Archive for the ‘meetings’ Category

Event Horizon

In meetings on April 4, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Going to, and looking forward to, events has always been important to me. On those occasions that I glimpsed the possibilities of groups drawn together by a common interest, something ignited inside.

The first regular events, that I elected to participate in, were sports-related. Living close to Highbury Stadium, before the spate of incidents that forced football stadia to control access, provided ample opportunity to indulge in the fix of fixtures. Back then, we [friends] could get in free to the stadium at half time. Jostling towards any confrontations that were brewing hinted at other possibilities from these gatherings, and provided relief from the boring football on offer.

Days going to Twickenham were memorable. The adventure was in travelling to strange parts of London. We could slip the gate a few pounds to get into the (equally boring) rugby internationals of the early-eighties. Even venturing to White Hart Lane (to watch more interesting football) was just a precursor for the passion that was to follow.

The epiphany happened one summer in Ireland. Our family went every year, and the summer of 1983 looked set to be no different to any other. Until the day an older cousin asked if I wanted to go along to a festival in Dublin. I was 15 and bored at being stuck in the countryside: and so jumped at the opportunity. Off I went to my first gig – Anvil, Motorhead, Twister Sister and Black Sabbath at Dalymount Stadium.

That gig changed my life. Back in London, I dragged my best friend to a virtuoso performance by Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. We lost half a stone in sweat each that night – and he wound up working for a record label. It wasn’t just me that was caught up in the possibilities of the event experience.

The next ten years were focussed on getting to gigs. Being much more focussed on urban gigs than the festival scene, I developed many strategies around getting access to live music. It wasn’t necessarily expensive: getting to know the bouncers at the university venue was rewarding in many dimensions.

With age, it became less urgent to be at the right gigs. And then it started feeling akward – being at he front of the crowd was no longer important, and the sense that something important would be missed was plainly mistaken. The wilderness years occurred when my daughter was born. Going out was less important. Being there for her is what is important. But time passes, and we all move on ….

The passion was rekindled with the organization of a few tech events – things I’d like to see happen and couldn’t wait for someone else to organise (such as XMLOpen in 2004). Then I took my daughter to her first gig (Yassou N’Dour in Lucca, Italy). Suddenly I was reminded of what it was that had enthralled me for so long.

Then unconferences became commonplace. Suddenly I could indulge my interests without having to feel indebited to an employer. Perhaps not as focussed as some of the paid conferences I’ve been fortunate to attend; they nonetheless provide opportunity to discover what is really important to you. I’ve learned more about myself at these events than at weeks focussing on obscure technologies in distant countries.

So now I spend much more time thinking about how I’m spending time. Events are as important to me as ever, but I’m no longer looking to recreate the last buzz. What’s important now are the opportunities afforded: to learn new approaches, meet new people, and to think new thoughts. The type of event is just a constraint – and one that can be deconstructed by those attending.

I’ve just booked tickets for Womad in Charlton Park this July and would love to hear from anyone interested in doing something a bit different while we are there.

More WhereCamp.eu

In meetings on March 14, 2010 at 8:45 am

On the second day of WhereCamp.eu we moved to the luxurious Guardian offices in Kings Cross. There were fewer attendees in a much larger space, giving the event a distinctly different feeling.

At the start of the day I met up with a former colleague who was going to the open source in geographic information systems session. So I followed him. The session was about the organizational support provided by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation. A theme that came across, and echoed from yesterday’s sessions, was the problems with open source tools being focussed on the needs of developers, rather than the needs of users – although there is optimism that the Quantum GIS project may be addressing this issue.

Then there was a session about using historical data. It was led by Peter Miller from ITO – whose colleague impressed enough the previous day to make his affiliation on the wall enough to convince me to attend. The pitch was to initiate a project to make current and future data better quality. Using the example of high speed rail planning. We were shown currently available consultation data and invited to think about the social consequences of poor quality data locked in PDF documents. The discussion focussed around the idea of time-travel and there was some serious scope creep from the initial concept. Peter proposed turning historical and current images into data – extrapolating backwards in order to improve the tools to plan ahead. As he said: “getting people who are excited about the past makes the tooling much better for planning the future”. The session concluded with a group of highly motivated people agreeeing to work on a project to create a 1921 version of the rail network on Open Street Map – a good result for a well-prepared pitch.

