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April 07, 2009

OKCon 2009

While I probably do spend longer than is healthy in front of a PC on a typical weekend, I have to admit to a fairly high level of resistance to attending "work-related" events at weekends, especially if travel is involved. My Saturdays are for friends, footy, films, & music, possibly accompanied by beer, ideally in some combination.

But (in the absence of any proper football) I temporarily suspended the SafFFFM rule the weekend before last and attended the Open Knowledge Conference, held at UCL. The programme was a mix of themed presentation sessions and an "Open Spaces" session based on contributions from attendees.

The morning session featured three presentations from people working in the development/aid sector. Mark Charmer talked about AKVO, and its mission to the facilitate connections between funders and projects in the area of water and sanitation, and to streamline reporting by projects (through support for submissions of updates by SMS). Vinay Gupta described the use of wiki technology to build Appropedia, a collection of articles on "appropriate technology" and related aid/development issues, including project histories and detailed "how-to"-style information. The third session was a collaboration between Karin Christiansen, on the Publish What You Fund campaign to promote greater access to information about aid, and Simon Parrish on the work of Aidinfo to develop standards for the sharing of such information.

One recurring theme in these presentations was that of valuable information - from records of practical project experience "on the ground" to records of funding by global agencies - being "locked away" from, or at least only partially accessible to, the parties who would most benefit from it. The other fascinating (to me, at least) element was the emphasis on the growing ubiquity of mobile technology: while I'm accustomed to this in the UK, I was still quite taken aback by the claim (I think, by Mark) that in the near future there will be large sections of the world's population who have access to a mobile phone, but not to a toilet.

The main part of the day was dedicated to the "Open Spaces" session of short presentations. Initially, IIRC, these had been programmed as two parallel sessions in which the speakers were allocated 10 minutes each. On the day, the decision was taken to merge them into a single session with (nearly 20, I think?) speakers delivering very short "lightning" talks. We were offered the opportunity to vote on this, I hasten to add, and at the time avoiding missing out on contributions had seemed like a Good Idea, if time permitted. But with hindsight, I'm not sure it was the right choice: it led to a situation in which speakers had to deliver their content in less time than they had anticipated (and some adjusted better than others), there was little time for discussion, and the pace and diversity of the contributions, some slightly technical, but mostly focusing more on social/cultural aspects, did make it rather difficult for me to identify common threads.

The next slot was dedicated to the relationship between Open Data and Linked Data and the Semantic Web, with short, largely non-technical, presentations by Tom Scott of the BBC, Jeni Tennison, and Leigh Dodds of Talis. Maybe it was just because I was familiar with the topic, but it felt to me that this part of the day worked well, and the cohesive theme enabled speakers to build on each other's contributions.

I thought Tom's presentation of the BBC's work on linked data was one of the best I've seen on that topic: he managed to cover a range of technical topics in very accessible terms, all in fifteen minutes. (I see Tom has posted his slides and notes on his weblog.) Jeni described her work with RDFa on the London Gazette. Leigh pursued an aquatic metaphor for RDF - triple as recombinant molecule - and semantic web applications, and also announced the launch of a Talis data hosting scheme which they are calling the Talis Connected Commons, under which public domain datasets of up to 50 million triples can be hosted for free on the Talis Platform. (I noticed this also got an enthusiastic write-up on Read Write Web).

Although I quite enjoyed the linked data talks, it's probably true to say that - Leigh's announcement aside - they didn't really introduce me to anything I didn't know already - but there again, I probably wasn't the primary target audience.

The day ended with a presentation by David Bollier, author of Viral Spiral, on the "sharing economy". Unfortunately, things were over-running slightly at that point, and I only caught the first few minutes before I had to leave for my train home - which was a pity as I think that session probably did consolidate some of the issues related to business models which had been touched on in some of the short talks.

Overall, I suppose I came away feeling the event might have benefited from a slightly tighter focus, maybe building around the content of the two themed sessions. Having said that, I recognise that the call for contributions had been explicitly very "open", and the event did attract a very mixed audience, many probably with quite different expectations from my own! :-)


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Thank you, I'm glad you liked the talk.

I agree with your comments about the day in general - and also thought it was a shame the two halves weren't focused around a common goal because I think that some of the LOD ideas could have helped the social development folks.

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