Guardian Activate 09

I went to Activate 09 today.

“an exclusive one-day summit providing a unique gathering for leaders working across all sectors to share, debate and create strategies for answering some of the world’s biggest questions.”

Activate 09

I was there for most of the day today, though I sadly had to miss a chunk of the afternoon. Here’s a taste of what I saw:

Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon talked about Amazon Web Services:

  • Last century, all sorts of companies had to invest in generating their own electricity just to be able do business. Quickly re-fitted to take advantage of electricity as a utility when it become available.
  • The same is now becoming true for computation. Moving from capital expenditure to variable cost model.
  • Cloud computing: reduces risk, reduces startup time for new ideas, lets you pay for what you use.
  • [sales pitch for]

Clare Lockhart, co-founder and CEO, Institute for State Effectiveness, co-author with Ashraf Ghani of book ‘Fixing Failed States’, talked about government:

  • Re-rebuilding Afghanistan: the UN has no manual for building a government, and the World Bank has no manual for building an economy
  • An army and police force, paid for by tax, paid by a population who has security and justice, which requires… (it’s a circle)
  • Problems with Afghanistan: no money went to police (because it wasn’t ‘poverty-reducing’), railways (because the country was ‘too poor’) or higher education.
  • Many failed states are offline and off the grid. many won’t have electricity for > 50% of their population for 10 years
  • Citizen centered design. Citizens are interested in using the net for market pricing and the transparency of putting budgets online

Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief, The Huffington Post talked about business and politics.
Arianna Huffington at Activate 09

  • Raw data can’t be viral. You have to translate it into something that people will share, that will ‘catch fire’.
  • Were it not for the internet, ‘Obama would not be president’.
  • Mainstream media suffers from attention deficit disorder. New media suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • You consume old media sitting on your couch. You consume new media galloping on a horse.
  • The cost of launching a new business is now so low that sometimes it’s indistinguishable from starting a new hobby
  • The next interesting business to watch will be one which… ‘connects in order to disconnect in a hyper-connected society’ (e.g unplug and recharge, remember the value of sleep..)

Nick Bostrom, director, Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and founder of the world transhumanist foundation, talked about post-humanity and existential events. i.e. being wiped out by extinction or being left behind by the singularity.
Nick Bostrom at Activate 09

  • Some options for humanity: extinction, plateau of development, recurrent development and collapse, or advancement to post-humanity
  • Most significant dents in human population have been caused by ‘bad germs or bad men’ all the biggest risks are anthopgenic (i.e. caused by humans) rather than natural
  • 99.99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct
  • The Toba eruption 75,000 years ago may have reduced the population to ~500 reproducing human females
  • A ‘rather arbitrary definition’ of post-humanity: population reaches > 1 trillion, life expectancy becomes > 500 years, near-total control over sensory input for majority of people most of the time, psychological suffering becomes rare, … or something comparably profound
  • Singularity: an artificial intelligence explosion which leaves mankind behind. Proposed by John Von Neuman in 1958, developed by IJ Good in 1965 and subsequently by Ray Kertviel et al

Ed Parson, Geospatial Technologist (‘in-house geographer’ at Google) talked about mapping.

  • Ambient location finding, “the choice to know where we are”.
  • Our children will probably never know what it’s like to be lost. They will take this for granted. It’s no longer a big deal to know where you are.

Jon Udell, evangelist at Microsoft talked about an aggregation tool he’s been building at which shares local communiy events from eventful, upcoming etc, with links back to source.

Tom Steinberg, founder and director of mySociety threw away his talk about MPs expenses last night, and instead talked about new media vs old media: “this new media revolution is not the reolvution you’re looking for”

  • Joke: do you know the difference between the fall of the berlin wall and the twitter revolution in iran? The wall fell.
  • Amazon didn’t change the publishing industry by writing in industry journals about how the publishing industry could be better. It just starting doing things better.
  • What could change politics and society? 1 – the next generation of public servants could refuse to comply with current norms and conventions. 2 – or, radical change in computing which makes it harder to keep secrets. 3 – some sort of law that smuggles new ways of distributing and allocating power
  • Highly usable and simple credit card forms. (how did I buy that book? that was so easy! More people donating to obama because it was easy)

William Perrin, founder, Talk About Local talked about local campaigning using simple (and ‘unfashionable’) publishing tools

