Posts Tagged with “conferences”

New Context Conference — Tokyo

October 3rd, 2006

Last week I was in Tokyo for the New Context Conference — the future of the Web, which was hosted by Joi Ito. Here’s a partial translation of the conference program.

There were a number of Japanese speakers, and then a set of folks Joi had arranged to come talk. I was only able to attend the first day, as I spend the second day focused on Mozilla Japan activities. But the English part of the first day was fascinating -– I only hope my contribution was as interesting as that from the other speakers I heard. After the introduction the conference started with a four short summaries.

The first summary was that of Claudio Prado, the Coordinator for Digital Policy for the Brazilian Minister of Culture. Claudio has a vision of the Internet being useful as a matter of culture. He describes the Internet as different from other media because it brings cultural diversity rather than homogeneity. I think of this as similar to talking about the “long tail” where many different ideas can flourish that would be impractical in other settings. But the idea gains flavor and humanity and a new level of excitement when viewed through Claudio’s lens.

In his allotted 10 minutes, Claudio talked about efforts in Brazil to bring the ability to participate in the Internet to people otherwise left out of the “modern” age. In this case “participation” means the ability create and share content, not simply navigate through existing content. The Brazilian government has started a program to provide tools to people and see what happens. Claudio describes this effort as helping bring people directly from the 19th century into the 21st century. In other word, bring the Internet era to people who have still not experienced industrialization.

Later on in the conference someone described this movement from 19th to 21st centuries as a “metaphor.” Claudio was adamant that this is not a metaphor, it is a description of what is actually happening. My time traveling around Asia years back helps me understand exactly what Claudio means. I remember the sense of dislocation at watching Chinese villagers in the Tibetan foothills carry water from the well on two buckets across the shoulders (I don’t have my photos handy, but here’s a good one already online) – and carry those water buckets back to dirt-floored homes with TVs blaring. Now Brazil is trying to bring Internet participation to groups of people similarly not connected to 20th century modern life. As an example Claudio later described ways people have found of sharing music that would otherwise never be published at all, and subsequently even building businesses based on this. It was fascinating.

Next David Isenberg talked about the “stupid network.” His point is that the Internet is an unusual and valuable network precisely because it was built to carry information packets rather than particular information types. He contrasts this to networks like the broadcast (TV, radio) and phone networks, which were built to carry a particular type of information. The separation he describes reminds me of the separation between “logic” and “presentation” that is often useful when dealing with data. David describes how this “stupid network” allows for “innovation at the edges” of the network rather than tied to the type of information for which the network was built. His point is that this allows more people to participate, a greater variety of activities by more people, and an extreme degree of flexibility. David continued with a set of comments about how the Internet can be approached in such a way that protects existing stakeholders -– the existing networks, the telephone companies, the media companies, government processes -– or it can be approached in a way that leaves the network as flexible and open to new ideas as possible. He closed with a plea for the latter, and all in about seven of his allotted ten minutes!

I spoke about the state of open source, about how people no longer wonder if open source can work, if it can produce great software, or if it is reasonable to be using and deploying it.

Then Tantek Celik talked about microformats. Tantek started by demonstrating how easy it is to convert an address found on a webpage into a format where people can simply click to add that address to an address book. No copy and pasting, no hand-parsing of fields –- it’s done through addition of simple markup. My summary of Tantek’s message is the idea that microformats are essentially markup about as simple as HTML, but which allows for richer data types than basic HTML. (The official description of microformats is somewhat more precise 🙂 The idea is appealing. The simplicity of HTML, the ability to view the HTML source for a web page, to cut and paste it, modify and reuse it was a powerful early driver of web participation. All sorts of people who wouldn’t think of themselves as programmers could view HTML source, cut and paste parts of it and create their own web pages. Brendan and I talk often about the importance of keeping participation easy, and so Tantek’s message about microformats resonated.

I don’t know how well all this came through in translation, but it was certainly interesting to me.

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.

Women in open source and the Mozilla project

August 12th, 2005

One of the sessions at the Open Source Convention was a discussion about women in open source — why there are so few, are there hidden barriers, etc. Some research suggests that the percentage of women participants in the open source world is as low as 1 or 2%. The session was very well attended, by both women and men, and the questions went well over the allotted period.

The panel had six participants. Two of us — Allison Randal, president of the Perl Foundation, and I — have visible outward-facing roles in our projects. Someone asked if we thought this made a difference to the number of women programmers in our projects. I had to answer “no” because the Mozilla project does not seem to have a lot of women programmers in the core. There are a number of women in the project who I respect highly, but we’ve found or created roles for ourselves other than programming.

