Openeverything-NYC April 18th

I spent all of 18th in the openeverything conference at the UNICEF headquarters. This was the first barcamp style meeting I’ve ever been to in my life, so I thought I might as well jot down some notes.

For those of you who don’t know about what barcamp is, it’s like an emergent conference. You get bunch of people together in a building, and everyone who wants to talk about something just post their topic card (or whatever the equivalent you are using) on the main board. When the time comes you either present something or have a discussion on that topic with people who were interested enough to show up at your session. It sounds a little chaotic, and it really is sometimes, but on the whole the system works very nicely. Even the people who aren’t as talkative as others get to talk in such settings, and there is no barrier dividing the audience with the speaker so you can actually get work done with people who share the same interests as you without sitting there waiting for some guy/gal to finish talking. If you wanted to talk or listen to something but there’s no one talking about it you can always walk up to the schedule board and write up your topic, and voila, you have people showing up trying to figure out what to do with your chosen topic (I actually tried it and it worked, surprisingly enough).

As far as traditional barcamps go this wasn’t really the most ideal of the camps, since of the 220 or 250 people who said they were going to show up only about half (maybe even less) arrived. Even so, the diversity of interests and objectives were electrifying to me to say the least. Being hosted by the UNICEF most of the topics revolved around programming or infrastructure projects that can benefit the causes of UN, like the rapid SMS which is a computer based SMS system that interface with cell-phones to create different kind of low-cost wide area logistic coverage. The system is completely open-source and scalable, and it’s been used in the field for various UN related activities like education and keeping logistic tracts of 65 million insect nets that were set to be distributed across some parts of Africa. Other interesting topics included a brief discussion on the nature of AI (though none of the people in that particular session seemed to have a very good idea of artificial intelligence), cheap open-source aerospace programs, and computerized education systems/web 2.0 services that might be used to keep track of education and qualification of individual members in form of a flow chart. Using such a system a kid might be able to copy and follow the skill/education set of, say, an astronaut if he/she’s interested in pursuing such a future. I do realize that while education goes above and beyond simple skill set qualifications the idea itself is sound, and I would love to see it implemented in a real web system someday.

I was hoping for some people to do a tract on diybio/open-source biology and open science in general, but for some reason no one really set up a topic that relates to those interests. So in true spirit of a barcamp I decided to set up a topic myself, which was a little overwhelming at first, this being the first barcamp-style con I’ve ever been to. It didn’t help that I’m usually not the one to speak in public venues. It was something of an adventure, and I decided to take the plunge. I was helped by some of the onlookers who pointed out the processes of barcamp that makes it work as a sort of emergent conference with emphasis on ‘burst activity’ and getting stuff done.

Well to be frank, the talk I gave was a mess. It wasn’t prepared and I was really wiped with other talks by the time I got to my session. Having people who knew even less than me in regards to biology didn’t really help either, since I was constantly double checking my facts so that I wouldn’t give any twisted impression of diybio to people who are new to the idea. I more or less wandered around the topic of diybio and synthetic biology, and though I did stress that synthetic biology is not diybio, I’m not too sure if other people got that message clearly enough. It’s my fear that a lot of people who showed up at my session went away with inflated and unfounded hope on the current state of diybio and synthetic biology… I did learn a lot from the experience though. Maybe as I get more experienced with this stuff someday I can give a compelling talk on diybio that would lead people into participating in this very exciting intellectual movement.

I did receive a lot of interesting input from various people regarding the state of licensing and what it really means to creative open-source content (it was ‘openeverything’ conference after all. Lot of license-related people). I always thought I knew a thing or two regarding the basic ideas of CC license and GNU/open-source license terms (which btw, Richard Stallman insists is separate from each other). It turns out that I didn’t know squat. Penetrating the thin veil of ignorance: that’s what I call an education!

I should have a post on diybio-nyc‘s recent GFP E.Coli session sometime this week. Stay tuned!

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