Open Tech 2010 – Review & Roundup
Until a couple of months ago I’d never heard of the Open Tech conference, it’s organised by the UKUUG (the UK’s Unix & Open Systems User Group) but it was recommended by someone in the London 2600 mailing list and I had the day free so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
Being an occasional rather than hard-core Unix/Linux user I was worried that much of the conference would be beyond my technical comfort-zone, this can sometimes be a good thing because it forces us to learn but as it turned out the Open Tech conference focused much more on the Open Systems part of the UKUUG’s mandate and concentrated particularly on Open Data in the government and media spaces. After reading the conference schedule and realising that it was all about data I thought it was definitely worth a look so I pre-registered (the only cost being a ridiculously cheap £5 on the door).
The attendees were quite mixed but dominated by developers working in the academic, government and media sectors (incl. journalists), giving the event a different atmosphere to most technical conferences I’ve been to which are usually either centred around commercial users or the security/hacking community. The result of this was that there were a lot of interesting people there who’ve really made use of the Open Data available, shared their work and in some cases made a real difference to government policy as a result. Before the sessions started I ended up talking to a few people including one of the guys behind the excellent TheyWorkForUs.com which despite the government’s Open Data initiatives still has to rely on good old fashioned web scraping.
I attended a couple of talks about the data.gov.uk projects which included some great examples of how the data can be used including talks by the people behind Where Does My Money Go and the ASBOrometer. As a complete outsider to the Open Data world I’ve been extremely impressed with the amount of data that’s been published and the community that’s grown up around it, the best part being that the ‘community’ is made up of developers and civil servants working together to achieve something that I honestly think is quite ground breaking.
Stepping away slightly from the government-oriented data projects Manuel Corpas delivered an interesting talk entitled “Who Owns my Genome Data” essentially bringing up issues raised by companies such as 23 and me who will provide a personalised report for you based on your genome (all you provide is a saliva swab) but then retain the rights to use your data and future innovations derived from it. Patrick Bell followed with an introduction to the British Geological Survey’s Open Geoscience site which seems pretty good on the face of it and they seem to be committed to open data but I found it difficult to think of applications for the data that would make sense to me personally.
The last batch of talks I attended related to mobile phones and mobile content, the first being the Wild Ducks Smartphone talk by Sebastian Brannstrom from the Symbian Foundation. I hadn’t realised until the talk that Symbian still accounts for over 40% of the global Smart Phone OS market even though Android and iOS take centre stage in the public’s (or the media’s) eyes, with the OS now being Open Source they’ve launched a project to build a handset based on easily available components that you could hack together yourself, based around the Beagle Board with some extensions. The talk was very interesting and it was great to see a demo unit that Sebastian passed around the audience, you can see more on the Wild Ducks blog. The last talk I saw was by Terence Eden and was titled “Why Doesn’t Your Site Work On My Phone?”, essentially it provided a timely warning to developers not to run after the ‘hot potatoes’ of Android and iOS when much of the global mobile market (81%) still relies on ‘feature phones’ which by-and-large have basic HTML capability but not too much more, some handy resources he pointed towards were WURFL, Device Anywhere and Device Atlas.
All said and done I’d say the conference was definitely an eye-opener and if I can make the next one in 2011 then I’ll definitely go but I’ll feel like a failure if I turn up having done nothing with all the knowledge I gained from the 2010 presentations so I better hurry-up and get my hands dirty with some of this Open Data…