So I wonder why this is. And I wonder if this reflects general difficulties in finding a foothold in the project. Are we missing good contributors because of some approach or style that we’re not even conscious of? Is there something that affects women more than men?

A couple of open source projects have started mailing lists to discuss issues that might affect involvement by women. Perhaps the Mozilla project should as well. Or perhaps a combined discussion covering open source projects in general is more helpful; I think such a list may be in the works. In the meantime, if you’ve thought about getting involved in the Mozilla project but found that something in our approach or attitude or style prevents you from doing so, I would be very interested in hearing your story.

Building Communities and Organizations

August 11th, 2005

While at the Open Source convention I spent a bit of time introducing Joi Ito to a set of Mozilla and non-Mozilla open source people. Joi joined the board of the Mozilla Foundation recently, and OSCON was a great chance to introduce him to as many people as possible. One discussion was Joi, Allison Randal, Zak Greant, Cliff Schmidt and me. Allision, Cliff and Zak described their roles in the open source world, a focus on working towards consensus, on taking the pulse of the community, of keeping it healthy and an approach to problem solving. Zak outdoes us all with his organization, having found ways to track all sorts of non-coding issues in bug-tracking systems. But aside from this, we found a remarkable similarity in what the four of us think about.

For a moment it was odd, each person saying something like “I do a lot of what Allison does” or “My work sounds a lot like Zak’s.” At first it made it seem like there was nothing very special about the work. Then we realized that the O’Reilly gatherings are one of the few places where one could find enough people with this experience to make it seem mundane rather than highly unusual. Then we had a blast. It is actually a relief to find out that other people are doing similar things, finding the same problems, and trying out new things. There is a sense of adventure in having a role that is new enough that we figure it out as we go along. It’s also very helpful to have a few other people out there solving similar problems. It helps me know that I while I’m figuring things out (or “making them up”) I’m at least heading in the same direction as those I respect.

So, for example, what does it take to guide a foundation, as Allison does? Well, it takes a sense of people, and good intuition for what sorts of seemingly simple topics are likely to generate giant tensions if not handled delicately. It takes knowing when to let an issue fade away and when to make sure it is completely resolved. It takes an ability to find a common ground, and enough presence (or trust, or reputation, or *something*) to get people to consider that common ground. It turns out the rest of us either have, or wish we had, the set of skills to do exactly these things. I don’t see these as the main requirements in job descriptions or the main skillset on resumes, but each of us finds them to be fundamental to what we do. This isn’t unique to open source of course, but the use of these skills in an open source setting is pretty specialized.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us set out with this role in mind. Zak started coding (and is still the maintainer for part of that work), Allison started as a programmer (and is still the project manager for the Perl 6 project), and Cliff and I also have rather eclectic paths to our current roles. Maybe we’re self-selected to stepping in, thinking about organization and making things up when the need arises. Maybe none of us cares if others think what we’re doing is a dead-end path. Certainly moving to in 1999 did not look promising as a “career path.” (For those that don’t remember, 1999 and 2000 were the years when everyone proclaimed the Mozilla project a failure.) In any case, I’m interested in the questions of how open source projects self-organize and how they relate to other groups. Increasingly other creative people are thinking about this too. It’s a great time to be part of open source.

Organizational Interfaces

August 8th, 2005

Some time ago I wrote about being the “odd one out” at O’Reilly open source gatherings. Reading this makes me think of the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s obvious what’s changed. Mozilla Firefox has accomplished what no one thought was possible, and is the browser of choice for tens of millions of people worldwide. Mozilla Thunderbird provides an award-winning cross platform email client. I personally am known by a bunch of people in the Open Source world, and have been around longer than many (though certainly not all). The value of non-coding contributions is much more generally acknowledged, and I no longer wonder if people wonder if I’m making a contribution.

What hasn’t changed is a feeling of being on the fringes of the actual content of OSCON. This was a bit surprising, as OSCON now typically has “business” or “other” tracks besides the purely technical. So I was surprised to realize that few of them address the big topics on my mind. (I was however fascinated by the talks that Nat finds that are outside the core of open source — the Howtoons talk, the Origami talk, the BioBricks talk. These are all exciting and I’m grateful that the O’Reilly folks work to find them and introduce us to these new ideas. )

It’s not surprising that the programming part of the program isn’t my focus since I’m not doing any programming. But the open source gatherings now include an array of people who aren’t programmers and are thinking about other aspects of open source. A lot of this relates to open source adoption in the enterprise, a lot to commercial entities building on top of open source. Some relates to open source business models. Some always relates to licensing and IP issues; some addresses community building. This time I realized that none of these discussions address the core of what I’m thinking about. So that lead me to wonder: how would I describe the substantive discussions that would be fo most interest to me?

