The story begins with a meeting with Ali Napier, one of our lecturers on the Social Digital Program at the University of Dundee. My Honours Project has always contained some level of programming, with my particular interest in mobile technology. After speaking to Ali about my project, just before I was about to leave his office, I thought I’d mention my project idea in case he had any thoughts on it. (I honestly thought he wouldn’t like it!) So I explained the idea around real-time Citizen Journalism and he took to it very well. It in fact struck a chord with some work that he had done at the Mozilla Hack Day in Dundee. He recommended that I speak to Jon Rogers and he insisted that I attend the Mozilla Festival in London. This was probably the best advice I have ever received in my time at University and will likely impact my future hugely.
I booked my ticket with a lot of a uncertainty. I didn’t really know anyone else attending and thought everything would probably just be over my head. Once I got to London though Jon took me under his wing. When I say this I mean whenever I wasn’t at something he’d insist that I get upstairs and get to something straight away.
The event was held at the Ravensborne College in North Greenwich, London. This awesome building is a technical and creative building for the Ravensborne College in London and is located literally 50 feet from the O2 Arena, or ‘The Dome’ as I know it. This building was incredible. 11 stories, 9 of which were dedicated to all things Mozilla Festival. The building is a massive cube with circular windows all around the outside. As you enter you are welcomed by a 6 story atrium where registration, lunches and Jon Rogers Physical Web crew were based. The 5th floor was the main presentation level which had the permanent stage and was the location for all the science and demo fairs. On the 5th floor was another atrium all the way up to the 9th floor, which is where I spent most of my time. Each floor was dedicated to a different aspect of the conference. The 9th Floor was Source Code for Journalism. Most of these events revolved around the discussion of new and cool technologies which are being used to open up journalism through technology.
Friday was the first day of the festival. Things kicked off at 6PM with registration followed by a Science Fair of many cool and exciting projects, most of which involved some kind of creative coding and the internet, and not to forget the Mozilla Airship. The atmosphere in the Science Fair was electric. I felt very welcome, relevant, and ‘right’. This was ‘my’ crowd, I just hadn’t met them before yet. Some great conversations and introductions were had, and by this point my honours project was already moving forward.
Early into the evening Jon introduced my to Paul Egglestone. After an insight conversation Paul left my with some great leads to follow up.
Saturday was the first main day of the conference. The day kicked off with a morning presentation psyching everyone up for the day, covering some of the new and exciting stuff that we’d get up to.
There were so many exciting sessions to choose from but I attended ‘Data Expeditions: Scout the Data Landscape with our Data Sherpas’. This session was organised by Michael Bauer and was a Lesson Lab as part of the ‘Source Code of Journalism’ initiative at the festival. I entered these sessions with a great deal of trepidation. I was at MozFest with very few people that I knew and there was literally no one I knew at this session, but this was to quickly change.
The session opened with a very funny presentation from Michael who set out the landscape for three different challenges. Participants were presented with three different stories to follow and we had to break out into those groups.
One of the stories revolved around a dataset that had been found, but it was not known where it came from or what it was about. My interest in Data Visualisation, and the mystery of the ‘unknown data’ intrigued me so this was the group I joined.
On closer inspection we realised we were working with some data relating to life expectancy of people in Botsana, Swaziland ans South Africa around about the 80s and 90s. There was an initial urge within the group to begin visualising and coding the data set that we had. Fortunately the group was made up of a number of journalists who steered our thoughts more towards understanding what may have been happening at the time in order for us to create a more visually engaging understanding of the data.
We quickly discovered that the data related to the life expectancy with relation to HIV and AIDS and found close correlations between the amount of money spent on healthcare in these countries and the lag time between when this investment was made and when mortality rates changed.
When coming to MozFest I was expecting to be WAY over my head, surrounded by hacker coders. And whilst there were lots of those at MozFest, I found that people were much more interested in exploring ideas, discussing the reasoning behind things before driving straight in. Whilst I do consider myself a coder, this culture lent itself so well to the many people who were there because they are interested in the world of the web, but don’t know where to start or how to ever get into it.
After my morning session I dashed across London to attend the Silicon Milkroundabout Job fair. This two day event was soley for technology companies to recruit people. The Saturday was the ‘Product’ Day and the Sunday was the ‘Technical’ Day. With all this conversation of what people can do with the Web at MozFest, I was very keen to get out and start speaking to companies that are looking for people to see how my vision of the world of technology and work aligns with what people are really looking for.
The first hurdle I experienced was the breadth of my portfolio and how that aligned with what companies were looking for. The second was my level of work experience. Of the companies that I spoke to, most were looking for people with a number of years under their belt in industry with flashy portfolios to boot. The portfolio is something I know I can work on. My Honours Project alone will contribute a great deal, showcasing my design process over an extended period of time, hopefully, culminating in a exciting engaging final piece. So on the job front, I think I just need to focus on what I’m doing right now.
Saturday Evening at MozFest
After the job fair I made it back to MozFest just as most of the afternoon sessions were winding down, so there was a little bit of low time before the end of day presentation.
To keep everyone going at MozFest, Mozilla laid on three fantastic coffee bars, who made beautiful coffees non stop all day, everyday. Before the end of day presentation I decided to grab a Mocha to kill sometime. The nature of MozFest is really just to meet whoever you can, and just have fun. So I decided to turn around an say hello to whoever was behind me. Turned out that I was standing next to Wesley Lindamood, who is an Interaction Design for npr -
‘A thriving media organization at the forefront of digital innovation, NPR creates and distributes award-winning news, information, and music programming to a network of 975 independent stations. Through them, NPR programming reaches 26 million listeners every week.’
