Archive for August 16th, 2006

Science Foo Recap

August 16th, 2006

This weekend I went to Science Foo Camp, also known as “Sci Foo.” This was an extension of the “Friends of O’Reilly” camping events (“Foo Camp”) that the O’Reilly publishing folks have held for the last couple of years.

Foo Camp is an invitation-only event at the O’Reilly facilities in California (and leter expanded elsewhere) where one literally camps out for the weekend (in cubes or by pitching a tent on the lawn or in the apple orchard). O’Reilly makes meeting rooms and meals available, and sets out a large grid showing meeting rooms on one access and time slots on the other. The event starts with an initial gathering where everyone introduces themselves. Tim O’Reilly’s rule is: you get to say your name, an organizational affiliation, and 3 words (literally, 3 words) to describe yourself. After this, the content and events of the weekend are up to the participants to decide. It’s a “conference” created by the participants on the fly. Naturally, a lot of the great stuff also happens outside of any particular session. Foo Camps have been focused in the software and technology space. Not entirely, but that’s been the focus.

Science Foo was different. Its focus was -– no surprise -– science. It was organized by O’Reilly and Nature magazine, and hosted by Google at Google’s Mountain View campus. The idea was to gather interesting people who didn’t necessarily know each other or work in the same field, but were open to cross-fertilization and new ideas. No camping this time, but a bunch of folks in the same hotel generating late night discussions.

As you might imagine, the combination of O’Reilly, Nature and Google assembled a fascinating set of scientists. This included biologists of all sorts, chemists, physicists, earth scientists, clinicians, historians, technologists, science fiction writers and a set of people interested in large data sets. The topics ranged from the physics of light to gene expression to citizen science to emergent evolution to the politicization of science to open science. Here’s what the Saturday schedule ended up looking like.

The O’Reilly folks also invited a few of us involved in open source projects. The idea was to bring some of what we’ve learned in opening software development to the efforts to make science more open and collaborative rather than focused only the fierce secrecy required to protect IP and publish first. It was great fun to go because today’s science is utterly boggling, it’s a joy to find groups of interesting people, and I would like to see some ways to promote more openness rather than intellectual property protection in science.

I noticed a set of things were different right away. First, I was surprised at how many people posted to the wiki before the conference started describing discussions they would like to lead. I had thought that since the format was new to many of the participants it might be slow getting started. But there were probably 50 ideas posted before anyone arrived in Mountain View. And when it came time to pick a slot on the schedule people were not shy either. Later I realized that many of the participants have made their career in writing and presenting their results and that they are very accustomed to making presentations and leading discussions.

Some other things that stood out:

  • Many people were unable to describe themselves in the allotted 3 words. A bunch of people managed to hypenate words into phrases and get them counted as 1 item (“data-visualization techniques” for example), and a bunch more needed complete sentences.
  • The average age was much higher, at least 10 years and maybe 15 years.
  • The number of people who came with presentations was high.
  • The rapid-fire, high interruption, bounce around the room discussion of Foo Camp was much more measured and deliberate here. Not necessarily less effective, just different.
  • The sense of people just starting to get to know each other was much stronger. At Foo Camp a bunch of people know each other already. This was less so at Sci Foo. It was the first one, and the people came from a very broad set of disciplines and much of the weekend was learning enough about other people for a discussion to emerge.

At the beginning most people went to the sessions. As time went on, and especially on Sunday, the open space was more and more filled with people who had come across an interesting idea and had settled down somewhere to keep discussing it. The sense of people creating conversations and connections was palpable on Sunday. It was as if Friday and Saturday set the stage, Saturday night a bunch of folks started to connect and by Sunday people were wildly open to new ideas, new people and new connections.

The closing session was surprisingly lively. Maybe I’m used to Foo Camp where a bunch of people are up most of the night and everyone is a zombie by Sunday afternoon. I don’t recall a closing session at Foo Camp; maybe I’ve just missed them all !!! But the Closing Session at Sci Foo was well-attended, lively, full of ideas and a good gathering in itself. One person wanted “real-time intelligence” on what’s happening in other sessions so he can constantly evaluate if he’s in the right place. (What’s the noise level in other sessions, can we tag people’s cell phone so we know who is in other sessions, etc.) Someone else replied “no thanks, the best part has been wandering into the wrong session. Or finding a session cancelled but talking with whoever showed up about other things.”

We had a few discussions about how the lessons of open source software might be useful in “open science” but this was just a beginning. I’ve got a bunch of ideas about this that I’ll try to get written down and posted shortly. Tim was clear that most of the people at Sci Foo won’t be at the next one (assuming there is a next one) – the goal is to mix people up so they can’t keep inviting the same folks back. But whether or not I’m there, I’d like to see the discussion of bringing (and retaining) openness and collaboration to scientific research bear fruit.

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