I’d like a series of discussions on the interface between open source projects and commercial organizations. There are many aspects to this interface. These include:

  • Scope of people paid by the project: Apache small to zero; Mozilla significant
  • Distribution of open source offerings by commercial entities: Positive effects; side effects.
  • Companies paying people to contribute: Work directed by employer; by employee
  • Working with commercial project and product management
  • Generating funds: Necessary to support employees; risk that funds compromise decision-making or otherwise alienate the community
  • Enterprise focused offerings build on / with open source: SpikeSource and SourceLabs
  • Enterprise adoption: what it means from the project point of view
  • Consumer adoption: what it means from the project point of view
  • Inclusion of non-open source elements in a project distribution: always bad, or sometimes justifiable? (Mozilla has shipped the talkback module for many years)
  • Commercial interests and multi-project interaction: OSDL, SpikeSource, SourceLabs, OSI license proliferation efforts
  • Trademark considerations

These strike me as new discussion areas. We’re getting an increasing amount of information from enterprises about what’s involved in adopting open source software, and various compendiums of best practices are being developed. This is important information to understand.

PC Forum 2005

March 23rd, 2005

I’ve spent the last few days in Arizona at PC Forum, a gathering organized by Esther Dyson. This was my first trip to PC Forum. Esther contacted me a while back to say she knew she’d like me to speak on some aspect of the Mozilla project, and we then spent some time thinking about a topic. It was a very interesting process, quite different from my experience with many other conferences. This is not a case where the conference organizer come up with a desired presentation and then found someone to give it. Instead, Esther spent a fair amount time of time talking to me about the Mozilla project. We talked on the phone a few times, we met in person, we talked on the phone some more. Esther took what she learned of the project and of me, and then started thinking about how she might fit this into the event in some interesting fashion. After a while she came back and suggested a discussion with Kim Polese on some topic about how open source works in practice. I said sure. Then came a set of discussions about a bio. Most conferences ask for a prepared bio and print it up. PC Forum does this, but Esther does more. The version of Release 1.0 just before the conference contains extended descriptions of the speakers. I don’t know if Esther personally writes every one, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Esther tracked me down in Beijing for a set of phone calls to finalize the description about me. All of this means that there is a very personal feeling to the gathering — even newcomers like me are known to the conference host.

On the other hand, the content of the discussion was left quite open. Esther was developing an idea of where to start and where to guide things, but at no time did we plan the content. I approached it as a “conversation with Esther” and figured she would guide us into interesting territory. I met up with Kim Polese a few minutes before our talk and she had the same experience.

The conference itself is active. Of course a large set of attendees know each other from work and past conferences. There is the activity of the VCs and the companies looking for funding and /or partnerships. There are a wide range of very creative, accomplished people looking for interesting conversations. This year included a focus on health care, and also a discussion on the meaning of work and education initiated by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. Everything has a very technical bent but not every discussion is entirely technical. The energy level was high.

It’s not new, but it’s still exciting to see the web take its place in all this ferment. The web enables a new set of activities, a new set of ways for people to interact, and of course the communities and businesses built on that. It was also fascinating to note the extent to which the idea of “community” has become mainstream. It seems everyone wants to develop a community around their company or project or effort. This makes sense to me, given the power and effectiveness of the Mozilla community. This focus on communities is not explicitly (or perhaps even consciously) tied to the open source experiences. However, I suspect that the accomplishments of open source communities may be a factor in this general business attitude.

It’s also great to see the extent to which Firefox is seen as playing a role in the current climate of excitement and creativity. Many people stopped to say thanks for Firefox. I want to pass those thanks on to the astonishing community of people who are helping to make our goal of innovation a reality.

Adventures in Beijing

March 2nd, 2005

I’m in Beijing again, after a hiatus of 10 (actually 11 years). I’m here for the Fifth Asia Open Source Software Symposium and for another event which I’ll describe later. The Symposium is quite interesting, it is an update on what some 20 countries in the Asian region are doing to promote the adoption and development of open source software. I came because both the Symposium and the other event coincidentally happened to be scheduled for the same week, which made the trip seem worthwhile despite the costs of being away from the office for a week. I have some Internet access, which is wildly different than Beijing in 1994. But there are still a series of problems that make working from here difficult — the internet cable in my room doesn’t like my computer, so I have to go to the business center and try to work when it is open. For some reason I time out when trying to connect to the IRC servers, even when I can successfully connect with websites. And mail is truly wacky. Sometimes I can receive mail but not send. Sometimes I can send mail but not receive. I think the problem is with my provider, since something like this happened once before. But it’s a hard problem to fix from here.