Wesley (far left in the photo) and I must have chatted for an hour and half about work that both of us had done, cool technologies that we’d seen, and where we think that technology is going.
At one point I grabbed my iPad and showed Wesley some of the prototypes that I had created for my mapping research. The prototypes are pretty low-fi, simple things…not that impressive in all honesty, but in the context of the conversation they felt so relevant. It didn’t matter that they weren’t finished high polished apps, they served as a talking point, and they’d never felt more relevant than at that point. Wesley too pulled out his iPhone and showed my some of the cool work that he had been doing with Popcorn.js. There was a lot of conversation about Popcorn.js at the conference, but seeing a live project that Wesley had created through is work was great. I think there is definitely a place for Popcorn.js in my project.
That evening Mozilla had laid on a Skipper up the Thames to a party at the British Film Museum. What a way to travel! Seeing London from the river at night was a truly incredible end to the day. The fun introductions continued at the party where I bumped into a friend of a friend from San Francisco. (I was wearing my Path TShirt and her boyfriend works at Path!) I also had the chance to meet Ginger Coons, the creator of Libre Graphics Magazine. Libre Graphics is produced entirely on free and open software to a standard meeting, if not exceeding, that of the mainstream media. Software packages such as inDesign and Quark have made Graphic Design and publishing seem almost unattainable to those who cannot afford these resources. These companies don’t own these ideas, these are tools, and Ginger and her team stand to preserve print media and the graphic design which powers it as a free and accessible art form and discussion platform.
We started of the last day of the conference with ‘Election Hacking with OpenNews’. This session had the most incredible group of people working together. There were people from Bloomberg News, Knight News Innovation Lab, NPR, OpenNews, ProPublica, Sourcefabric, The Chicago Tribune, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Spokesman-Review, The Times, Ushahidi and many individuals from around the world. (If you’re a wannabe journalist, you should have been there!) Here is a blogpost about the day and the outcomes of each team – http://source.mozillaopennews.org/en-US/articles/election-hacking-mozfest/
The sessions began with a short introduction presentation laying out a number of directions where the session was going to go. We found our ways into the groups we found most appealing and worked together towards a solution for an issue we felt needed addressing through visualisation of elections. Our team focused a lot on user experience, and why people are seemingly disengaging with politics. We ended the session by proposing the idea of a ‘Hate Map’. This map would allow citizens to see on a map the issues of their fellow citizens on a hyper local way, with the hope of helping them see how they could participate in the discussion in the direction of a solution.
My final session of the whole weekend was ‘Location-based Storytelling’. This session, which was an introduction to Popcorn.js and Popcorn Maker, was run by Nicola Hughes – a 2012 KnightMozilla 2012 Fellow working in The Guardian. The challenge was to rebuild the BBC News interactive page created for the timeline of Ian Tomlinson’s death – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18798942 This page guides readers through the final steps of Ian Tomlinson before and after his altercation with police which later led to his death. We were provided with a video, images and some instructions and we had to line all the content up in time. Most people choose to use the Popcorn Maker, but I thought I’d get my hands dirty and go with the Popcorn.js approach. Throughout this session was when I got to know one of the more unlikely people that I thought I’d meet at the conference. A banker looking for a career change. With little or no technical knowledge, she was using MozFest as her jump into the technical world which she hopes will one day turn into a complete career change. We worked together on my laptop to write the code, and had some great conversations. Our meeting reminded me of the opportunities that technology and the internet offer us all, taking us to places that we didn’t think were possible.
MozFest closed with a Demo Fair of all the hacks and creations from the weekend. Some of the creations were incredible! My favorite had to be the visual coding demonstration. Using cards with coding commands on them, like ‘If’, ‘While’ etc, people could control a chocolate dispensing machine. The code was laid out on a glass table with a webcam below reading the underside of the cards and compiling the code when a special compiler card was put down. After trying to explain ‘programming’ in its broadest form the day before, this eloquently expressed it in a way that my words could not.
As I was about to leave the building I spied Ginger standing on one of the many balconies overlooking the entrance atrium. There were hundreds, if not over 1000 people, conversing and enjoying drinks over the demos but Ginger had taken some time to the side to what looked like reflection on the conference. I pottered over and we spoke for a few moments. As we said our goodbyes, Ginger told me she didn’t want to ‘wish me luck with my studies’. She felt it was too thoughtless and was just what you expect people to say. She took a moment and came back with ‘I hope your productive and successful with what you want to do’. I was taken aback. This moment reaffirmed the kindness and friendship which I had experienced over and over at MozFest and left me smiling in the carriage on the Underground. When we spoke the night before Ginger had and clearly listened to my insecurities about my final year of University, and what the future holds for me. That was very kind of her.
MozFest was incredible. My Honours Project into Data Visualisation and Journalism is something which I was very nervous about getting myself into. What I thought I was capable of, and what impact I could have on the world has been completely changed by MozFest. I am just one person of many. Being surrounded by such incredible people fills one with confidence and unquestionable trust in our future. MozFest is just scratching the surface.
Now to start saving for SXSW ’13 – Anyone fancy sponsoring me?