As a two-time FooCamper and part of the blogging conferenceratti, my expectations of BarCamp Sheffield were pretty modest, however I was pleased to see that startup culture and the 2.0 generation is thriving here in Yorkshire too. It's not London or San Francisco, but with a turnout of 80+ people and eighteen half-hour sessions, split into two tracks, on the first day, I couldn't help but be impressed :)
Unlike many other unconferences, most of the attendees seemed to be in their early twenties and largely designers and developers, though there were a smattering of entrepreneurs amongst them. Sadly, in common with other tech events, women were sorely underrepresented...I counted three.
So...my highlights from Day One...
- I arrived in the middle of Dave Grandinetti's opening session on Wireless Grids (thanks to Mohsin's GPS dampening field...). WGC's an interesting company with immense potential, but wireless grids are a difficult story to tell (it took me years to grok it!)..even more so without a demo! However, I think the audience were impressed that an American made the effort to come to Sheffield :)
- Tom Scott's session The Most Fun You Can Have With Index Cards was a great icebreaker and the most fun session of the day. The group began with the choice of either developing a game on porn stars or (at my suggestion) the War On Terror. We split into small groups to define, people, weapons, powers and places; assign some attributes categories to each and determine some rules. With characters as varied as Borat, Jesus, Dubya and weapons such as Deathstars and Zombie Viruses, Tom managed to fashion a game where players with weapons that could kill a certain number of people in a place allowed them to occupy that place and possess its WMDs - the owner of the most WMDs, wins! Tom's an infectious guy...I'm gonna introduce him to Ben at Leeds Met as well as the work of Jane McGonigal...he'd be a great ARG designer.
- Karol Przybyszewski's walked the audience through the creation of a Google Ramblers Mashup using the GMaps API to embed custom maps with Pennine walking routes and add data from Weather.com. Nothing novel, but simply useful to learn how basic mashups are put together. I grabbed Karol after his session and we talked about how the data in GPSs needed to be more open to help amateur users make better use of their geodata. How about a 'Designed for Google Maps' certification on compatible GPSs? Actually, I should introduce Karol to Rich's work :)
- I tried to follow some of the more technical sessions on Ruby coding and Elastic Architectures, but they were really geared towards experienced developers...by all accounts Adam Bardsley's half-hour race against the clock to create a voting application for Sundays web app contest was one of the day's best sessions.
- Lucy Buykx's Nervous or Naive? Come and see my Puppies sought to encourage the audience to think more considerately about the nature of privacy in the 2.0 era. Lucy's analysis of startups motivations and trying to load responsibility onto application developers to promote responsible use of private data projected a bleak and quite narrow picture of privacy. I found this position a little naive, indeed many of the audience had very polarised views, ranging from absolute transparency and the end of privacy, to living completely off-the-grid. I tried to reframe the discussion with some comments on the emerging principles of Open Data and Personal Rights Management...but there was more emotion than reason in the session! However, someone did float the worrying possibility of insurance companies examining how 'public' people are with status messages; if the minutiae of their lives - taking holidays, buying expensive items - are broadcast publicly, could they be deemed irresponsible by insurers and have claims rejected?
- Like Karol's session, Dominic Hodgson's Simple Steps For Wordpress SEO, was a simple, practical discussion of the various tweaks that bloggers can make to their posts - tagging, titling, comments, slugs, descriptive URLs - that improve search engine rankings. Dom's a really engaging guy, so I was a little embarrassed when he got nervous after learning I wrote for TechCrunch UK :( His session was immensely useful...I'll try dig out a link to his presentation.
- Serendipitously, right after Dom's session, I met Gang Lu, Netvibes' Business Development Director for Asia - based right here in Sheffield! Gang and I talked about the missed opportunity for Orange to partner with Netvibes last Summer in favour of FT's Bubbletop (Freddy Mini and I discussed a Netvibes-powered Orange portal) we also speculated about an Urdu release of Netvibes...woot!
- We left early (to try get our busted Macbooks repaired at the Meadowhall Apple Store!), so I missed Amit' Kotharis talk on Quotations Book, however we did grab a few minutes to talk about his plans for the company. Amit's tackling some seriously complex computational problems, whilst keeping the user experience as light and simple as possible...it's a beautifully crafted app :)
All in all Barcamp Sheffield was fun, well organised and certainly worth the time. However, it seems that everyone's talking about the same subjects - social networking, RoR, blogging, WordPress, OpenID etc - so intellectually, no one moved the needle...and it was very web-centric - it'd be interesting to get people from other digital, creative, political and commercial fields involved...
if we go ahead with BarCamp Leeds, I'd like to introduce a little local flavour. In my drive through Sheffield, I noticed the same kind of widespread civic regeneration apparent in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool - could this make for a theme unique to the North of England? How can digital tech help with the regeneration of community, civics and economy?