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Were you at OpenTech09?

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Ian Forrester Ian Forrester | 18:02 UK time, Wednesday, 8 July 2009


Dr Ian McDonald, Development Producer at BBC Learning attended OpenTech09 and has written a nice review of the event from his view. As usual you can comment below or even trackback to this blog post.

The Open Tech conference combined activists, journalists, and geeks who want to change the world. It was informal, cheap, in my former student union, and last Saturday. Many people there were opening up public data and turning it into useful applications. And there was as much social engineering as computer programming.

Speakers from inside and outside government talked about freeing up data so we can do interesting things with them. Journalist Heather Brooke described how she had hammered away at Freedom of Information (FoI) requests for MP's expenses until one civil servant became so horrified by the cover-up that he leaked the lot to the Daily Telegraph.

In a meeting room which used to be a balcony for watching concerts, two civil servants talked about their efforts to release information. Richard Stirling hoped Innovate would "turn into BBC Backstage for government". John Sheridan from the Office of Public Sector Information asked the audience to build things like Schools Map which demonstrated the need for data, saying that "compelling examples are the things which make public services better ... simply by sharing the public information". He looked forward to taking data which were already on .gov.uk websites and releasing in more open formats, saving you the trouble of screenscraping. He hoped that the involvement of Tim Berners-Lee would encourage more linked data. Rufus Pollock urged them to release the data raw, without waiting to mark it up as linked data or RDFa. The Digital Britain report was presented in parody.

Some projects were about making existing things easier instead of building new websites. William Perrin's Talk About Local chose not to build a social network site for local communities, and instead help people use the leading blogging and social network sites. Corinne Pritchard's Simply Understand translates official documents into simpler English.

There was a bit of greek pride too. Bill Thompson called for new MPs to be offered a computer programming course as part of their induction, the better to understand how the digital world works. Ben Goldacre praised the science coverage by specialist bloggers as superior to much published journalism.

But geek culture, even in the middle of saving the world, seemed very male. Males who were washed and scrubbed, in ironed shirts of T-shirts of reasonably coruscating wit, outnumbered women nine to one. The Women in Technology session started with jokes about queues being outside the men's loos instead, and ended brainstorming role-models for the next Ada Lovelace Day. Just as the men from Whitehall want examples to show the strength of mashups, Kathryn Corrick wanted some living examples for the next generation of Rain Ashfords.

It was an interesting Saturday.

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