  • gets 300 unique visitors per week, but considering it’s intended readership is one small part of london, it has the proportion as a national audience of 1M+. i.e. getting the same audience proportion as Newsnight in his community/ward.
  • Perfectly normal people publishing effectively using unfashionable technologies, which percolate out into wider society. More examples: Sheffield Forum,, Digbeth is Good, Pits ‘n Pots.
  • Funding from C4 to train and support local community networks

Thomas Gensemer, managing partner and founder, Blue State Digital talked about how his agency ran Obama’s digital campaign:

  • How do you know you were effective? Because 80% of donations were raised by the online campaign
  • simplicity of giving, simplicity of volunteering
  • Blue State Digital previously worked on Ken Livingston’s mayoral election, and have worked with various trade unions, but contrary to some press reports, isn’t currently under contract for Labour
  • Ask yourself: if you had 100 of your supporters in the room, what would you ask them to do for you today? If you can’t answer that, forget about twitter, facebook etc
  • faking it is much worse than not doing it. Ted Kennedy isn’t on Twitter but it doesn’t mean he’s absent from online spaces. He participates in ways that are authentic and comfortable for him

Adam Afriyie, shadow minister for science and innovation on the role of technology in democracy, [and was the only speaker to read from a prepared speech]
Adam Afriyie at Activate 09

  • internet empowers citizens, raises expectations and reveals secrets
  • it’s not about whether you’re from the left or right, it’s about whether you ‘get it’ or you don’t
  • we need to meet expectations of transparency and connectedness without compromising privacy and security
  • conservative party has more friends on Facebook than labour and lib dems combined [useful metric?]
  • social media won’t clean up politics on its own.

Tom Watson, former minister for transformation

    Tom Watson at Activate 09

  • only 60% of government statistics are published [I’m not sure if this is a fact, an estimate or a joke]
  • civil servants who want to be on Facebook, Twitter etc at work should be able to be. It’s useful, and it shouldn’t be up to an IT or HR manager.
  • it is ‘totally unacceptable’ for the Ordnance Survey not to provide maps suitable for the digital economy
  • agrees with Adam Arfiyie that adoption and acceptance is a ‘generational issue’

Matt Webb, CEO, Schulze and Webb, as part of a panel, talked about design of digital and physical objects. [I always find Matt to be consistently quotable]

  • when my phone rings, it’s like a baby crying. I want my technology to be gossiping with me. I don’t want my washing machine to be a shitty flat-mate
  • we need to think about inviting products into out lives like inviting friends into our lives. Maybe our digital cameras are nosey. Maybe I have an abusive relationship with my email.
  • our consumption is out of proportion to our creation. This can start with putting on plays for friends and family, and knowing when our friends are around us so we can talk to them. I try to reinforce relationships with friends rather than meet stranger.

Charlie Leadbeater, founder, Participle / author, We Think / fellow, Nesta talked about African education and ‘learning from extremes
Charlie Leadbeater at Activate 09

  • we’ll learn more about the future of education not by going to where schools are, but where they aren’t
  • the biggest challenges will be in developing world cities. Cities with > 1m people, 86 in 1950, 550 in 2015
  • developing world says that Education (+ Technology) = Hope

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology, ECLS, Newcastle University talked about his hole in the wall experiments

  • children don’t need to be taught how to use it, or even the language: “you gave us a machine that worked in English, so we taught ourselves English”
  • clustering around a shared computer proves more effective than having a laptop each. Discussion and sharing key to learning. ‘self organised mediation environments’
  • “I’ve put some interesting information which is in English and very hard in the computer. Will you look at it?” 2 months later, they’d looked at it every day, and claimed to have “understood nothing”, but when pressed admitted “apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we haven’t learnt anything”
  • children’s understanding of their own learning is different from our understanding of their learning

John Van Oudenaren, Director, World Digital Library Initiative, The Library of Congress talked about the World Digital Library though I failed to take more notes than that. The site looks interesting though.

