Opentech Overview

[Update: Details of this year’s Opentech conference are at]

Yesterday was the annual Opentech conference. I’m going to have some more to say about it in some detail over the next few days, but those thoughts are still peculating so in the meantime here’s a list of the talks that I watched.

Community and Democracy in Hijacked Space

One of the Space Hijackers talked about some of their projects. If you haven’t heard of them, they are the people who drove a tank into the G20 protests. Their protests sound like a lot of fun.

Does FOI work? You bet! – Heather Brooke

Heather Brooke told the story of how she used the Freedom of Information Act to finally get details of MPs’ expenses out of the House of Commons. It was a long and complex story and Heather made it very interesting.

Digital Engagement – Richard Stirling (Cabinet Office)
Open Government Data – John Sheridan (OPSI)

Two civil servants talking about how the government is making more and more data available to the public. They were asking people to take the data and build interesting applications with it as the more applications built, the easier it is them to persuade people to release more data.

Opening Up Government Data: Give it to us Raw, Give it to us Now – Rufus Pollock (Open Knowledge Foundation)

Rufus Pollack of the Open Knowledge Foundation replied to the previous two talks explaining where he thought the government’s current efforts are falling short. They need to do more, sooner and they need to get the licensing right – the more open the license is, the better.

10 Cultures – Bill Thompson

Fifty years on from the original, Bill Thompson updated CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” talk for the twenty-first century and turned the title into a geek joke. Thompson’s main point was that the people making the big decisions in the UK all hold PPEs from Oxbridge and know next to nothing about the opportunities that digital technologies can bring us. We need more geekery in the halls of power.

Beyond Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s topic dovetailed nicely with Thompson’s. If people were better educated in science then there would be less excuse for the appalling science journalism that we currently suffer from. Goldacre went on to talk about the bloggers who are doing sterling work revealing the dangerous science stories that the mainstream media aren’t covering and suggested some tools we could build to help them to work together more efficiently.

The Guardian and the Ian Tomlinson story – Paul Roache

Paul Roache talked about how the Guardian dealt with the Ian Tomlinson video. Normally an exclusive like that would have been held back for the next edition of the paper. In this case they took the unusual step of putting on the web site first. This gamble seems to have paid off. Over the next day or so, the video was responsible for 20% of their web site traffic.

Opening up the Guardian – Simon Willison

Simon Willison talked about the Guardian’s Open API and Data Store. He also introduced the crowd-surfing application they wrote to process the MPs’ expenses details once they were published.

Spread The Web – Fran Sainsbury & William Perrin
Local web beyond the hype – William Perrin

Two linked talks about how the internet can help organisations and communities to communicate. The first talk was about the number of organisations who have paid stupid sums of money for a proprietary web site that they find too hard to update and how in many cases a simple WordPress site would be far better suited for their purpose. In the second talk William Perrin talked about using simple sites (again, WordPress or a similar technology) to bring communities together. This is an area I have a lot of interest in.

4iP – Public service tools for empowerment – Tom Loosemore

Tom talked about 4ip, a Channel Four initiative to support innovative digital projects. Tom listed half a dozen or so interesting projects that they have already supported.

Just before Tom’s speech there was a slight change of plan as Sir Bonar Neville Kingdom spoke to us. The text of his speech is now online. I highly recommend that you read it.

A fabulous conference as always. My thanks to all of the organisers. More thoughts on it over the next few days.

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