Sunday, September 06, 2009

'Geek And Ye Shall Find': a report on BarCamp Brighton 4

BarCamp? Unconference? What?

Call it going viral, call it protocol migration, call it global memes or whatever you will. Nowadays, it's not just corporations that spread across the planet at dizzying rates. There are also an increasingly large number of ideas, events and happenings that start somewhere and through a combination of 'being a good idea' + 'the existence of the Internet', spread across the world rapidly. This trend is becoming more and more interesting as it develops, both in terms of the emergence of a globalised yet decentralised world culture and with the blurring or even disappearance of barriers between the online and offline worlds.

One example is Pecha Kucha, which I wrote here about the last Brighton event. Another is TEDx, a larger scale and more formalised format of presentation event that blends sharing knowledge with franchising to grow the TED community and the reach of 'ideas worth spreading'. Yet another is BarCamp, the latest Brighton version of which I spent most of this weekend at.

On the main public wiki page for the idea, a BarCamp is described as
an ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment. It is an intense event with discussions, demos and interaction from participants who are the main actors of the event.
Wikipedia describes it as 'an international network of user generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants.' This also works to define an unconference, where participants all contribute to the agenda which is set at the beginning of the day and often changed during the course of the event.

I attended my first unconference in London last year, but never quite managed to get round to blogging about it (find the full public released book for the 'One Media Unconference' here). The first BarCamp was held in Palo Alto, California in 2005 - organised in less than a week, from concept to event, with 200 attendees. Since then, BarCamps have been held in over 350 cities around the world and six continents (anyone up for BarCamp Antarctica?).

BarCamp Brighton is now on its fourth event. While previous ones were held out on campus at the University Of Sussex (where the birth pangs of the modern internet were first unveiled by its midwives, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn), this year's event was switched to the Old Music Library in the centre of town.

Day One

chriskeene1's video tour around the building

The venue was very appropriately Brighton, looking like a squatted art gallery, with dusty floors, chunks of plasterboard missing from walls and ceilings, and crammed with exciting, esoteric or exotic street art and sculptures. Given that this town always tends to make effective use of abandoned space, particularly in times of recession, it was a most suitable place for a geek meetup. It also enhanced the informal nature of the event, rather than putting the happenings into a more sterilised environment.

The Beast tries to escape through the Old Music Library window

Given that from Monday to Friday these days, I deck myself out in a suit to go to work, it was good to don my geekware and slip into the crowd for a while, who were a motley crew of techies, creatives, Brighton geeks, amateurs, professionals and the self-taught, leftovers from the dConstruct conference and visiting BarCampers from out of town.

What is BarCamp Brighton? - a few words from a couple of the organisers

As with most conferences, the common complaint was that there was too much going on of interest to be able to take it all in. There was certainly plenty to take in. Given that it was my first BarCamp, I wanted to get a feel for the thing before diving in and playing a more active role. The first sessions that I sat in on were outside ones, while the sun was still shining. Steve Purkiss hosted a session on developing the building into a more permanent hub for Digital Media in Brighton (Google Group here), while Richard Vahrman took a nostalgia trip through analogue computing and his part in its downfall.

Heading back into the building, I caught a little of a talk from Melinda Seckington, who blogs as missgeeky and was offering up tips and tricks. I picked up a few interesting snippets, such as inviting guest posters being a good way to grow a blog, and the point that a large number of blogs serve particular niches but as readers tend to have a wide range of interests, it's not a bad idea to reflect that in the content provided. There was also a free wine-tasting event going on as part of the Brighton Food and Drink Festival, so I ducked out of the place for a while to join my wife in tasting samples. Sometimes, one is really spoiled for choice in what to do in Brighton!

Lunchtime sandwich breakout

A difference with the London One Media event was that hosts seemed a little more surprised when participants left their talk to wander off into another one. One Media was notable for participants behaving just like they would in online chatrooms, by dropping in and out of conversations, contributing nothing, something or plenty to a discussion. In Brighton, it seemed that there was a bit more of the feeling that it was not so much 'the done thing' to disappear when someone else had got going on their presentation. There must be all manner of other varieties of social behaviour at other BarCamps that reflect the local area more.

The afternoon included a session on Web Typography from digitalblonde, Visualising Home Energy Use with Laurence and a tour of The Skiff, one of several coworking spaces in Brighton and Hove. The first session went through a brief history of type families from the fifteenth century to today and covered general rules on font usage, which was rather handy.

