Opentech 2010

On Saturday I was at the Opentech conference. Some brief notes about the sessions I saw.

The day was sponsored by, so it seemed polite to see one of their sessions first. I watched Richard Stirling and friends talk about some of the work they’re doing on releasing lots and lots of linked data. There were some interesting-looking demonstrations (using a tool that, I believe, was called Datagrid [Update: Sam Smith reminds me that it was actually Gridworks]) but I was in the back half of the room and it was a little hard to follow the details. The session also had a demonstration of the new site.

The next session I attended was in the main hall. Hadley Beeman talked about the LinkedGov project which aims to take a lot of the data that the government are releasing and to improve it by adding metadata, filling in holes and generally cleaning it up.

Hadley was followed by Ben Goldacre and Louise Crow who have a cracking idea for a web site. They want to expose all of the clinical trial data which never gets published (presumably because the trial didn’t go the way that the people running it wanted it to go). They already have a prototype that demonstrates which pharmaceutical companies are particularly bad at this.

The final talk in this session was by Emma Mulqueeny and a few friends. They were introducing Rewired State, which runs hackdays to encourage people to build cool things out of government data. I was particularly impressed with Young Rewired State which runs similar events aimed people under the age of 18,

It was then lunchtime. That went disastrously wrong and I ended up not eating and getting back late so that I missed the start of the next session. Unfortunately I missed half of Louise Crow’s talk about MySociety’s forthcoming project FixMyTransport. I stayed to watch Tom Steinberg give an interesting explanation of why he though GroupsNearYou hadn’t taken off. Finally in this session, Tim Green and Edmund von der Berg talked about how three separate groups had worked together on some interesting projects during the last general election.

I was speaking in the next session. Unusually for Opentech, the organisers decided to have a session about the technology that  underlies some of the projects that the conference is about. I talked about Modern Perl, Mark Blackman covered Modern FreeBSD and Tom Morris introduced Modern Java (or, more accurately, Scala).

The next session I attended was largely about newspapers. Phil Gyford talked about why he dislikes newspaper web sites and why he built Today’s Guardian – a newpaper web site that looks more like a newspaper. Gavin Bell talked about the future of social networking sites and Chris Thorpe talked about automating the kind of serendipity that makes newspapers such a joy to read.

For the final session I went back to the main hall. Mia Ridge talked about why the techies who work for museums really want to open up their data in the same way as the government is now doing and asked us to go banging on the museums’ doors asking for access to their data. And finally Robin Houston told some interesting stories about the 10:10 campaign.

As always the conference was really interesting. As always there were far too many things that I wanted to see and in every session I could have just as easily gone to see one of the other tracks. And as always, I have come away from the conference fired with enthusiasm and wanting to help all of the projects that I heard about.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to have to pick one or two of them.

If you weren’t at Opentech, then you missed a great day out. You should make an effort to come along next year.

The People’s Pamphlet

Update: Ok, yes, we admit it. It was an April Fool’s joke. Well most of it was. I’m not really going to be taking a month off to live in a camper van with Tim and Sim-O (though I’m sure it would have been fun!)

But the wiki really exists. And we really want your help to create a pamphlet that we can distribute to the voters of Mid-Bedfordshire.

I expect that Tim and Sim-O will also be coming clean about now. Here are the full details from Tim.

Hopefully you’ll have seen this morning’s posts by Tim and Sim-O about our new project aiming to bring the politics of accountability to the good burghers of Mid-Narnia. Their MP, Nadine Dorries, is famous for avoiding questions that she doesn’t want to answer so we’re going to to our best to ensure that the Mid-Narnians get the answers they deserve during the election campaign. Tim is in charge of high level strategy, Sim-O has sorted the wheels and I’m the project geek.

A project like this has a few interesting challenges for a geek. Firstly I had to hack a GPS system so that it would guide us through the back of the wardrobe. But secondly, and more importantly, I had to come up with a wiki.

“A wiki?”, I hear you cry, “What would a political campaign want with a wiki?” And I’m glad you asked. Because I’m going to tell you. You see, this isn’t just any old political campaign. No, this is Politics 2.0. We’ll be using the power of Social Media. We’ll be crowd-sourcing some of the campaign’s contents [Is that enough buzzwords, Tim?]

We all have our own ideas for what questions Mad Nad should be answering. Personally, I’d like to ask how many foetuses she saw ripping holes in their mothers’ stomachs whilst she was a nurse. But we need to realise that what’s important to us might not be import to the people of Mid-Narnia. Hence the need for the wiki. This afternoon we’ll be throwing it open for people to suggest questions for Ms Dorries. Once we have broad agreement on the contents of the “people’s pamphlet” we’ll lock the page and print copies of the pamphlet to be distributed in Narnia.

But a wiki is a dangerous thing. Particularly on a contentious subject like this. We need to be sure that everyone who contributes is doing so constructively. So we’ve put some measures in place to try and minimise the amount of vandalism. We’re using a standard installation of MediaWiki to which we added the Confirm Accounts extension. This means that only registered account holders will be able to edit the wiki. And we’ll only being handing out accounts to people with confirmed email addresses. So if anyone starts being stupid, we’ll know exactly where to send our strongly-worded emails of rebuke.

