is, especially the police, and especially the frankly self-embarrassing Metropolitan Police. The rally for "Science is Vital" showed that, although politicians including Vince Cable blow hard about the cuts, a targeted, intelligent and coherently argued protest can quickly make them change their mind (so much that when they delivered a petition they got a congratulatory audience with David Willets); in which case, why are so many people so happily trumpeting the party line about cuts, when they might be so easily swayed?
Surprisingly, there were a few technical problems: the main room was fairly dysfunctional, with ULU's typically overzealous air conditioning complemented by a projector that almost never worked smoothly and some wireless PA that at one point picked up a different presenter in a different room. As organizer of the Oxford Geek Nights I completely sympathise with anyone having these problems at an event. At its best, the tech at conferences is like a grumbling but willing co-speaker who smells faintly of magic smoke; at its worst, it's an obstructive, stubborn, mean-spirited attendee that, were it human, you'd have called security to kick them out long ago. Still, the main room's aircon is a recurring hazard, and there were very few scheduled gaps between the talks for laptops to be checked on the projector (was there even a KVM?) There must be a less stressful way to do this: that might mean "better" tech; but it probably also means removing complexity and "cleverness."
Still, OpenTech carried on regardless of these problems: the perpetual win of open is more powerful than the occasional fail of tech. Indeed, the first talk, the one most plagued by technical difficulties, was one of the most inspiring. The "Science is Vital" crew ploughed through the lack of slides or, at one point, any vocal amplification, with only one of the three speakers incapable of raising their voice to compensate. And a subsequent talk upstairs was very much demonstrating the win of tech, as Francis Irving breezed through data-acquiring ScraperWiki (an idea that like most great ones is in retrospect obvious) and Paul Makepeace through the data-cleaning features of open-source Google Refine, before Hadley Beeman, Glyn Wintle and Alex Coley pulled it all together for the genius that is LinkedGov: like many other projects before it, both commercial and open, LinkedGov gets individuals (in this case civil servants) to scratch their own itches (of getting answers to their internal queries), so that the world at large benefits. If civil servants tidy up and release their own data, then a tidier, more interconnected corpus can be made available to all, both inside and outside government. (And while getting funding isn't proof of the genius of a concept, it certainly helps with its ultimate success....)
But that's the best aspect of OpenTech, when open meets tech to produce something not just life-changing or clique-changing but society-changing. It's the part that makes you want to give up your day job and help out on every single project you've heard about. I know I won't - and I hope that like a whisky priest I might be less damned by knowing just how much I won't - but I hope everyone I met and talked to realise just how inspiring they are to others; even I want to make my life that little bit more opentechy because of them.
Maybe that sense of a life better lived, that you feel at OpenTech, is what inspired Bill Thompson from the BBC. He gave a talk which bordered on Marxist critique sometimes. He took the recent financial meltdown and situated it in the context of the decades-long development of the internet's open stack. He suggested that the stack would be generally resistant to closed technologies because of transaction costs, and that this made certain types of closed systems less viable than their open counterparts. He accepted that, after the credit crunch, we were now still suffering from concomitant if ultimately unnecessary cuts in public funding; but that in the long run we would look back at what was probably the end of a certain kind of capitalism: even if governments and financial institutions haven't really accepted it yet. "There was indeed a revolution;" he said, "and we won."