Open Tech 2008

Open Tech was fun. It was like a more structured version of BarCamp: the schedule was planned in advance and there was a nominal entrance fee of £5 but apart from that, it was pretty much OpenCamp. Most of the talks were twenty minutes long, grouped into hour-long thematically linked trilogies.

Things kicked off with a three way attack by Kim Plowright, Simon Wardley and Matt Webb. I particularly enjoyed Matt’s stroll down the memory lane of the birth of cybernetics. Alas, the fact that I stayed to enjoy this history lesson meant that I missed David Hayes’s introduction to Edenbee. But I did stick around for the next set of environment-related talks including a demo of the Wattson from DIY Kyoto and the always-excellent Gavin Starks of AMEE fame.

After a pub lunch spent being entertained by Ewan Spence’s thoroughly researched plan for a muppet remake of Star Wars, I made it back in time for a well-connected burst of talks from Simon, Gavin and Paul. Simon pimped OpenID. Gavin delivered a healthy dose of perspective from the h’internet. Paul ranted about the technologies depicted in his wonderful illustration entitled The Web is Agreement.

I made sure to catch the state of the nation address from Open Street Map. It was, as expected, inspiring. It’s quite amazing how far the project has come since the last Open Tech in 2005. Hearing about the wealth of data available gave me the kick up the arse to update the dConstruct location page to use Open Street Map tiles. It turned out to be a simple process involving the addition of just a few more lines of JavaScript.

My talk at Open Tech was a reprise of my XTech presentation, Creating Portable Social Networks With Microformats although the title on the schedule was Publishing With Microformats. I figured that the Open Tech audience would be fairly advanced so I decided against my original plan of doing an introductory level talk. The social network portability angle also tied in with quite a few other talks on the day.

I shared my slot with Jeni Tennison who gave a hands-on look at RDFa at the London Gazette. The two talks complemented each other well… just like microformats and RDFa. As Jeni said, microformats are great for doing the easy stuff—the low-hanging fruit—and deliberately avoid more complex data structures: they hit 80% of the use cases with 20% of the effort. RDFa, on the other hand, can handle greater complexity but with a higher learning curve. RDFa covers the other 20% of use cases but with 80% effort. Jeni’s case study was the perfect example. Whereas as I had been showing the simple patterns of user profiles and relationships on social networks (easily encoded with and ), she was dealing with a very specific data set that required its own ontology.

I was chatting with Dan at the start of Open Tech about this relationship. We’re both pretty fed up with the technologies being set up as somehow being rivals. Personally, I’m very happy that RDFa covers the kind of data structures that microformats doesn’t touch. When someone comes to the microformats community with an idea for a complex data format, it’s handy to have another technology to point them to. If you’re dealing with simple, common structures that have aggregate benefit like contact details, events and reviews, microformats are the perfect fit. But if you’re dealing with more complex structures—and I’m thinking here about museum collections, libraries and laboratories—chances are that some flavour of is going to be more suitable.

Jeni and I briefly discussed whether we should set up our talks as a kind of mock battle. But that kind of rivalry, even when it’s done in a jokey fashion, is unnecessary and frankly, more than a little bit dispiriting. It’s more constructive to talk about real-world use cases. On that basis, I think our Open Tech presentations hit the right note.

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