The second one had plenty of useful information on how much energy is used in the home and different ways to monitor it. Items like air conditioning, fridge freezers and plasma screen TVs consume a lot of power, and desktop computers suck up more than laptops. There are, however, items such as smart meters that can be used to monitor one's home energy use directly, meaning that it's a lot easier to see when you're using too much or have left something on that doesn't need to be.

Costing around £50, they can be clamped on to existing mains supplies to monitor the data, which is then fed into a PC and then some sort of visualisation software. This means that surges are easier to spot and users can get to know how much energy they use (rather than just waiting for a utility bill that will likely charge them for using energy that they have to waste). Useful resources to find out more include Google PowerMeter and Current Cost for monitoring, and Pachube or Sensorpedia for visualising.

In The Skiff's basement, with extra large cushions

The Skiff was very near to the main venue, so the tour was a short trot away. Described as 'like BarCamp every day', it is modelled on San Francisco's Citizen Space, one of the many initiatives that bubble out of the US East Coast's prime location for the blending of the tech/creative worlds. Taking the best elements of a coffee shop and of a workplace, these are combined to provide a sociable, productive and affordable space for independent workers to do their thing without having to stay at home stuck in front of a screen all day. They also have a webcam that shows live whether a desk is available or not. People drop by to network, participate in activities like robot building or join in with some of the events the space has been able to host.

Ambling back after the tour, I got down to a bit of networking and mingling, given that the main workshops seemed to be winding down by then. I had a very interesting chat with the organiser of a UK version of BarCamp Africa (and was surprised to later find out that there are several BarCamps all over the continent), before heading upstairs to find out what all the noise was about - discovered myself amidst a geek singalong of Foreigner's 'I Want To Know What Love Is' (see video here).

Pizza frenzy begins

By then, all that remained was to hang out and eat pizza, drink beer and wait for the musical entertainment to start. An intriguing feature at this stage was the way that information was delivered. Pizza, beer and band times got juggled around a little, and given the informality of the event, it wasn't necessary to go around making big announcements about time changes. As all participants were permanently clamped to some sort of mobile web-enabled device, all that was needed was to tweet the information using the '#bcb4' hashtag. That way, anyone could follow a live information stream about the event and contribute to it themselves by tagging their own tweets in the same way. Twitter Search became a powerful tool for real-time information dissemination.

Described by cminion as 'Brighton's geekiest band', an accolade later wistfully refuted to me by drummer toastkid, 100 Robots took the floor as house band when all work-related stuff was over. An electrorock trio reduced to a duo for this performance, they let go in the subterranean basement to the gathered crowd, who dug them very much. The material was fast-paced, it rocked and included songs about subjects like the recent financial meltdown, the election in Iran and a gene therapy cure for AIDS.

'Deep Underground' by 100 Robots, live at BarCamp Brighton 4

With the day clearly done I made my way home, not having the desire to sleep on a dusty floor in an abandoned building when I had a bed to go back to. The next day, I was due to pop my BarCamp cherry and hold my own session. After all, everyone's expected to make some sort of contribution at these things.

Day Two

The agenda for the day

The second day was shorter yet (for me) deeper, as I dared to get a little more hands-on. The first session I ended up in, almost by accident but actually being one of the most fun, was titled 'Using Agile to Build a BarCamp Theme Park' and was hosted by Jez Nicholson. Agile is something that I'd heard of before but didn't really know a great deal about. Essentially, it is a software development methodology (see original Manifesto for founding principles), but seems to be a way of working that is very suited to the connected post-Web world we are all building these days.

Working with physical tools (plasticine, pipe cleaners and string) to meet a client brief rather that virtual ones, it made it easy to follow the operating methodology. The team that I was part of were tasked with producing 'something to do with Google' as part of the 'theme park' and came up with the 'Google Search Bar', as seen below. Although the picture may not convey the entire project that fully, it was fun and an effective exercise in collaborative teamwork to a timescale.

As with the other participants, I got rather caught up in the exercise, to the extent that I almost missed my own session. Titled 'Shall I Give My Stuff Away For Free?...or The Creative Commons Dilemma', I decided that I wasn't going to use my slot to present my expertise in one area or another (my skills are widely but thinly spread), but instead try to crowdsource a solution to a quandry I've set myself (in other words, ask some other people what they would do in a similar situation).