So, if you’ve tried to contact me and haven’t gotten a response please give me a few days to get all this sorted out.

Being in Beijing has brought back many memories. I was actually in Beijing in the fall of 1994 when I accepted a job offer from Jim Clark to join Netscape. At that time I was astonished to be able to send and receive faxes from my hotel. I had lived in Beijing a few years before when I was an exchange student at Peking University. During that era the idea of sending a fax was beyond comprehension. There were a few foreign law firms downtown that maintained fax machines. But exchange students never saw these! And besides, we were at least an hour bus ride away from downtown. In those days the only way to make an international phone call was to go to a PT&T (Post, Telephone and Telegraph) office, wait your turn, and have an operator place the call. We were very lucky that the dormitory for foreign students had such an office, but it could still take 45 minutes to make a call. So in 1994 sending faxes was a novelty. Today there is a fax machine in my hotel room and my problems relate to imperfect internet access. Quite a change.

The hotel where I’m staying is in a neighborhood where I used to spend a reasonable amount of time. During my student days in Beijing this neighborhood was the transfer point between the two halves of the bus trip required to get from the University to downtown. I can hardly wait for a chance to get outside the hotel and walk around.

“Community Building” surfaces at OSCON

August 9th, 2004

“Community” in the open source world is one of those words that seems obvious at first, but is actually pretty elusive. For those folks who saw r0ml’s talk at OSCON, community doesn’t mean what you think it does. “Building” and “managing” communities are even more elusive concepts. What is it? Who does it? Does it have value? If so, who does it benefit? Is it simply overhead?

I’ve been thinking about community building and management for a while now, and have had periodic and unstructured talks with folks such as Danese Cooper at Sun, Louis Suarez-Potts of OpenOffice, Brian Behlendorf and Ted Leung of Apache, David Axmark of MySQL, Chao Lam of OSAF, and of course staff. Lots of talk, but nothing organized. And to date, there hasn’t been a good way for discussing issues of interest to all of us. We’ve talked about organizing something related to community building, but never gotten to it.

Then this year at OSCON, something surprising happened. Two separate activities related to understanding “community” occurred. First, Zak Grant of MySQL came to talk to me as part of a survey MySQL is conducting about community-building. I’m always glad when I see the MySQL folks get involved in something I care about. To date, they’ve been organized, gracious, diligent and effective in the areas where I see them in action. It was late when Zak and I found a chance to talk so I can’t recall the specific questions, but I do recall an interest in both learning and communicating what other projects have tried, what works and what doesn’t.

Then on Thursday evening there was a Birds of a Feather session on “Managing Community.” It was quite astonishing to see this on the agenda. I was late so didn’t hear exactly how it came to be, but I know that Karim Lakhami, a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan school, was instrumental in getting this set up. Karim’s listing of academic studies relating to open source is a great resource. I think some combination of Chris DeBono, Michael Tiemann and Stefano Mazzocchi may also have been involved in organizing this. There were probably about 25 people for the 2 hour BOF, and we covered a lot of ground.

We started out comparing projects which are driven by individual developers doing what is of interest to them with projects like the Mozilla project where there is an overall roadmap and some degree of project-wide planning and prioritization which affects (or at least informs) what developers work on. The choice of the Mozilla project was not mine; I believe it was Michael Tiemann who suggested it. As a sidenote, I would say that the response to the Mozilla project was very different this year. In the past, we’ve been accepted as important, but not the focus of much real excitement as OSCON. This year was different. Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird are changing the way people think about the Mozilla project, and that change was palpable. Perhaps some of the change may be that we are no longer in the shadow of a corporate sponsor. Stefano may this case clearly when he noted that now he sees some reason to think about fixing the bugs that bother him rather than wait for someone else to do it.

There was a discussion about corporate involvement, and the difference between companies paying employees who work on open source projects as individual contributors (think IBM and Apache) and companies who have corporate teams chartered to work on open source project through the management structure (think Sun and IBM with the Mozilla project). This in turn lead to an eloquent description from Stefano of the Apache view of collaborative development, and how the need for working together trumps hot-shot hackers. The more people I meet at Apache the more I am struck by the degree of focus on work-style, community building and management. Someone, I believe Sam Ruby noted that sometimes an active community does not develop until the original developer steps back, citing Gump and Cocoon as examples.

We also talked about how important a name can be for a project. Sam Ruby noted this, the Jabber folks agreed, and I had to grimace and note how the Mozilla project learned the same thing through our iterative renaming process that finally resulted in Firefox.

One topic we didn’t discuss much is a sort of historical record. I would love to hear people describe the early phases of their projects, who the first people were to get involved, what the early community looked like, how it grow, what made it grow and so on. Maybe next time.

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