However, it seemed to me that this might not be enough. And late last night I had another idea which I was up until 3am implementing. I’ve written another extension which increases security even more. Now you’ll only be able to edit the wiki if you have a webcam attached to your computer. And the webcam will take photos of you whilst you are editing. The photos will be uploaded to a secure server in Switzerland where they will only be accessed in case of a dispute over the authorship of particular changes. I’m sure I don’t need to emphasise the importance of remaining fully clothed whenever editing the wiki.

Still a few wrinkles to iron out – but once I’m happy with it I’ll be releasing the source code under an open source licence.

Looking forward to seeing some of you in Mid-Narnia over the next few weeks.

Pointless Battles For Geeks

Geeks invented the internet. And for many years it was inhabited solely by geeks and academics. Over those years a number of unwritten rules arose which controlled the way people used the internet. The unwritten rules were passed on to newcomers who saw the wisdom of the rules and continued to follow them. Everyone followed the rules and all was well with the world.

But in the mid-90s the rest of the world discovered the internet and suddenly everything changed. The companies who were providing internet access to the public had no interest in the rules so the new users knew nothing of the rules and continuously broke them. Some companies (and I’m looking at you here, Microsoft) produced internet software that
encouraged users to break the rules.

This made the original internet users very sad. Many of them fought back against this abuse of what they saw as their system. They would try to enforce the rules but, of course, they had no power to do so and generally failed. Which made them even more sad.

You can’t beat that weight of numbers. The vast majority of internet users now see the (eminently sensible in my view) old internet rules as irrelevant to them. Most people that you meet on the internet have no knowledge of the rules. There’s only a tiny minority of people who still care. But many of that tiny minority still try to fight the barbarian hordes and impose their old rules.

So I think it’s time to give up. Much as I support the old rules, I think it’s pointless to go on fighting this battle. It’s a battle that the geeks can never win.

Here are three examples of rules that I think it’s time to abandon. These particular examples are all about email.

1/ Top Posting

Most of the time email is a conversation. I send a message to you and you send me a reply. I might then reply to your reply, clarifying some points and asking some more questions. And so we go on.

The sensible way to carry on a conversation like this is to format it so that it reads like a conversation – i.e. a question followed by its answer and then another question followed by another answer.

Geeks know this. Their email conversations are really easy to read. Everything is in the right order and it all makes sense. Non-geeks just dump everything they have to say at the top of the email. This means that firstly if you want to review everything that has been said then
you need to read from the bottom up and secondly it’s often really hard to know which parts of the reply refer to which parts of the original mail.

Life would be so much easier if everyone followed the geek way of doing things. But it’s never going to happen. There are still people holding out against this in geek communities, but most of the world top-posts all of its replies.

And that’s not going to change. Accept it. Deal with it. Move on.

2/ HTML Email

The same email software that initially encouraged top-posting also introduced the wonders of HTML mail (sometimes know as “rich text” mail) to the world. No longer would your mail be constrained to boring old plain text – now you can change fonts and colours, and include

Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. No two email programmes work the same way and an email that looks great in Outlook might look like a complete mess in Thunderbird (or, as is more likely, on your mobile phone email application). As a result, people who design HTML email (and people apparently make a living doing just that!) have to ignore everything we’ve learned about HTML design in the last ten years and design to the lowest common denominator. Table-based HTML design isn’t dead; it’s been relegated to HTML email.

And then there’s the problem with viruses and phishing. The more complex an HTML email can be, the higher the chance that someone can use it for nefarious purposes. The net result of that scare is that many email programmes now won’t show external images unless specifically requested to by the users. Which means that your carefully designed marketing
message will actually end up looking a bit shit to many of your target audience.

But much as you might hate it (and if you’re sane you will), HTML email isn’t going to go away. Simply set your email application to display the plain text version of the email and let the idiots enjoy the pretty colours and viruses. If someone sends you an email that doesn’t have a plain text version then just ignore it. They weren’t worth talking to anyway.

HTML email is a fact of life. Ignore it. Move on.

3/ Reply-To On Mailing Lists

If someone sends a message to a mailing list and you reply using the “reply” button then your reply should just go to the person who wrote the original mail. That’s just common sense. It you want to reply to everyone on the mailing list then you should choose “reply all” or (in
better email applications) “reply to list”.

But somewhere over the last ten years or so, people stopped understanding that and mailing
list owners started to configure their mailing list software so that replying to a mailing list mail sent a mail to the whole list. That’s obviously completely broken behaviour and there aren’t many weeks that pass when I don’t see a geek being caught out by a broken mailing list
and sending what should have been a private mail to the whole list.

Geeks expect one behaviour. Non-geeks expect a different one. Once again the non-geeks will win through sheer weight of numbers. I used to be adamant about this and would configure any mailing list I ran so that replies would go to the sender. But so many people don’t understand that, so I have now capitulated and run most of mail mailing lists so
that a reply goes to the whole list. It’s broken and wrong, but it leads to fewer problems in the long run.

