April 17, 2008

Open Web Vancouver shows how to run a big little conference

Author: Bruce Byfield

Building on the success of last year's Vancouver PHP Conference, the Vancouver PHP Users Association on April 14-15 drew more than 350 to the Vancouver Trade and Convention Center to learn about the trends in free and open source software on the Web. With speakers from major corporations such as Creative Commons, Facebook, Google, the Mozilla Foundation, and Sun Microsystems, and a healthy dose of the self-organization popularized by
Bar Camp, the conference was in many ways a template for how a local conference can manage to offer informative and current information despite a relatively small size.

The first day of the conference started at the more or less civilized hour of 9:45 a.m. with the Mozilla Foundation's Zak Greant's keynote "The Age of Literate Machines" -- or, as he joked later in reference to all the historical material on his slides, "Everything I Needed to Know About Open Source, I Learned From Playing Civilization." Greant's thesis is that free software and open standards are the the latest in a line of technological innovations that ranges back through TV and radio to the printing press, vernacular translations of the Bible, and Hammurabi's Code, and that have gradually extended social freedoms over the millennia. The current question, he believes, is not whether the Internet is going to be regulated so much as whether it will be regulated justly. He raised the idea of what he called "justice algorithms" for machines, ending by posing the question of whether, once machines become self-aware, we would want them to be governed by proprietary rather than free software. The audience was initially bemused, but people were talking about the novelty of the presentation all day.

After a brief break, Tim Bray, best known as one of the original architects of XML, gave his thoughts on the current state of Web development. While deploring the term "Web 2.0" as a marketing term, Bray summarized current trends as efforts to build a "culture of contribution," showing in several diagrams how the barriers to becoming involved have been lowered by the latest generation of Web applications. He went on to talk about current trends in the popularity of programming languages, noting that while PHP use seemed to be holding steady, the use of Python and Ruby were rising. Bray was particularly interested in Ruby, saying that "Ruby has really had an impact on the way I think about coding." He urged developers to "balance hubris and humility," believing both that they had something to contribute and that they needed to learn how to listen and take advantage of the emerging possibilities for collaboration. From what he told me later, the talk was an example of the sort of observation that he does as director of Web technologies at Sun.

Other talks over the next day and a half were a balance of high-level strategic observations and up-close examinations of specific issues in coding. At the high level, Laura Thomson, senior developer at the Mozilla Corporation, spoke about "Writing Beautiful Code," by which she meant code that was clean, robust, secure, scalable, and performant -- and just what she meant by these terms. Other high-level talks included Kate Milberry's discussion of "From Free Software to Open Knowledge: Open Source as a Method for Progressive Social Change" and Darren Barefoot's "1100 Stacies," which discusses a variety of tools and services on the Web that people can use to live up to their sense of social responsibility.

At a slightly lower level of generality, Nathan Yergler of Creative Commons talking about the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language (ccREL), a standard for defining licenses that Creative Commons hopes will be adopted by other licensing bodies such as the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. Brad Neuberg gave an introduction to the concepts and structure of Google Gears, at which attendance suggested that the topic is well on the way to becoming the Next Big Thing. Best practices were also a popular topic, with such talks as Derick Rethan's "Test Driven Development" and Chris Hartjes' "Deployment is not a 4 Letter Word."

More detailed presentations included such offerings as Derick Rethan's "Lego blocks for PHP," Eric Promislow's "Scaling up with JavaScript," and Mike Cantelon's "Reusable Components in Django." The consensus among those talking and checking email in the hallway was that the conference provided a good balance in its sessions that would appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

However, the formal programming tracks were only part of the conference. Aside from the dozens of small consultations that were always taking place in the hallway, another important part of the conference was the impromptu sessions that accreted around the formal structure. On the second day, four hours were devoted to "lightning talks" -- brief sessions that attendees could sign up to deliver during the conference -- about applications for social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as the OpenSocial API. In addition, ActiveState, whose former CEO David Ascher is now heading Thunderbird development at Mozilla, sponsored an informal MozDev (Mozilla Development) Camp on the afternoon before the conference for those who were already in town, and an evening social event was added at the last moment at a local art gallery in the heart of skid row. By popular demand, the organizers also ended the conference with a hallway session where those looking for work or for developers could chat and exchange business cards. Considering the social emphasis of many of the latest Web apps, this openness to attendee-generated content seemed only appropriate.

Throughout the conference, the only glitch observable to attendees was the unreliability of the conference center's wireless service and the limited access provided to it. The center's staff seemed to regard wireless as an extra, rather than the necessity that most of the attendees considered it -- an attitude that seems an ominous sign, considering that the center will be at the heart of the 2010 Winter Olympics. But, to their credit, the conference organizers did manage to improve the situation somewhat on the second day through a combination of negotiation and patience.

Otherwise, the conference was such an obvious success that by mid-morning on the second day, they had little to do and were already talking about next year. The combination of a small conference and top-level speakers was clearly attractive to both guests and paid attendees. Open Web Vancouver's biggest problem for next year will probably be to decide where to cap registration in order to preserve this year's low-key but intense atmosphere.


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