Full slideshow of my pictures from BarCamp Brighton 4

I have almost 2,500 pictures hosted on my Flickr site. I tend to get a good amount of views most days and have occasionally had people ask me to use them in their blogs or websites. However, I'd like it if this resource were put to greater use and get a wider audience, perhaps with the possibility of even covering the costs of a Flickr Pro account or at least driving more traffic back to my other sites. Therefore, I've been debating with myself whether to issue them all under a Creative Commons licence.

'A Shared Culture - Saving the world from failed sharing'

What is Creative Commons? It's a form of licencing that offers an alternative to full copyright and which enables increases sharing and improved collaboration. Essentially, while a content creator retains the copyright to their work, they also allow other people to use, share or remix that work, thus giving a bigger audience for the original piece. It's all very well creating great work, but if no-one knows about it (increasingly more difficult with the vast volumes of material available on the Net) an artist doesn't get anywhere with their work. As Tim O'Reilly said:
Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.
There are six kinds of licence. These are
Attribution, Attribution Share Alike, Attribution No Derivatives, Attribution Non-Commercial, Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (further information about each licence can be viewed here).

The discussion went well, with contributors giving me good advice based on their own experiences of using these licences. I was even thanked at the end for 'one of the more interesting sessions' at BarCamp, which I was pretty pleased with. After giving it much thought and throwing the debate open to the crowd, I decided to go ahead with freeing all my photos. One thing that I still have to decide is which licence to use, but that's an issue for another post!

The remaining sessions that I ended up in - all very enjoyable - were on haiku and other forms of Japanese poetry, fetishism (the emotional value we attach to our possessions rather than sexual preferences - thanks Ellen!) and differences between Western and Eastern styles of animation.

At session end

How was it for you?

General consensus garnered from conversations and the tweetstream seemed to be that it was a very enjoyable event, with a range of great sessions, an amazing venue and a lot of appreciation for the hard work put it by the organisers plus the back up support from the sponsors (Paypal, Yahoo! Developer Network, The Guardian Open Platform, Metranet, Madgex and Vodafone My Web) for enabling it to happen.

It was also fascinating to be a part of a localised version of a global movement, and will be most intriguing to see where this BarCamp thing goes in the future. I'll certainly be signing up for BarCamp Brighton 5. It goes to show that if you're in need of an answer, geek and ye shall find!



Obviously, at such an event it's impossible to see everything. I've put a small handful of some of the content from sessions I missed but which have since gone online below. If you have something that was presented at BarCamp Brighton 4 and would like it included here, please drop me a line through this blog and I'll update the post.

Other presentations

Start Screencasting in 7 Minutes with Jing - Workshop at BarCamp Brighton 4 from IanProCastsCoUk on Vimeo.


A mention here to other attendees that haven't been covered above. Again, if you were at the event and would like your name, Twitter page or blog link included here, drop me a line through this blog and I'll update the post. Likewise, if you are linked to on here and would like the link removed, get in touch. Apologies to anyone missed out - I think everyone appreciated everyone's contributions!

Comments on this post also highly appreciated...:)

Jay Caines-Gooby, Premasagar Rose, Chris Foot, Al James, Jonathan Markwell, Ollie Glass, Marrije Schaake, Leeky, Greg Lloyd, Sevan Janiyan, Victoria Walberg, Tim Dobson, Jamie Matthews, martin88, Ian Ozsvald, Mark Pugh, Jim Purbrick, Rainycat, Tim Nash, Remy Sharp, Pei Chi Lo, Terence Eden, Jack Appleby, Anna Fuller, Dave Phelan, Seb, Matt Pearson, carolynlyn, Dawa Riley, Mike Pountney, Carl Jeffrey...



Profaniti said...

lovely write up - thanks :)

Unknown said...

Wow, what a fantastically comprehensive writeup!

If you'd like to add my talk (Introduction to Android development) to the 'other talks' section, you can find it hosted on Slideshare



Globalism said...

Thanks guys - glad you liked the write up and appreciate you leaving some comments.

tristanr - your talk is now up as well.

Tradesmen said...

Did the moster ever escape?!?!

Globalism said...

As far as I know, he's still struggling to do so - frozen in a moment in time.

idleformat said...

lovely write-up mate.

I'd heard BarCamp mentioned a few times but didn't really know what was involved, though I do now! would have loved to have gone along & I wonder what I could have spoken about. you've got me thinking...

Globalism said...

Glad to have made things a little clearer! Now - what's your future session going to be about (I'm sure there'll be one in Bristol soon enough).