Dr. R.K. Pachauri, chairman, IPCC & director general, TERI talked about the scary reality and significant risks of climate change. [and it turns out that it’s worse than we thought, thanks to James for the link]

  • internet is estimated to represent 5% of world’s total electricity consumption (more than half of which comes from computers). ICT sector contributes 2.5% of greenhouse gases
  • energy efficiency and changes in users’ behaviour can reduce these numbers significantly
  • but ICT can have positive impact: remote sensing, information dissemination, …
  • Ghandi: speed is irrelevant if you’re going in the wrong direction

Bradley Horowitz, vice president of products, Google talked about
Bradley Horowitz at Activate 09

  • Google Apps is ‘NSA’ (Google-speak for ‘not search or ads’)
  • There is no master plan for the internet. It’s made up of billions of contributions. It’s a gestalt. It’s more like an ant colony than anything else
  • Ideas (or ‘memes’) are being selected for in natural selection. Great number of web 2.0 startups have not survived [see Meg’s excellent post which illustrates this]
  • To double your success rate, double your failure rate” – Thomas Watson (IBM founder)
  • The importance of killing projects (the time wasn’t right for Google Lively) and protecting them (Wave team was ‘given free reign to develop a platypus’ outside the normal development constraints)

One of the interesting features of the day was having Twitter on-screen on the stage at various points during the day. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been fascinated by backchannels and how they’re used at live events. The tool the Guardian were using today (developed in-house?) and the way they were using it is probably the most mature and best example of using Twitter at a conference I’ve seen to date, for three reasons.

Firstly, it wasn’t using a totally automatic feed; it allowed for local moderation, i.e. the stream was curated, with spam, off-topic and overly negative or offensive content all weeded out. The aim was to publish everything that enhanced the conversation. Meg Pickard explained the approach: “Curation for public view applies a filter which helps signal v noise” because “open access publishing to public screen is a red rag to plenty of bull“.

Secondly, several Guardian staff were present in the room and on Twitter, informally ‘hosting’ the Twitter discussion by answering questions, re-tweeting key points and generally being interesting and interested participants.

Thirdly, the Twitter stream was not shown on-stage continuously, and was only switched to when the main screen wasn’t in use with another presentation. This worked very well, with the gaps between sessions and the during questions became the obvious and appropriate moments when the comments and observations from Twitter came to the fore for the people without open mobiles or laptops.

Twitter at Activate 09

This meant a totally open back-channel continued as normal on Twitter, while the appropriate stuff was also highlighted for the hallowed ground of the stage at the right times.

I didn’t ask which, if any, of the Guardian staff twitterers were doing it formally, and which were just volunteering and helping out because they were there and it felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps a bit of both? Either way, it all felt pretty natural and was very effective. Meg, Chris, Kevin, Simon (and probably others I’ve missed) were all able to answer questions and either provide or relay additional info from the room (nice example from Simon regarding when the video will be online).

Regardless of whether you think the culling of one particular negative comment was justified and sensible or just an overly knee-jerk and defensive moderation decision, the fact that Chris and Meg were willing and able to join the discussion undoubtedly stopped the issue from escalating and overtaking the backchannel, and I noticed that it was immediately appreciated too.

Overall, the use of Twitter was excellent, and has given me plenty of ideas. Most of all, I’d like their code. :-) Instant update: Chris says they’ll be open sourcing the Twitter code next week. Hurrah. Oh, and says it again in the comments below. Double hurrah.

More links:
Guardian Activate 09 [programme, speakers]
‘#activate09’ Twitter hashtag
‘activate09’ tag on Flickr
‘#activate09’ images via Twitcaps
my photos

12 replies on “Guardian Activate 09”

  1. Hi Roo

    Touched by your comments and thanks for the write up. Twitter tool was developed in house. I’m tidying the code up and we’re going to be releasing it under an Open Source license next week and also writing a blog post about it on the Open Platform blog.

    We’ve been continually archiving the tweets for today so we have a complete set, both raw and curated and we’ll be putting an API onto them so that people can trawl through that archive.

    Good to see you again today,


  2. Really useful summary. I missed the morning and now have useful thoughts I can use from each of the talks.

    Thank you.

  3. Roo, very readable and comprehensive write up. Thanks for that. Some very interesting content.

  4. Thanks everyone. I know from experience that trying to paraphrase every word is impractical for me, and pretty boring to read, so I was aiming to capture the 3-5 most interesting points they made here. Glad to hear it’s working for you.

    Apparently the video recordings will be online soon, so I’ll add links from here when they appear too.

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