OpenTech 2008

It was my pleasure to attend OpenTech 2008 at the weekend (having been at these things since their original guise as the NTK Festival of Inappropriate Technology) and jolly good fun it was too (despite my best attempts to turn up late, flustered and hungover). Far better posts will have been written about this – for starters check out Roo Reynolds‘ excellent summary – and also Phil Wilson. What follows is a splurge of my highlights in sort-of chronological order.

First up, the excellent Wattson from the guys at DIYKyoto. Taking the electric meter out of the basement and into your living room, and by making it tell you how much your electricity costs rather than some intangible kilowatt-hours measurement, it could really be a brilliant gadget in these energy-conscious times. A community site for that conspicuous non-consumption streak in you to share & compare with friends is on its way; additionally, Russell Davies‘ idea of making it a game is truly excellent. It is still a bit too pricey at ?150, but a different pricing structure (pay per year rather than in one lump?), some VC for additonal production & economies of scale, and a hookup with an environmentally-minded partner company could make it cheap enough to take off.

Secondly, Alex of The Yorkshire Ranter delivered a great piece on finding arms dealers with Python and some bits of string (which turned out to be a terrible pun). In a nutshell, he screenscraped data from airports’ public webpages describing flights in and out and then mashed it up with Google Maps to provide a tracking service for arms dealers (suspected) planes. He had some nice angles on the obstacles in his track – “typosquatting” of arms dealers’ companies where they vary the spelling, making it hard to track via simple text searches, and how to deal with the many spellings and phrasings of “Kandahar” (in different encodings) among them. I smiled when he mentioned he used Beautiful Soup – if only to expose my own woeful inadequacies: I use the exact same software, but for getting football league tables.

Thirdly, Adrian Hon of ARG designers Six to Start, sadly relegated to the graveyard slot in the smallest room, gave a great walkthrough Penguin’s We Tell Stories. This has little to do with open source or tech hackery, but holds geek appeal in being a masterfully inventive way of trying to tell stories in a more spatial, interactive and non-linear fashion. I thoroughly recommend exploring all the stories on the site, and keeping your eyes peeled for his next project with the BBC which should be appearing soon.

Finally, the guys at MySociety give me a reason to doubt qutting coding as a career with a demo of some of their latest projects (which I had been aware of but never found the time to explore). What Do They Know? is the latest project, a centralised collaborative effort allowing people to make Freedom of Information requests and then publish the information they have received to share with others (and thus save others’ time as well as exposing them to more eyeballs). Still in beta (of sorts) it looks really interesting and as soon as I can think of a decent FoI request I’ll make one through it…

Some of the presentations from the site are available over at Slideshare. And a postscript – the people from MOO were one of the sponsors and provided lots of free sticker books with nice ORG and NO2ID stickers on them (which now adorn my Asus Eee). As Annie reminded us today, MOO are hosting a summer street party in Exmouth Market (my stomping grounds during the working week, happily enough), at which I’ll be, so come along if you can!

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