The last session before lunch was about accessing location based services on the iphone. Tom Melamed took us through various ways to simplify writing an application using wrapping technologies. Contending that the best way to develop an iphone application is to write a web page, Tom first presented the W3C geolocation specification and demoed how a mobile accessed webpage can ask a browser to provide location. He went on to show PhoneGap – a wrapper around a webpage delivered as an application (needs a mac to use). Another solution to this is titanium (and there are several others providing similar Objective-C avoiding solutions). Another useful tool mentioned was jQTouch – a javascript user interface library that makes web pages look and feel like iphone apps. It can be combined with phonegap to build apps – phonegap apps are allowed on the app store (and it also works on android).

After lunch was spent watching the rugby international; and chatting to others who were torn over their priorities. As the closing session and hack review overlapped the last 20 minutes of the match (Ireland-Wales, in case you are wondering), I took my computer (and the audience) into the session with the rugby streaming over the wifi. As soon as the game was over, it was time to present my hack for the weekend. The hack is a sunrise/sunset calculator that will be posted here tomorrow. As there were only three hacks presented, it stood some chance of claiming the prize. It didn’t win, but the voted result was closer than expected. Congratulations to Michael Dales for his winning hack.

Wherecamp was a great experience. Both days were memorable for the quality of the sessions and the generous spirit in which everyone shared their thoughts and ideas.The organisers stressed that anyone can organise a WhereCamp (or indeed any other camp) and encouraged us all to thing about doing so.

Ups and downs at WhereCamp

In meetings on March 13, 2010 at 10:54 am

The first day started slowly for me. By lunch time doubts had crept in about the event. But the post-lunch sessions were excellent, and more than made up for a slow start.

With six tracks it was hard to know where to go. So, I stayed put in the main room and had the sunrise/sunset SVG rendition working by lunchtime. Lunch itself was healthy – a pleasant change from the norm at geek events. The only ting I remember about teh morning session was Gary Gale’s “it is essential to be able to lie about your location” – which should ring true for all of us (clandestine activities or not).

Post lunch, in the main hall where there was a Q&A session on Open Street Map. It uses wiki technology with extensions – an approach which reinforces my feelings about wikis being a base infrastructure for data collection. The team showed some visualizations from the Open Street Map data collections and highlighted “shards of wrong” where errors are made glaringly obvious by presenting them visually. It was apparent that the value of visualizations may be in finding anomalies, rather than in confirming expectations.

Next up was a session of “info porn” – gorgeous visualizations of transport data. Hal Bertram of ITO showed a series of time-lapse animations of traffic data. At the kick-off we had been shown an animation demonstrating how collaborative mapping initiatives have grown exponentially. But this was more interesting, because of the deductions that could be made from watching the data move. While we were still salivating at the high definition animations, Hal finished by saying  “at its best visualization produces stuff that you want to look at, and learn from”.

Open Street Map 2008 Map Edits from Peter Dunn on Vimeo.

After that I found myself learning about lenticular printing . In the discussion Sarah Kate Norman suggested that it might be an idea to use lenticular printing for sign information in different symbols/languages when the Olympics come to London. The fine map print that was shown at the session was produced by a company called Riot Of Colour.

Then tried to get into the YQL session but the small room was heaving. There are many materials available online anyway – so that’s one for self-study.

The final session was a debate (not sure it was intended as such) about privacy. I stayed quiet but thought there was youthful optimism that the problem would fix itself after some high-profile incidents – it hasn’t worked for patents!

On the way home the train hit something – we were delayed by over two hours, but I used the time to hack. So it really was a day of highs and lows. Now to see what today has in store.

Looking forward to WhereCamp.eu

In meetings on March 12, 2010 at 8:21 am

En route to WhereCamp.eu (12-13 March 2010) ….

Having forgone the opportunity to be in the Czech Republic for XMLPrague, I decided to do some preparation for two days initiation into location-based computing at WhereCamp.eu.

So I started two projects before arriving: a sunrise/sunset calculator and a gps hardware hack. The calculator working and the £20 GPS USB dongle (from maplin) is emitting data – although it took a while to figure how to scan the com ports to detect which one was emitting the data. The plan before the event is to create graphs of annual sunrise/sunset data for given locations in SVG using the input from the GPS. But the point of these events is to be receptive to new deas – so who knows what will emerge.

