Open Tech 2008

Photo of Kim Plowright speaking at Open Tech 2008 shared by O’Reilly GMT.

I went to Open Tech 2008 on Saturday. Open Tech describes itself as

an informal, low cost one-day conference on technology, society and low-carbon living, featuring Open Source ways of working and technologies that anyone can have a go at

[‘at which anyone can have a go’, surely?]

If you’re wondering about its heritage, before Open Tech 2008 came Open Tech 2005 (at which BBC Backstage was launched), NotCon 2004 (which saw the launch of TheyWorkForYou, which Cory Doctorow called the worlds finest advocacy web site and I also love) and the NTK Festival of Inappropriate Technology in 2002.

Those of you who know me know that I am a geek, but I was thoroughly outgeeked by many of the participants at the event. In fact, it which was every bit the geek-fest I expected it to be but (with very few exceptions) the presentations turned out to be engaging and interesting. It was easy to find something of interest in the packed schedule with its three parallel sessions. To give you a sense of how packed (and how easy), here are just some of the things I missed

And here’s what I saw, with my woefully inadequate notes for each session…

Kim Plowright on ‘Rembrandt, Pr0n and Robot Monkeys

Simon Wardley on ‘Why Nothing is Simple in IT’

  • He likes ducks
  • ‘Apology’ to the designers in the room: Comic Sans. [Urgh]
  • Commoditisation process: Innovation -> Bespoke -> Products -> Services
  • The characteristics have to change when something goes from emerging innovation to stable commodity
  • Different methodologies required. Six Sigma is helpful for mature stuff but will harm the early stages.
  • The Red Queen Hypothesis
  • The uncertainty principle of information: a thing’s business value is inversely proportional to its certainty

Matt Webb on ‘What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Future’

  • Matt has been researching the history of Cybernetics
  • Anti aircraft guns and systems for feedback
  • 1943. Wiener and Rosenblueth paper: ‘Behaviour, Purpose and Teleology’
  • Feedback in machines, feedback in nervous system
  • the Macy conferences (later renamed to the Cybernetics conferences)
  • Wiener’s book: ‘Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine’
  • Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine. Microfiche + cameras. Early hyperinking system
  • Ted Nelson’s terms ‘hypertext’ (and ‘hyperlink’) later cited by Tim Berners-Lee
  • Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 demo included collaborative co-working, hypertext, even the computer mouse. [series on YouTube, 74 min Google Video]
  • Interesting links between the various people: the people involved are the dark matter
  • What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain
  • The Internet is a human story and its themes were there from the start.

Greta Corke on DIY Kyoto

  • DIY Kyoto = Richard, John and Greta
  • Graduates from the Royal College of Art
  • Creating environmental awareness through visualising information
  • Wattson works by induction
  • 3 display modes: watts, £/year, ambient light
  • Price: £150 for Wattson 01 (maybe coming down to £99 next year?)
  • Online community + open source software coming
  • Q: why are you setting up a new social network, why not use one of the existing ones? A: give us time
  • [DIY Kyoto’s Wattson device generated a lot of interest at geeKyoto in May 2008.]

Gavin Starks on AMEE, The World’s Energy Meter

  • If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build?
  • AMEE is only the API + database. Not an app
  • 850,000 carbon footprints, anonymised. Emissions data for lots of products
  • Credit cards attribute a carbon value to each transaction. It would be nice if they told you, wouldn’t it?
  • AMEE = 3 people part time for 3 years. Live for 1 year
  • We like things like OpenID, OAuth
  • Emissions data is freely available. Usage data is private. We can share ‘aggregated statistics’ (currently working on policy and definition of ‘aggregate’).
  • As well as products, they’d like to track smart meters, flight occupancy, and everything else.

Robert Wilkes on Aerial Heat Maps

  • Turning maps into heatmaps via aerial photography
  • Controversy around intrusion. (Plus the survey plane’s emissions)
  • Surveyed 2 hours after sunset to allow heat from the sun to dissipate
  • Images then georectified, stitched and GIS overlaid
  • Q: see DECoRuM project at Oxford Brookes
  • Q: see OpenStreetMap for maps
  • Q: price? A: £100 per Haringey = 65p per building

James Flint on WikiClimate

  • James Flint is a novelist. Does tech stuff at the Telegraph, including Telegraph Earth
  • Wired was a ‘booster’ magazine
  • What would a booster magazine for climate change look like?
  • It would be a website, and it might as well be a wiki.
  • The name says it all: WikiClimate
  • Gavin @ AMEE hosts it
  • It’s an important subject. Let’s collate information about it.

Nick Black on OpenStreetMap

  • OpenStreetMap was talked about at Open Tech 2005. What’s happened in 3 years?
  • 42,000+ users, 5,500 active users (unique user edits per month), 19,000,000 linear objects (e.g. roads, etc)
  • OpenStreetMap is user-created (GPS traces) and lists footpaths, ferry paths, cycle paths, …
  • A map with an edit button
  • Regular workshops: ‘mapping parties’
  • How to engage people with non-monetary motivation? Give them ownership.
  • Short feedback loops.
  • Coase’s Penguin
  • Licensing: CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0
  • pyRoute, postcode mapping, Berlin Zoo, …
  • The remaining unmapped areas of London are “probably the most deprived” areas
  • Goal to have the whole of London mapped by end of 2008. Mapping parties every Wednesday night

Rufus Pollock on ‘Opening Data’

