Category Archives: conferences

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Tips on Surviving a Community event like MozFest

MozFest was huge (1500+ attendees), spanned 9 floors and had at least 16 concurrent tracks running at any given time. That’s without all the additional community areas showing their projects and the future of open society.

Based on a number of other similar events I attended and helped organised in the past (BarCamps, CCC) here are the basics, with most important at the beginning.

Keep track of your Water and Food intake

It’s surprisingly easy to get dehydrated if you’re out of your normal everyday comfort zone. You get distracted by people and talks, so make sure you start a day with a water bottle, provided by the organisers or just 0.5L bottle that you can refill. I’m in a habit that I always go to refill it once it’s empty.

Most importantly, avoid sugar and coffee (and run away from Club Mate). You probably don’t eat a Mars bar during the day and drink 4 latte’s so you probably won’t even recognise when your body crashed. But you’ll be cranky and won’t be able to enjoy the event. If you normally drink coffee or tea, try to drink only as much as you would on a normal day in the office.

To fix the problem of not running on sugary things, try to figure out how to eat the 5 – 6 meals during the conference day. The problem here is that croissant or a similar pastry doesn’t help since it’s too sugary and you will once again crash. For MozFest I’ve looked up closest store that was open that day and bought myself a mix of nuts and a sandwich. Don’t relay on organisers that they will be able to provide food that will make sense under such conditions (avoiding sugar). It’s more or less impossible at that scale, without exploding the costs of catering.

App Idea: preset the times and it will buzz your phone so you don’t forget to drink and eat.

Figure out ahead of time when you’re going to take your break

Events are super exciting, but you’re not doing yourself a service if you’re tired and unfocused. The more events I go to, the more I’m happy with hearing just 2 or 3 good talks a day or even with just a few good chats with new friends.

So if I discover that nothing super interest me, I will rather find a quieter spot and disconnect a bit from all the noise and people. It’s also a great opportunity to find a quick snack somewhere near the venue.

Read the Schedule and talk to Regulars

I’m not sure why, but getting a super big schedule often means I don’t invest the time to properly study it. Which always turns out to be a big mistake as I don’t have a good idea about what I really want to hear about. This is a bit easier with smaller one or two track events.

I often go to events alone as I’m trying to visit new communities that are outside of my regular professional work. Whenever I manage to befriend a Regular conference attendee they could quickly tell me who are the speakers that are consistently giving the best talk, even if it doesn’t seem so from the talk description.

Meet new people by being easy to approach

I love my geek t-shirts. The ones with logos from the Programming languages and environments that I work with. It makes it easy to let others know what you’re interested to know and it’s a perfect conversation starter for both. Remember to compliment the Fizzbuzz 0.5x.3 release T-Shirt of a fellow attendee.

If you’re a part of a smaller group and you have something to contribute, do that and/or ask your questions. You will let a wider group of people know what you’re interested about, you’re share something useful and there’s a high chance that after the session ends, some of them will want to talk to you.

Don’t overdo it

I keep trying to do too many things. Be at the venue for the first talk go to sessions and visit the after party. Depending on the venue and party, I’ve started opting for a proper dinner and a full nights sleep instead of trying to shout at people and at a loud venue.

This are the five basics that I always get at least one wrong. So they’re not as obvious as they seem.

Tell me what I missed, but keeps you running at events?

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MozFest – Learning Analytics

Learning Analytics are targeted at administrations that is trying to understand how teachers and students are interacting with the tools and processes inside the educational system.

(This blog post is just a collection of my personal notes and extra thoughts and is not something that a specific person said inside a discussion and that I probably misunderstood anyway).

There are multiple aspects to the concept of Learning Analytics, depending on who you are and what are you tracking.

Online Courses

Simple and straightforward tracking of students progress, how much time they spent on a specific piece of content, what worked for them and what didn’t. The basic premise being that you can have a feedback loop built into each iteration of the course and refine it as you go.

Besides all the research in the MOOCs area, I think there are two other interesting areas of general development in this field:

Commercial Tools like Summit Evergreen.

The problem that they are solving is that if people don’t finish their paid commercial course, they want their money back and they don’t learn and you can’t offer them better courses (and it’s overall a bad experience). So you closely track their progress and once you see that they’re not progressing, you start emailing them and trying to help them overcome whatever problem they have.

General research areas.

As we start to develop better online tools, we can also start publishing academic research papers on user behaviour. There is a persistent ethical question of when is ethically unacceptable to even build in tracking mechanisms compared to gathering everything where you anonymise the data after the fact. I do not think this part of community has already developed as well as understood all the issues. The fact that everyone is trying to publish papers so they can justify their research and get PhD’s does not provide good incentives for researchers to self-limit their access to data.

Motivational Characteristics

If you’re working in Web development, you’ve heard of a concept of *Dark Pattern* by now. It is a practice of interface that is designed to trick you into doing something you did not want, buying extra insurance or subscribing to newsletter. Whole experience of buying airplane ticket online also comes to mind.

It shouldn’t be a surprise for me, that there is a strong correlation between personality traits of certain age groups and how they react to different user interface elements. I do not have better data, but as far as I understand there are certain age and gender groups that will be strongly influenced by, e.g. the number of follower counts.

This has several interesting implications – do we try to design with such traits in mind or do we perceive it as a dark pattern and rather build more online version of a textbook instead of highly competitive online learning environment?

Designing Online Reputation Systems

I would love to learn more about different motivational characteristics of online users. But until I can find a good resource on this topic, I can recommend an excellent talk by Randy Farmer:

(and his book – Building Web Reputation Systems).