So long as I can get to see the rugby tomorrow, follow xmlprague and sxsw, and find somewhere to crash tonight, there should be something interesting to demonstrate soon.

Back to basics

In meetings on October 10, 2008 at 10:03 am

Tim Bray rewrote his keynote for FOWA yesterday based on how he’s feeling: scared. The economic downturn has him worried as he doesn’t know what is going to happen (how arrogant to assume he did know what was going to happen beforehand). I find the motivation for this type of talk to be lacking in humility – but he is onto something in the body of his talk.

He’s talking about how capital investment is not going to be approved anymore in organizations as times turn hard. But alongside that is the opportunity for those who can build things to satisfy core needs. We are used to luxury discretionary services. What we need to do now is to build tools that deal with the essentials and the revenue will be more based on small payments rather with tiny margins. 

Tim told a ‘story’ that I heard several times in the halls yesterday (a meme as it were): The only user who you will totally please, and delight, is yourself. And the fact that other people may have the same needs means there may be a market for that same need satisfaction. So aim to satisfy your self and you may end up creating a mainstream application. He also cautioned would-be entrepreneurs to stay away from the venture capitalists, saying they did not add much in the good times so they will be worse in bad times.

Tim advises anyone who finds themselves with time on their hands to skill-up, learn new things, contribute to open source projects, blog, twitter, network and make a name for yourself. “If you don’t care enough about the web to make it better; they why would I want to hire you?”.

Suppose I’m wrong – he says. Well nothing he’s said is still not true … so back to basics for us all then. Funny though, Tim went back to form and assuming he was the only keynote speaker told the audience we could now go and get coffee.

Less of me

In meetings on October 9, 2008 at 10:05 am

Oh there you are. Where have you been. Me? Oh I’ve been doing stuff. Lots of work things that I can’t particularly talk about and some personal stuff that I can.

There’s now less of me that there was none weeks ago – three and  a half stone to be precise – thanks to LighterLife which despite the branding does cover men as well. I think I’ve done the easy bit – losing the weight; the hard bit (maintenance) is still to come. But I feel much better and its reflecting in many aspects of life.

I’m at the Future Of Web Applications Conference at the atmosphere is electric. I’ll blog any interesting insights that come during the next two days, but for now I’m just enjoying being at an event that I choose to be at rather than one that I am required to be at.

Earlier this year I held a hack session at home during the Olympics – only three were able to make it (I chose a particularly bad weekend when many people were leaving for holiday), but we had a great time and learned a lot. The tangible results are at Inigo Surguy’s website and we are inspired to do more similar events.

Next month there’s a SWIG UK event at HP Labs in Bristol which I’ve helped organise. Sign up now if you are interested as there is a finite number that can be accommodated.

That’s all for now except to say that I haven’t disapperaed off the web between blog posts – I’m also twittering which for the uninitiated is a micro-blogging system that has some interesting social artefacts. See you there, perhaps?

Over the moon

In code, meetings on April 5, 2008 at 5:02 am

I’m at Over the Air at Imperial College London, an event for mobile developers, and writing this after getting just two hours sleep. I don’t usually think of myself as a mobile developer, despite having built a proof of concept for mobile communications for an international charity back in the early noughties and, more recently, having architected a real-time sms based auctioning system for use at a charity event by my previous employer. My collaborator on that project is now entrenched in the mobile development market – so it had real benefits to at least one of us! For both those projects, a services company called kapow were used. I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a GPRS modem such as the Wavecom Fasttrack Extreme but never had the spare cash.

Since then, most major mobile brands have released their own development kits, yet these seem to fall consistently short of my expectations. As a server-side developer, I look for problems that lend themselves to some processing on a more traditional computing environment. Not for me the offers of free hardware to develop for (and there have been a few at this event). But the reality of server side offerings leaves a lot to be desired. BT are stuck in the 90s with their insistence on use of obscure and poorly documented sandpit certificates for developers. Vodafone’s Betavine offering really annoyed when I realised that they want users to register with them as well as developers – double lock-in! It seems that the culture of the mobile company is far behind where mainstream open software solutions have got to (albeit with some notable, but marginal, exceptions – such as Android).

