August 28, 2006

BarCampEarth: a local report

Author: Bruce Byfield

More than 20 BarCamps were held around the world this weekend as part of BarCampEarth, a celebration of the first anniversary of the first BarCamp. To understand the spirit of the events, and the traditions that have already sprung up around them, I spent last Friday and Saturday at BarCamp Vancouver in Vancouver, Canada. Having literally been there, done that, and got the T-shirt, I can safely say that the quality of the presentations and the chances to make connections are at least as good as at a formal conference that would cost at least 20 or 30 times more to organize or attend.

BarCamp Vancouver was organized chiefly by Vancouver's blogging community, especially the employees of Bryght, Raincity Studios, and well-known local blogger Darren Barefoot. The event was first suggested by Roland Tanglao of Bryght, who helped to organize BarCamp Amsterdam last year. However, most of the organizing was done by Crystal Williams of Raincity Studios, an organizer for DrupalCamp in Seattle earlier this year who is also organizing the upcoming BarCamp Shanghai.

For many of the 120 attendees, BarCamp Vancouver might have seemed an informal affair, with wall wikis -- large sheets of paper -- taped to the wall for graffiti and acronyms and a schedule hastily constructed on Saturday morning as presenters tacked Post-it notes to a grid as they arrived. However, after talking with Williams, a different picture emerged. A sign-up wiki was easy enough to organize, but venues, sponsors, wireless connections, event T-shirts, tables, chairs, beer, and food for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and snacks also had to be organized, as well as staff for set up and clean up.

Origins of BarCamp

BarCamp was organized in response to Foo Camp, an event organized by O'Reilly and Associates to bring technology innovators and potential business associates together. By 2005, Foo Camp had sparked two reactions: an immense interest in a conference where attendees signed up for presentations on the spot and camped over, and a resentment or disappointment among those who were not asked back for a second time.

Both reactions were heavily blogged. Discussing these reactions, Tantek Çelik, Andy Smith, Chris Messina, and Ryan King decided to organize their own version of Foo Camp. The first BarCamp was organized in six days and held at the offices of SocialText, in Palo Alto, California from August 19 to August 21. Expecting about 20 attendees, the organizers were surprised when more than 300 showed up, and many of them expressed a strong desire to repeat the experience.

A few weeks later, when the O'Reilly European Open Source Convention in Amsterdam lacked the space to host many events, BarCamp Amsterdam was hastily organized. Since then, the idea has spread, with more than 40 BarCamps held in the last year, and at least a dozen more due in the next month. Other communities have also seized on the idea, organizing events with such names as WineCamp, GovCamp, CaseCamp (for marketers), and Mash Pit, which describes itself as a "co-op hackathon."

"We had no idea that this kind of thing would take off," Messina says. "But what I think that it indicates that there is a latent desire for people working in technology to meet up face-to-face."

Messina attributes the success of BarCamp to the rise of the social networking tools used to organize them, such as wikis. Although at first these tools might seem like another indication of the lonely, detached geek lifestyle, Messina says, "Our native format is face to face. These tools, when used properly, can act as serendipity to bring people together."

As Tim O'Reilly -- who at first seemed cool to the idea of BarCamp, but has since warmed to it -- warns, BarCamps have had some problem scaling. In most communities, Messina notes, few public spaces exist for events like BarCamp. In fact, finding a venue has been a major problem for many BarCamps. He suggests that the solution may be more specialized events.

According to Messina, BarCamps have helped to set up local tech communities, as well as a few companies such as Flock. "We're setting up a world-wide collective," Messina says. "I'm really excited and proud of our community, and what it's managed to build." He describes BarCampEarth as "BarCamp's answer to Burning Man."

The difficulties of organizing, Williams explains, are alleviated by the tradition that has arisen at some BarCamps of publishing their budgets and organizational lists, as well as a post-mortem. "A lot of the planning is just copy and paste," she says, "And there's a growing body of expertise we could build on."

The BarCamp schedule - click to view

Even so, many on-the-scene details need to be looked after. The fact that all these things were organized on a budget of only $4,100 Canadian provided by sponsors' and participants' donations and managed -- from an attendee's perspective, at least -- to run smoothly and without any disasters is a credit to the enthusiasm and efficiency of the organizers.

Friday Night

Friday night was reserved for a barbecue at Bryght's new offices in Gastown, a tourist shopping area on the edge of skid row that is rapidly being gentrified. Met at the registration desk by Roland Tanglao and a woman with a baby in a sling, I snatched up a T-shirt, and began circulating in the quickly growing crowd. The majority, I soon discovered, were bloggers and graphic designers, but about 20% of the attendees were members of the free and open source communities. Most participants were in their twenties or thirties, with a smattering of older people. A majority were running Mac OS X on their machines, although I did notice a couple of Ubuntu desktops as I peered over the shoulders of those who were busy blogging or checking their emails.

The only official event on Friday was the traditional three word introductions -- a custom more honored in the breach than the observance, it turned out. I pleaded middle age and wimped out early to go home to my own bed, but I later heard that a midnight photo-walk past the downtown night clubs organized by Kris Krug attracted about a dozen people, and that about seven or eight took up the BarCamp tradition of sleeping overnight in the newly opened Workspace offices about half a block away. There was even rumor of a tent being raised, although it was gone by the time I arrived on Saturday morning.


Saturday

On Saturday, the pace picked up. Following an 8:30 a.m. breakfast of bagels, muffins and fresh fruit washed down by scalding hot coffee, participants gathered around the event grid for last minute adjustments of the schedule. By 10 a.m., presentations were underway.