  • Open Knowledge Foundation
  • Open Knowledge Definition
  • What do we want to do? Create things. Put lots of material together
  • It currently takes a lot of work to extract data from tables (often PDF, but even plain text is rarely designed to be machine readable)
  • The many-minds principle: ‘The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else‘.
  • The revolution will be decentralised
  • The miracle of ‘apt‘. Handling the most complex structures humankind has ever created
  • Componentisation: atomisation + packaging
  • Don’t get complacent non-Open data. What happens if Google starts charging for Google Maps?
  • Rights are important. Especially when the business model is often ‘give it for free until they’re hooked’
  • datapkg = apt for data
  • CKAN = Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network

Duncan Parkes on Planning Alerts

  • Scrapes lots of different planning application systems
  • Enter your postcode, get email alerts of relevant planning applications.
  • API supports postcodes, lat/long, supplies GeoRSS feeds
  • “mostly ignoring the licenses and terms of service” but no trouble yet. They seem to like it.
  • Add a scraper for your own council

Ben Gimpert on ‘Proof by Overwhelming Notation: An Introduction to What Quants Do’

  • Rapid app developer in an investment bank
  • Previously a quant
  • 40% of NYSE is algo trading
  • risk == return
  • Intro to investment banks, commercial banks, hedge funds & boutiques (but the lines are blurring)
  • universities tend to publish their endowment reports. Worth keeping an eye on them.

Steven Goodwin on Home Automation

  • Home automation is anything your home does automatically to make living there more enjoyable and productive
  • Heyu, MisterHouse, Minerva, Perl…
  • Steve is a big contributor to Minerva
  • Treating the house as a peripheral affects the way you do things
  • Fridge as a social hub in the house

Nick O’Leary and Roo Reynolds on Current Cost

Tom Loosemore on ‘No Programme Left Behind

  • Tom left the BBC 1 year ago. Now at Ofcom
  • Tim Berners-Lee broke television (or showed how it was broken all along)
  • Tom’s father-in-law described TV as ‘fabulous stories, fabulously told’
  • 99.9999% of TV is no longer with us. That’s abhorrent
  • “Make all TV ever findable, available and addressable”
  • Need to change the law: UK broadcasting law is a cesspit
  • 20M TV programmes ever made, globally
  • Think of Freeview as a distribution API
  • Good points: rich, accessible, structured, scaleable
  • Bad points: documentation, personal use license, ephemeral
  • Let’s just ignore the licencing for the rest of the talk.
  • Open Tech 2005:
  • But an EPG doesn’t scale to 1000s of programmes
  • 24TB for all BBC TV for 1 year
  • BBC Macro / BBC Redux
  • Usual schedule layout, but 20,000+ programmes to search
  • Tags addded using significant term extraction
  • social scheduling: what do your friends like?
  • Encode MPEG2 -> MPEG4 and you need 500MB per hour
  • 120TB stores all decent TV for 1 year. 10TB / month isn’t that much really.
  • The Impossibox. 1TB PVR -> bittorrent seeder
  • Exists as a prototype and thought experiment
  • What else could it do?
  • social TV navigation
  • integration with router (and ISP)
  • popularity based seeding
  • Targeted advertising. Encryption.
  • [See the slides here.]

Chris Jackson on URIPlay

  • Was ‘head of strategy’ at the BBC, but there were 8 of them.
  • URIPlay = open source DB of metadata
  • BBC /programmes gives some useful terms: Brand, Episode, Version, Broadcast
  • To those, URIPlay adds Encoding, Location and Policy
  • API to look up URL based on BBC programme ID (e.g.)
  • Q: timecodes as part of URL? A: there’s a W3C working group on timecodes at the moment
  • Q: subtitle data to auto tag? A: it’s difficult
  • Comment from Tom Loosemore: who owns subtitle data? It might be worth a Freedom of Information request to find out.
  • [The team gave a one hour Google Tech Talk in April 2008]

Mat Wall and Stephen Dunn on ‘Rebuilding

  • Principles: permanence, addressability, discoverability
  • We are in Tom Coates’ ‘age of pointing-at-things’
  • Site designed for people who don’t know what the Guardian is
  • Feeds everywhere
  • Lots of tagging (rather than purely hierarchical model)
  • The only full feed is /technology/rss (which includes adverts)
  • Guardian contributes Open Source projects to the world: dbdeploy, JSUnit, mockito, data baseliner
  • Going to open Guardian Developer Network, headed by Matt McAlister (ex of Yahoo Developer Network)
  • Tags include ‘type’, e.g. Georgia (state) != Georgia (country)

9 replies on “Open Tech 2008”

  1. I should also say that, as promised, I put a very small wiki up at – it’s mostly just links out to the quality blog posts at the moment because I didn’t really want to rip of anyone’s content, but if you _can_ convince Current Cost to do this themselves, that would be great.

  2. Hmm. That’s a shame.

    Re the wiki: great stuff Phil. I think it would be in Current Cost’s interest to host this sort of thing themselves (eventually?), but clearly a community-run thing is exactly the right thing to do. Joining the fray.

  3. I hadn’t realised at half-midnight last night (this morning?) that I wouldn’t be able to grant anonymous-edit access so if you fancy moving it somewhere else, feel free. You’re also an admin now.

  4. I’m easy. Wetpaint seems more friendly (you don’t need to be invited/added, which is what Phil didn’t like about Pbwiki and I agree with him). Go with the Wetpaint one for now? (Phil, what do you think? Would it be best to delete the Pbwiki one?)

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