It’s about Educating Everyone

Some the issues and exposed problems might be mitigated by having better and more clearly presented privacy policies. Instead of just gathering data, get users to opt-in into collection and clearly present value to them and how this research helps everyone. Example of such data collection project done in an extremely transparent fashion was Mozilla Lab’s Test Pilot – https://testpilot.mozillalabs.com/ . Where they would show you a graphic of the data you’re about to send and ask you again if you’re ok with that.

Having similar approaches to the analytics tools inside different online services in this field could make it easier for both students and their guardians to understand what is going on.

To me it also seems possible that we’re much sooner see new legalisation in this regard in EU compared to USA. This will once again present problems when using both open and closed platforms that will try to upsell local educators on benefits that might legal risk to them.

The Future

Big Data and Everything Analytics is an emerging trend that we will soon start seeing much more research and work done on. It will also mean that we’ll start to talk to educators about things like A/B testing and funnel analysis. More complex technologies and concepts for everyone.

MozFest: DIY Urbanism

Mozfest

There is a huge disconnect between citizens and municipalities. While it would seem that they are living in the same city, it’s often the case that they are using it differently and that they can’t find the common ground for the discussion about the progress of the city.

That is why I was happy to attend the session DIY Urbanism, led by Andi Argast and Michelle Gay where they presented their Learning Kit – Your Story Goes Here .

The basic premise is very simple: change the way we discuss and view public spaces. One thing that I feel often happens is that we would discuss it from the offices and meeting halls and we would try to gather usage patterns from random anecdotes. (I have no idea how real urbanists do this, but from a citizen point of view, I wouldn’t often have a better approach).

What their kit does it breaks the process into 5 steps:

  • Placestorming (brainstorming about the place)
  • Location Audit + Keywords
  • Creating the story
  • Sharing it
  • and finally another Reflection on the whole process and outcomes.

At this point, it’s important to think about another buzzword that’s gaining ground – Storytelling. We can use very simple things like Instagram and Cowbird or more complete ones like Edgar’s StoryCrafter.

The idea is to take your activist/interested citizen group to the space you’re trying to understand and then observe and document how people use, whether it support good affordances for walking or riding a bike or whatever your goal is.

This allows you to have a better understanding of what’s going in the space and to also gather much better information and usage patterns. Collecting and assembling this material in short, understandable clips/presentations, also allows you to have a more focused conversation when presenting your alternative proposal at community council meeting.

Idea, that needs good execution

Jan started a project, The bicycle heroes of Ljubljana, where he is documenting bad practices of Ljubljana Cyclists. In this context, this is an excellent idea!

What we need now is to start taking his photos and also document pot holes, weird bike crossing and strange ideas of how city thinks that we should navigate it. Create a site or a series of Tumblers where you teach people to record failure of city planners to help people have safer experience. Then map it and also elaborate it on a list as well as make it easier for journalists to use it to ask good questions to the city planners.

But it can be much more than just a collection of photos on a map. I’m sure there are a number of both experts and students and enthusiast that would be happy to contribute their proposals on how to fix the specific case as well as dig official plans from the municipality and call them on it.

[citation needed]

Observations from OKFestival 2014, Berlin

In quite a stark contrast to csv,conf (which was very developer oriented), I attended OKFestival the next two days. With over 1000 attendees from all areas of it really is a huge gathering of open proponents.

Open is the new default

While not necessarily true in all the fields yet, it looks like we’re at the point where a lot of government contracts around the world require the work to be licenses under one of the standardised open licenses (either compatible for code or Creative Commons for creative works).

Rebuild everything

It seems that we’re still very much in the early days of platform and network building. While there are a few standardised solutions in each field, it seems that there is still hard to collaborate on complex pieces of software. I think I saw quite a few different indexes, CKAN alternatives as well as proprietary solutions that are in process of being opened up. I think we could do better as community within each field to figure out how to collaborate.

Standing on shoulders of giants

A few years ago, we were complaining that governments don’t release data and that it’s hard to get attention from policy makers. Today a lot of these things are given, partially also because of education and activism efforts from different hack days, seminars and events. A lot of colleagues from such event went on to consult or to work for governments making it easier for other side to understand the issues and to find internal (technical) support for it.

XML, LOL

Notes from csv,conf 2014

Today I attended csv,conf in Berlin, which turned out to be an excellent conference full of people who gather and transform data on a daily basis.

CSV, comma separated values, file format seems like a joke at first – who seriously uses that today in age of SQL, no-SQL and other $random-DB solution? It turns out that almost everybody at some point – either as input or as data interchange format in cases where systems are not part of your organisation.

Fail quickly and cheaply

A few different people presented their solution for “testing” CSV files, which might be better describe as making sure they conform to a certain schema. They range from just simple checks to full-fledged DSL that allows you to specify rules and even do checksums against referenced files.

The reason I liked most for this is that it allows you to very quickly verify sanity of files that you received and allows you to quickly give feedback to the other party that is sending you these files. This ensure that some time later either in time or inside your pipeline you don’t have to deal with bad data.

Embrace the UNIX philosophy – do one thing at the time

Most of the speakers also mentioned that in order to keep your sanity, you should build your system as a collection of small dedicated tools that pipe into other dedicated tools. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Unix pipe, but more a collection of steps that convert data into another step/database and then as next step does the processing again.

Everybody has the same problems

I think the biggest takeaway for me was, that we’re all having the same issues. We all get messy datasets that are hard to parse and are full of strange errors and inconsistencies.

As with other things, there is no silver bullet. We’ll have to build and teach best practices around data – testing, cleaning and what works and what doesn’t. Just we’re doing it in terms of modern software development.

Interesting tools and libraries