Like any conference, BarCamp Vancouver offered far more presentations than one person could hope to attend. I counted more than 50 scheduled presentations. Topics that I missed for one reason or another included Ruby on Rails, yoga for geeks, Python on OS X, Source Code Forensics and "Hacking the MotherCorp", a feedback session conducted by Tod Maffin of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about how social technologies might be incorporated into traditional media.

The events that I did manage to attend include:

Yoga for Geeks - click to view

  • "Open Source Business" by Robert Scales, the president and CEO of Raincity Studios. Scales explained his conviction that an open source business model was about more than working with technologies like Drupal and Ruby. Instead, Scales has tried to build his business as a cooperative, offering generous benefits and bonuses and encouraging employees to attend conferences. In addition, he has tried to build reciprocal relations with companies in the same line of business so that they can recommend each other when one is unavailable to work with a potential customer. Last year, he even went to the extent of making the company's financial position public, even though Raincity is not publicly traded. While he could not detail individual employees' salaries or the size of contracts due to Canada's privacy laws, he did give overall figures for both. "I'm really open," he says, sporting a Mohawk and all black clothes, and jokingly adding, "I smoke a lot of dope." However, it seemed obvious that, for all the humor, for Scales, his business model was not so much a buzz word as a way of life.

  • Ryan Cousineau discussed "Sturgeon's Revelation" -- a reference to science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon's claim that "90% of everything is crap." Cousineau was talking specifically about podcasting, which he generally found too long and lacking in transcripts that would make them useful. Surrounded by bloggers and podcasters, he soon attracted a lively discussion in which people debated whether his remarks showed too strong a bias towards text and whether the excesses of those using the new media were the inevitable result of people learning their strengths and weaknesses -- comparable to desktop publishing in the 1980s or slide presentations in the 1990s.

  • Kate Milberry's "Geeks and Global Justice" was a description of her doctoral work in the department of communications at Simon Fraser University. Milberry explained how the global justice movement (a.k.a. the anti-globalization movement) has been assisted by the Internet and, more recently by social technologies, and has lead to the creation of effective alternative media. She saw the movement's efforts as paralleling those of the Free Software Foundation, and possibly being reinforced by them.

  • Lucian Savluc, a recent immigrant to Canada from Romania, talked about his efforts to organize eLiberatica, an international conference set for spring 2007 by the Romanian Open Source and Free Software Initiative. Savluc explained how, since the fall of communism, Romania has attracted the attention of the major software corporations. Besides sharing the usual free software objections to proprietary software, Savluc is concerned about local businesses' ability to compete against multi-nationals, and about what might happen when Romania ceases to become a source of cheap labor. He is looking for speakers for the conference, and plans to announce the date for the conference as soon as possible.

  • Michael Stewart, an employee of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, explained the current state of Identity 2.0, the efforts to establish standards for technologies to control personal identity on the Internet. According to Stewart, the three major efforts to produce these standards are the corporation-centered Liberty Alliance, Open ID, and Sxip Identity, one of the sponsors of BarCamp Vancouver, but "everything is converging on Open ID" in a sort of reluctant compromise. Progress is slow, he said, largely because of the difficulties of establishing trust on the Internet -- in other words, of establishing that people really are who they say they are.

With eight hours of sessions, with up to six tracks at any one time, even these are only a small sampling of the half hour sessions. By early afternoon, I was suffering from serious mental overload, like many of the attendees, and began to skip sessions I had planned to attend in order to pursue individual conversations. By the end of the day, many participants were choosing to hear the sessions in the lounge, which was the coolest spot in the venue and had the most comfortable chairs.

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I was disappointed that BarCamp Vancouver did not have any closing ceremony -- perhaps, I thought, a feedback session might have been in the spirit of things. As a result, I cannot exactly say when BarCamp Vancouver ended. All I know is that, at one point, sessions were underway and I was talking with an old acquaintance in the hall. The next time I looked up, the sessions were finished, the Workspace offices were clear of all except a few solitary bloggers, and the cleanup efforts of the organizers signaled that BarCamp Vancouver was over.

Keeping up the tradition

Friday night at BarCamp Vancouver was pleasant enough, but could have been any networking event for people in high-tech. However, I hadn't been at Saturday's presentations very long before I concluded that the experience was at least as intellectually stimulating as LinuxWorld or the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, events I had enjoyed hugely in the past.

Part of the reason for this stimulation was that presentations were mostly limited to half an hour. Any expert talking about his or her specialty can be listened to for that time. It's enough time to satisfy curiosity, and not enough time to leave me with the choice of being bored or being rude by leaving while someone is talking.

BarCamp session in progress - click to view

Another reason is that Vancouver is more connected to worldwide technological communities than many people imagine. Although the region is a tertiary area for high-tech compared to Silicon Valley or Seattle, it has no shortage of people working under the radar. For instance, Alexandra Samuel, one of the local bloggers who presented at BarCamp Vancouver, is widely recognized as an expert on tagging, while Zak Greant works for the Mozilla Corporation and is a committee member working on the drafts for the third version of the GNU General Public License. Many others, while perhaps not in the mainstream of events, are knowledgeable and active in their selected communities.

Really, as Messina notes, "The presentations are really an excuse for the hallway conversations." He was referring specifically to BarCamps, but the remark is true for any conference. I came away from BarCamp Vancouver with as many sites to check out, references to pass along, and potential story leads as I have from any single day of much larger conferences. Moreover, since sessions usually averaged six to 12 people, the discussions often started before we could reach the hallways.

That's not to say that BarCamp Vancouver was perfect. As with any new phenomenon, those involved sometimes have an air of self-congratulation that occasionally grates. All the same, despite this small annoyance, I was happy to participate, and plan to do so again.

Meanwhile, one of the traditions of BarCamp is that participants blog about the event. Since a journalist is only a blogger turned pro, I'm keeping the tradition by writing this article.

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