Roger Whittaker

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Open Tech 2009

Friday 10th July 2009

Write-up of last Saturday's Open Tech.

This year's Open Tech event was held at the University of London Union on 4th July 2009. More than 500 people attended this extraordinary one-day conference, which was characterised by a strong feeling of engagement and "buzz" throughout the day.

Organised by UKUUG, and with sponsorship from 4iP, and input from a range of groups and individuals, this was a day mainly concerned with the social, political and cultural uses and effects of internet technologies, and the legal and other threats to on-line freedom.

The conference was divided into three tracks throughout the day (four at some points), and the rooms in use were full to overflowing most of the time.

During the two morning sessions I acted as a session chair in one of the smaller rooms, where there were three talks per hour. During these sessions I was particularly impressed by Charles Armstrong's talk on "One Click Orgs" in which he presented his open source web-based system for creating an organisation as a legal entity, and running its membership and voting system on-line.

Paul Downey gave a thought-provoking talk with the title "Standards are to Peace as Standardisation is to War", and Frances Davey spoke on the problems caused by current law as it applies to the Internet. Also among the morning sessions that I witnessed was a session by Richard Elen on setting up a virtual drama group and producing plays across the Internet using such technologies as Skype and Second Life, and a session by Hamish Cambell of about this open video project which uses a mixture of peer-caching and direct download for delivery. Steve Goodwin presented an interesting and amusing session on "digital archaeology of the microcomputer", describing some of the work that he has done on trying to preserve some of the legacy of the earliest home computer systems.

The first afternoon session in the main hall was one that I heard several people refer to as the "Bill and Ben show": a very popular and entertaining session by Bill Thompson and Ben Goldacre. Bill Thompson's title was "10 cultures" a nice conflation of CP Snow's "two cultures" and the well known slogan "there are 10 kinds of people in the world -- those who understand binary and those who don't". His talk was a strong plea for a society with a better understanding and awareness of how digital technologies are created and how they work. He believed that a failure to achieve this was leading to a situation in which seriously bad decisions were being made politically and in which the those with the requisite knowledge were able to exploit those without it. He made a particular mention of the decisions being made about ID cards by people without the means to understand the technological issues that they raise. He also strongly attacked the state of the so-called ICT curriculum in schools, and called for a return to a form of computer studies that actually encourages an understanding of how things work.

Ben Goldacre is best known for his "Bad Science" column in the Guardian and the associated blog. He gave some examples of recent "science" reports that have appeared across the UK press, despite having had virtually no factual content. He explained some of the processes whereby such stories get into the press, the most common one being press releases by companies with some "quirky" or startling story included, the main purpose being to gain publicity for the company. One of the most shocking cases he mentioned was the way in which the claims of a company with a purported cure for dyslexia had been uncritically presented as fact by large trusted media organisations including the BBC. He applauded the work done by various bloggers in exposing and collating bogus scientific claims, and particularly mentioned the area of "alternative health practitioners", where some false scientific claims made by such people have been removed following their exposure. However, in the same context he mentioned the recent libel case involving Simon Singh which shows that there is a threat to the ability to speak freely about scientific matters. He hoped that some kind of "semantic web" type aggregation of information from multiple sources could be used to help counter bad science by collecting detailed information and evidence in one place. In the question and answer sessions after both these talks, there was some lively discussion from the floor.

For the second session of the afternoon, I attended the session by Rob McKinnon and Richard Pope entitled "Web of Power". They looked at some of the existing tools developed by MySociety and others that track and collate information about the activities of MPs and political parties. Looking at a diagram showing overlapping circles of power taken from Anthony Sampson's book "Who runs this place", the speakers suggested some other areas where web based tools might provide similar useful scrutiny. In some cases there are problems with this: for example, the Government's published list of "approved suppliers" does not include company registration numbers, while trying to cross-reference Company House data is handicapped by the £ 1 fee for getting director information. There was considerable discussion about the ways in which automatically collating information about MPs, ministers, lobbyists and company directors could be useful in exposing corruption and investigating the "web of power".

For the penultimate slot I went back to the main hall where there were three talks, on "Ephemerality" by Gavin Bell, who discussed the extent to which web information is persistent, and whether deliberate "forgetting" can sometimes be useful. He also expanded on the uses of time sensitive display of dated information. Gary Gale then gave a talk on "Location, Privacy and opting out". With the proliferation of location-based services, he explained how the need for ways to protect privacy is becoming more important. In particular he stressed the need for a clearer and more comprehensible policy on opt-outs and the right to "hide" yourself from such services. Gavin Starks of AMEE then spoke on the subject of "Energy Identity". AMEE is an open platform which aims to measure the energy consumption and carbon footprint of every possible item or activity. By looking at and aggregating all data about an individual or organisation's purchases, materials, buildings, travel, fuel and water usage, it can build up a unique "energy identity" or profile.

For the final session of the day I attended the joint session from NO2ID and the Open Rights Group. This featured a spoof appearance by a senior civil servant "Sir Bonar Neville Kingdom", defending the Government's plans for data interception. There then followed two very serious presentations by Jim Killick of ORG and Guy Herbert of NO2ID. Jim Killick described the Government's "Intercept Modernisation Plan" and its aim of monitoring all communications using deep packet inspection carried out by "black box" devices on every ISP's network. Guy Herbert spoke on the related theme of the Government's aim of "mastering the internet" and urged the audience to comment on the Government's consultation document "Protecting the Public in a changing Communications Environment" and on the current review of the RIPA act. I for one was sufficiently impressed and worried by these presentations that I joined ORG on the spot before leaving the room.

Overall, this was an exceptional event, for which much credit must go to Sam Smith for his part in its organisation. The standard of all the talks was very high, and the formal and informal discussions in, after and between them were interesting and thought provoking.