After deciding that developing with any of the SDKs meant either being too locked-in or having no users, I took advice that was offered by an Alan Stokes in the early 90s and went for a walk – to get a new perspective. It worked. After a short stroll (wouldn’t want to miss anything exciting) I returned with a new approach. Taking my frustrations with the available SDKs to heart, I decided to plunge in directly and build my own. Knowing that one of the key services that mobile phones can address is location-based services, I though that a GPS data to postcode service would form a central piece in such an offering. So I set about writing one.

The UK postcode database can be licensed for use in mobile applications, but is not in the realm of the amateur developer, so I looked at using the user-generated content at freethepostcode.org to provide a service to users that would tell them their nearest known postcode and how useful that information is (likelihood of relevance based on distance) given latitude and longitude details. It’s actually an exercise in optimising data structures for querying and was a very enjoyable problem to solve.

However, there’s always a however isn’t there, just as I was about to start testing my code I was visited by a couple of people. The first was a business -head from Nokia who was fishing for developer effort. He was a nice guy, but didn’t get the message that I’m a professional-user developer rather than a consumer-user developer. But we had a good conversation and, if I ever want, I think there might be a future in that mobile market. My second visitor enquired what I was working on and when I explained he asked if i knew of the geocoder activity. Not I, was the response, so we went a-surfin. Sure enough, my first milestone on a comprehensive service stack for mobile development has been truly nailed for some time now. Plans for early retirement have been put on ice.

Driving through my disappointment and not being the radical I hoped (and after being asked by aforementioned dream-breaker if I had seen programmableweb.org as he went to devastate someone else), I continued with the testing and shortly thereafter had my proof-of-concept-that-I-can’t-now-show running like a dream. Satisfaction, but with nothing innovative really (except that the code is available if anyone wants).

With Torchwood (and a made-the-same-day tribute) projected in high definition at midnight to an audience of excited developers it literally was a slumber party for geeks. Back to planet reality later today (in time for Doctor Who I hope) …


In meetings on April 4, 2008 at 9:31 am

Unconference, meetup, happening, virtual event, interest group, seminar, conference.

The world of get-togethers is becoming increasingly diversified as is the understanding of these events. Several years ago I jointly produced the XMLOpen event (along with Griffin Brown) as a meeting of minds – rather than wallets. We broke even financially, but haven’t repeated what was a thoroughly enjoyable event as it was a big job to organise and the opportunity cost in preparing it (not to mention the financial liability) was large. More recently I was involved in pulling together another event for XML:UK called Publishing 2.0 (we are hoping to pull together a couple of events this year so stay tuned). During one break at that event, Leigh Dodds and Sean McGrath spoke of how quaint an old-fashioned pre-planned conference was to them. At that time, I had some inkling of what they were talking about, but hadn’t experienced a full unconference.

That all changed earlier this year with the Semantic Web Bar Camp at Imperial College, London. It was an enjoyable and educational experience, but conversations during and after have caused concern about the viability of user-managed events in the longer run. One such conversation was with an organiser of a proposed Oxford Bar Camp who is having difficulties finding a suitable venue. For geek conferences there may be specific needs, but the issues are general and relate to trust and ‘brand recognition. What it really highlights is the relative ease (well from an external perspective) large organizations have in marshalling resources for an agreed purpose. The BBC can sponsor events such as last years excellent HackDay (misnamed because it occurred over two days, but why let such details get in the way of memorable naming), without having to hop that an interested party will have access to a building at the weekend that can be used. Of course to a large extent the concept of sponsorship is about brand recognition – so how do new events get going?

What is needed is a conference for event organisers. It could be a forum for discussing how to promote to attendees, speakers and sponsors; an opportunity to learn from the experienced and the inexperienced; a chance to compare experiences with event supporting tools (the vendors of which should possibly be the ones coordinating such an activity – if there is a desire to see a mature market); and a place to participate as a peer rather than a focal point. Such sharing of knowledge would surely be a good thing for users. After all, the form of an event should be based on an understanding of user behaviours and needs rather than around who pays for what.

The real question is – who’s going to organise such an event?

The end of endpoints?

