Opentech 2008

I spent yesterday at Opentech. I had a great time there. Here are my thoughts on the talks that I saw.

Rembrandt, Pr0n and Robot Monkeys: Lessons From the Present About Flesh and Technology – Kim Plowright
This could have been interesting, but I think it was somewhat constrained by the short time allocated. It seemed to be a rather disjointed amble through a bit of history and a look at people see their physical bodies in cyberspace.

Living with Chaos: Why Nothing is Simple in IT – Simon Wardley
If you’ve been following Simon’s blog, then you’ll be familiar with his view of the commoditisation of software. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing him giving his talks on the subject over  the last couple of years, so it was nice to finally see one. Again, this would have benefited from a longer timeslot – but I think that’ll be a common complaint as I go through the day.

What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Future – Matt Webb
Exploring the early history of the science of cybernetics and pointing out some surprising coincidences and some interesting comparisons with today. Matt is always interesting and I’d love to read more about this subject.

Here’s The UK EFF – Becky Hogge and Danny O’Brien
The Open Rights Group was formed out of a talk that took place at the last Opentech conference in 2005, when a pledge was set up for people to agree to pay £5 a month to support such an organisation. In this talk Becky Hogge and Danny O’Brien (who I didn’t recognise in his full beard) talked about what had happened in the last three years.

Except they didn’t really. Mainly they just asked for money. Apparenlly, of the 1,000 people who signed the original pledge, only about 750 kept their promise are making regular payments. So if you signed the pledge and haven’t set up your standing order then why not do so now? Or, if you didn’t sign the pledge but think that the UK needs a strong organisation campaigning for digital rights, then why not sign up? Or, if you are already making regular payments to them, why not increase the monthly amount? I just did.

Power to the people – one year on from the Power of Information Report
If you’ve see the Show Us A Better Way site, then you’ll know that there’s a growing movement within the UK government to free up public data and make it available in easy to use formats. In this session, various people behind this initiative spoke about how they’ve got to the current situation and where they hope to go next. It’s great to see this amount of data coming from the civil service and it seems that the best way to encourage them is to use the dat ato create really cool things. You can find out more about the Power of Information team, by reading their blog.

3 Years of OpenStreetMap -Nick Black
It’s been a while since I last looked at OpenStreetMap. And it looks like they’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.
Many of their maps now look really impressive. I shall be watching them far more closely in the future. I may even edit the occasional map.

Opening Data – Rufus Pollack
The Open Knowledge Foundation exist to promote the sharing of knowledge and data. They have a repository called CKAN (modelled on the Perl repository CPAN) where you can share any useful data that you have. Looks very interesting.

Planning Alerts – Duncan Parkes
I already knew about the planning alerts project. It’s one of the those ideas that seems simple and obvious – but no-one had thought of it until recently. You go to their site, give them your post code and email address and they send you regular messages about planning applications in your area. I signed up a few months ago, but I only get alerts from Lambeth (about 300 metres to the east of my house) as they don’t yet have a parser to extract data from the Wandsworth Council site. They asked for help with missing councils. I should probaby do that.

Publishing with Microformats – Jeremy Keith
Microformats is one of those areas that I’ve read about and really want to start using. But I haven’t really found a use for them yet. This talk helped a bit as it concentrated on using a couple of microformats (hCard and XFN) to mark up social relationships. I really need to investigate this further.

Information: Rewiring the London Gazette with RDFa – Jeni Tennison
Moving on from microformats, RDFa is a tremendously powerful way to add value to HTML pages. I’m not going to be using this any time soon, but it’s interesting to know it’s possible. And the data set (when it is released) is going to be incredible. Lodon Gazette (Jeni had a URL in her presentation, but I can’t remember it now) is the government’s official newspaper – it contains all of their announcements.

The Bastard Child of Baird and Berners Lee – Tom Loosemore
Tom gave an idea of some of the things he was thinking about just before he left the BBC a year ago. He’s basically talking about creating a network of recording boxes that will record all TV ever broadcast in the UK. Sounds cool – if slightly hamstrung by copyright rules.

Finding Good TV on the Interwebs with RDF and REST – Chris Jackson
Chris introduced URIplay – a project to catalogue and simplify the metadata that is broadcast alongside TV and radio. The idea is to make it easier to track down programmes that you want to watch.

Intro to Hadoop – Tom White
I only went to this by mistake. I turned up early for the Guardian talk. I knew nothing about Hadoop before the talk and I know almost nothing more now. building for the open web – Stephen Dunn and Mat Wall
Stephen and Mat talked about some of the design decisions that went into the recent (and ongoing) rebuild of the Guardian web site. It’s great to see a national media site designed by people who really understand how the web works and who are making an effort to exist within that ecosystem. There were also some interesting hints about the forthcoming Guardian Developer Network

So that’s what I saw. I think I pretty much made the right choices, but with three tracks it’s impossible to see everything you want to see. I heard people saying interesting things about the talk on tracking arms dealers using Python. I also with I could have seen the sessions on MySociety and OpenID. Hopefully there will be slides and video available online soon. I also felt that the “hallway track” was better than ever. Everywhere I went I found myself having interesting conversations with people.

I dashed home at the end in order to watch Doctor Who as soon a possible. I shouldn’t have bothered. What a waste of time that was.

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