#opentech 2013 – a game of two halves

Yesterday I attended #opentech (well some of it) for I think the third time. It is something of a unique event these days I think – on paper it looks like a pretty normal tech event but when you look a bit closer you see just how special it is. In some ways it feels like it is from another time – a more techno-hippy version of the wider world of the web.

It is determinedly old school in its organisation – I love the fact that is a fiver on the door :) There are dozens of high quality speakers throughout the day which many a £1000 entry conference would kill for though despite this at least for me a lot of the joy of the event is the conversations in the bar and corridors.

I was actually early for a change so I managed to find a seat in the Main Hall and settled in for a morning of talks.

The day kicked off with a bit of a ‘what I did last summer’ talk from @russs (is that enough S’s?) and the geek festival in a field he and friends organisation – Electromagnetic Fields.

All in all it was a very impressive undertaking, though the guys are clearly not going to become location scouts anytime soon – choosing a field next to a motorway, a sewage plant and in danger of flooding maybe not the wisest – thankfully the wind was blowing the sewage smell away from the camp! They supplied power AND high speed wifi to 300 people in tents for a weekend of hacking and beer (with a bar under the M1!). In fact the wifi provided by the 30 metre microwave mast they installed and the network routers hidden in portaloos was so good they were upset that the bandwidth didn’t get worked harder!

They are going to give it another go in 2014 (September-ish) though at a different location and aiming for more like 900 people!! Check the project out on Twitter at @emfcamp

[as an aside it sounded a lot like a scaled up version of that Big Bathcamp Mike arranged a few years ago at Rutland and I seem to remember him having an idea for a Geek festival so another one to cross off the to-do list mate!]

The second talk was something of a love letter to the NHS though to be honest it took a bit of a while to get to any kind of point. The speaker clearly had something of a reputation as a bit of a showman but I found his style a bit difficult to engage with even if when he got to the point I found the core of the presentation really interesting – using open data to identify spending patterns in the NHS and in particular spotting where the NHS trusts aren’t taking advantage of the saving offered by generic drugs and are instead still in the pocket of big pharma. He showed some genuinely interesting maps (I especially liked that they had been filtered so as not to just follow local populations)

which really illustrated his points nicely and were a fine example of simple but effective visualising of data – something I am clearly interested in these days.

After a short break it was time for a GOV.UK double header. Tom Loosemore was first up giving a whistle stop tour of the work of GDS which was an impressive mix of light hearted, politic and making some serious points.

I’ve followed the work of GDS closely since before it was actually GDS (I was lucky enough to see the Alpha before it launched and even did the original ‘alphagov’ Wikipedia page :) ) and I know a few people involved so it wasn’t exactly new ground for me but there some new nuggets amongst it. The fact GDS can veto appointments at some level (I missed what) is huge – forcing the Civil Service to put digitally savvy people in to senior roles not just moving people in because they are the right grade.

The scale of the work fixing transactions was also an interesting insight as its the area I know least about – also always funny to see that picture of Daffydd at Number 10 again! Also when talking about the more to open source and the culture change that invoked he linked to the best tweet ever for those of us in this corner of the web by world (for context CESG are the cyber-spooks at Cheltenham)


Tom does give great presentation. He handled some quite difficult questions later on with aplomb and kept the crowd onside throughout – he also gave very honest answers right up to (but not beyond) crossing some kind of Civil Service line. Skillful in of its self.

Early on he also spoke about how his role (since he was banned from coding 8 years ago!) was about ‘creating space for others’ to do their work. This is very much my aspiration as a manager but I wonder how well I manage it.

Next up with Jordan Hatch talking about how GDS avoided ‘breaking the web’. I really enjoyed this slightly more technical talk – some elements of it were above my head (NGINX could be a Star Trek: Voyager character for all I know!) but I am a big believer in this particular goal of “no link left behind” and believe it is something too often ignored or at the very least shortchanged. GDS built custom tools (now available on Github) to manage the migration mapping (the Migratorator) and also a gamified tool with scoreboards that then allowed people to check old page v new page and decide if it looked like a correct mapping (the Review-o-matic). The redirect engine (if thats the right term) is currently managing 180,000 redirects from what was Directgov, Businesslink and the 26 department (and No10 and the DPM) websites.

After a bit of a liquid lunch (Staropramen for less than 3 quid a pint in London – good times!) I settled in for Bill Thompsons talk. This is the second time I have heard Bill speak and the experience was identical to the first. I was swept along during the talk and felt smarter just for following along but at the end I realised it was some kind of illusion and I didn’t really understand anything! Thankfully he has had to good grace to post his text on his blog so at least I can link to it (and reread it a few times.)

The was about it for any formal session attendance from me – I did catch a bit of Richard Popes ‘Tiny Data’ session which I enjoyed – he also wrote the tweet that summed the whole event up for me as well:

I was sad to miss Paul Clarke give his session but I mistimed it and the nature of the room layout meant arriving late would have meant crashing in right at the from of the room when Paul was in full flow.

As always I had loads of brilliant conversations – I caught up with Zoe and her tales of Stockholm and launch parties with Labrinth, chatted to Phil for the first time in ages, shared a beer or two with Tony discussing open data, MOOCs, hacking and who knows what else. Met Harry for the first time in person and had a good chat about a little ebook project we find ourselves coming at from different, but complimentary, directions. Had a great insightful chat with Nick about some shared challenges and his idea for an ‘exceptions club’ and randomly met Dan Wilson who was a co-founder of Timetric one of the big third party users of ONS data – that was also very helpful.

I ran out of steam a bit early though (that liquid lunch probably didn’t help!) and heading home to Bristol in time for Dr Who and a much needed Chinese takeaway.

Huge thanks to the team who put it together;