You might think that this is one area where geeks could still have their own way within
their own communities. Surely geeks could still run their own geek mailing list according to the old traditions. Well, some lists are still run like that but it seems that the inability to understand the semantics of the “reply” button event infects geeks. Often you’ll see a
mailing list that is configured correctly gets complaints about it being “broken” and the list owner changes the behaviour.

So now, in the majority of cases, a reply to a mailing list mail will go to the list. That’s not going to change. It’s not worth fighting about. Deal with it.

So, yes, the barbarians are at the gate. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Good ideas have been crushed by the number of people who don’t understand them. But there’s no point in complaining about it. You just have to accept it and move on.

Now I’d better stop before I start ranting about Betamax.

Opentech 2008

The full schedule for Opentech has been announced. There are three tracks of talks and it looks like that I’ll need a couple of clones in order to see everything that I want to see.

The previous Opentech conference (was it really three years ago) was a lot of fun and I fully expect this one to be just as good. Registration is already open (you reserve a place and then pay a fiver on the door) and if previous experience is anything to go by, places will be booked up pretty quickly. I didn’t post this entry until I’d reserved mine :-)

Hope to see some of you there.

Geeks Pulling Together

A heart-warming tale from Ben Goldacre, author of the Guardian‘s Bad Science column (and also a forthcoming book on the same subject). It seems that his web site had rather outgrown the limits placed on it by his current hosting plan and his hosting providers didn’t like that. At one point they pulled the plug on the site completely.

Well, Ben’s geek friends rallied around magnificently. Positive Internet have given him a free (and really rather overpowered) dedicated server and a host of other people are working to get the old site moved over as quickly as possible. This task is still going on.

It’s great to see the geek community coming together like this. And Ben is planning to repay the favour by using some future columns to promote the open source philosophy.

Looks like everyone wins. Open source gets a wider audience, Ben gets a great new server and Positive Internet get some fantastic publicity.

Nice to start the day on a positive note.


Just back from Opentech, so here are a few random notes. I’ll hopefully fill in more details later.

I started by listening to Danny O’Brien talking about “Living Live in Public”. Danny discussed his theory of how the geek world has a weird kind of celebrity where you can be incredibly famous to a very small subsection of the population. He also characterised fame as a situation where people know more about you than you know about them. Where’s the power in that relationship?

Then I went off to the seminar room to hear various people talking about Media Hacking. Before the talks started Ewan Spence, who was chairing the session, tried a bit of practical media hacking. He asked for volunteers who had an iPod Shuffle and five people came forward. He then put all of the iPods in a box, shook it up and handed them back at random. The iPod owner who was sitting in front of me returned to his seat distinctly unimpressed by the trick. The actual talks in the session started with Matt Westcott talking about running Linux on an iPod. An interesting trick, but not really interesting to me. Then Paul Mison spoke about ways of hacking iTunes. This was a good high-level survey, but could have done with being twice as long and more detailed. Mike Ryan introduced MythTV, the Open Source PVR package, which I’ll definitely be investigating further. Finally Michael Sparks introduced Kamaelia, a new BBC project for building complex applications out of simple components.

After lunch I was back in the main room for what were probably the two major talks of the day. The first was the official launch of BBC Backstage. Ben Metcalfe also announced a new Backstage data feed (containing weather data) and a competition to create an interesting application based on their recently announced TV schedule feed. Ben was followed by Jeremy Zawodny who was talking about how Yahoo! is opening up their data through the use of web services APIs. He also had some interesting thoughts about where the web services industry might be heading. An interesting question asked during that session was about the politics of persuading business managers that giving just anyone free access to all your company data is a good idea. Even more interesting if you know that the question was asked by someone who might be about to be involved in something very similar at another major content provider.

After a brief break (during which I got involved in an O’Reilly “meet the author” session) I went to a session on blogging and social software. Tom Reynolds gave some tips on how to write a work-based blog without getting fired, Paul Mutton drew graphs of social networks by monitoring IRC channels and Paul Lenz (from the company behind WhoShouldYouVoteFor) introduced their new site WhatShouldIReadNext.

Finally there was a session on web services. Don Young from Amazon gave what was a bit too much of a corporate presentation on Amazon Web Services, Gavin Bell talked about the concept of social documents and Lee Bryant introduced a couple of prototypes based on BBC Backstage data (did I mention the heavy BBC presence at the conference!) To finish off Simon Willison and Rob McKinnon talked about Greasemonkey. It was slightly badly timed given the major security flaw that was found in Greasemonkey this week, but a fixed version is promised in days. Simon demonstrated Matthew Somerville’s script for fixing the Odeon web site, but the biggest applause was saved for Rob when he demonstrated his script that reformats the New Zealand equivalent of Hansard on the fly. It takes something that is really difficult to read and converts it into something that looks like TheyWorkForYou.

More data (and links!) later but for now, here’s a link to the “opentech” tags on Technorati and Flickr.