In meetings on March 13, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Last Thursday’s SWIG meeting in Oxford was another great event. With Leigh Dodds of Ingenta and Inigo Surguy of 67bricks speaking on the SPARQL query language; it was always going to be a good night. I was personally disappointed that we didn’t get more attendees, and I think I’m going to have to start cross-posting future events to other mailing lists. We attempted to broadcast the session on live.yahoo.com, but a combination of the university’s wireless network and Yahoo’s infrastructure conspired to make that a less engaging experience than it might have been.

Leigh’s first talk centered on Twinkle a graphical user interface onto a spqrql query engine. Twinkle manages the sparql connections with multiple data sources allowing the user to write queries over in-memory data collections.

Leigh noted that some data sets assume a default graph others need to have one specified – thereby highlighting issues of interoperability between sparql servicing interfaces. He showed how to edit etc\config.n3 to establish a new data source in the user interface (you will need to bounce the user interface to reload the available services) to create your own semantic user interface onto your data. Leigh has commented his configuration file but there is no dedicated documentation. He is thinking about moving Twinkle to an open source model possibly using Google Code. Future possibilities include distributed queries; his team at ingenta are making daily use of Andy Seabourne’s ARQ extensions to enhance queries (an issue that also cam up in Inigo Surguy’s talk – see below). As Leigh was talking, I couldn’t help but imagine how the data that I use on a daily basis might yield to a triple based approach and am now seeking a business justification for a proof of concept activity.

Leigh’s second talk discussed the four forms of sparql queries:
* select provides a comfort factor for learning sparql but may be the weakest query form (good for indexing)<br/>
* ask returns a true/false value as a test which can be optimised within implementations
* construct returns an rdf graph allows local aggregation of crawled data and generic object instantiation (good fo transformations especially if functions were available)
* describe also returns an rdf graph but the query engine decides what is relevant (good for prototyping/ad hoc apis)
Leigh talked about work that Alistair Miles have done on SPARQL for RDF validation (akin to using XPath for XML validation and known as Schemarama 2) using ASK WHERE {assertion of invalid data} and CONSTRUCT. Leigh also mentioned the ADC pattern ASK DESCRIBE CONSTRUCT – approach to developing semantic applications.

Inigo Surguy started his presentation by asking why there aren’t more sql endpoints available on the web. That led immediately to a question from Tony Hammond about what a sparql endpoint is obliged to do. In turn there was a shock revelation that the sparql protocol specification does not mention the term end point although it is in common use). It may be that the term is inherited from the webservices domain – especially as the sparql protocol refers to webservice implementations. But it is curious how language evolves by consensual use (or maybe not now that the issue of its use has been raised).

Inigo’s talk focussed on how to extend Joseki (again using n3 syntax). Inigo showed another neat demo of how to obtain geolocation details given (unambiguous) place names and then finding (and mapping) local items of interest once the geolocation details are known. He’s using D2R to expose data from out of relational databases but talked about the limited power of the sparql query languages built in functions. This led to the point that he was making about the need for a semantic function library (such as is available at exslt.org) to extend the capabilities of sparql (perhaps an esparql.org) as a community process for registering extension functions. Ther was a consensus that sparql is underpowered. However Leigh commented that ad hoc extensions could become another way of breaking a sparql service if the expectation is that the service provider implements the extension function. Sometimes a better approach would be to enhance the original data rather than creating functions to tidy the data up.

I found it to be inspiring evening that made me think of many applications that could be built. Just spending time with people like Leigh and Inigo is motivation to create services that help evangelise the empowering nature of abstract data models. Thanks to you both for another great event.

The next SWIG event is on the 12 May and will feature Ian Davis and his team from Talis showing how to use the freely available Talis platform to develop semantic web applications.

Semantic Realities

In meetings on November 6, 2007 at 10:12 pm

Tonight’s SWIG was a team presentation by Ian Horrocks and his research group who have moved from Manchester to Oxford universities this year. The problems they address – formal proofs of safety, modularity in ontologies, optimizing queries (by provably rewriting queries using a set of trees that represent the same relationships as the queries) – make them an interesting group.

What struck me about the work of this team is that they are tackling the important problems – the fact that in many instances the emperor has no clothes. The honest approach has no peers and will provide a breath of fresh air amongst the practitioners who struggle with making the best of the tools available. Having this talented team among us is a great boost, and should lead to some interesting pollenization between academia and industry – anybody want to license a codebase?