Category: community

BarCamp Philly 2010 Summary – Opendata and beyond

When wrapping up the VIm talk @trevmex mentioned that people share their dotFiles on github.  This blew my mind.  I can sit in front of anyones desk and start using their eclipse and immediately be productive.  The secret to VIm is the years of refactoring the configuration and shortcuts, known as the dotFiles.  You probably couldn’t even execute a mapped command on my machine since I map the leader based on my keyboard.

I’m used to reading about VIm plugins and tips on sites like but I never really thought about the power of collaborating on the ultimate VIm config via the forking, pushing and pulling that is github.  The idea of forking someones config and :%s/leader=’\’/leader=’`’/g is really compelling.

So I got to my next session, Philly Opendata, a bit early and powered up the University of the Arts guest wireless to see what this gitHub dotfile concept is really about and could not connect. After an hour of discussing how VIm keeps your hands on keyboard and head focused on the task I’m again reduced to a mouse clicking consumer wondering where the button is that will get my osx to work, or give me a clue as to why it won’t.  I would have searched for “iwspy on osx” but without wireless it would have been a short trip.

The point of this segue is that Maurice noticed my plight and leaned over with the security settings to his mifi app to get me out of the 80’s.   That has never happened at any formal show I’ve been to.  He had signal and was willing to share.

Turns out Philadelphia has data and is also willing to share.

Getting access to this data is important for so many reasons.  Before I talk about the social importance of opendata I have to step back and comment that crunching huge datasets and experimenting with bizarre visualizations is the type of fun that drew me to computers in the first place.  Whether plotting Fourier power transforms of breathing sheep or number of potholes per coffee shop there is something exciting about creating a unique perspective on otherwise boring or overwhelmingly complex data.

Having transparency into our government machine is really just a continuation of our need for independent newspapers.  Thomas Jefferson is often quoted as saying that Democracy depends upon an informed population.

The city of Philadelphia has committed to releasing 311, GIS and crime data. There was a very lively discussion at this session around the types of apps we could build, the benefits that the city will reap and most importantly WHEN it will launch.

This was all good and exciting conversation and one particular thread stuck with me long after the session ended.  We talked about how we can audit the data and ensure that it is used properly and not abused.

We live in an age when a comedian can save the elephants by editing a wiki page.  When I was a kid I was raised to believe that reporters were ‘investigative journalists’ and dug deep to get the facts.  I grew up just a few miles from where Geraldo Rivera got his start with an acclaimed expose of a mental institution that resulted in action being taken.  I was not until I got older and became exposed to Fox and the Daily show that I’d realized how seemingly sane people could look at the same data information and draw such dramatically different conclusions.  (Actually I learned that in grad school.  “Number-smithing” and “creative graphing” are required classes for practicing engineers.  There was a similar class for the business students, but it skipped the numbers part altogether.)

It would be really easy for me to take all the pothole data and plot it on google maps.  A little massaging could show my street as having a few extra’s and maybe I’ll even ‘fix’ a few in the other neighborhoods.  People will see my app and maybe my street gets a little bump in priority.

Visualization is a powerful tool and data of this magnitude will always be analyzed with bias.  Even a simple flow chart describing the new health care policy can be warped towards an agenda.

Opendata puts us all on a level playing field.  I’m looking forward to the apps and visualizations coming out.  I will be disappointed if we wind up with a  liberal and a conservative app mirroring our polarized two party system.  I personally feel that there is a responsibility in the hands of the designers and developers to attack this data and ensure that the people of Philadelphia have multiple avenues of getting accurate facts.

The first tenant of the IEEE code of ethics hints at the damage we can do here.

1. to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;

As far back as the 12th century the Rabbi Maimonides wrote a Physicians oath with another line that I find appropriate:

May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good

A Doctor’s specialized knowledge and training puts his actions and opinions under a special light with regard to ethics.  Typically computer professionals live by a ‘do no harm’ credo as well, but our actions were usually bounded by our working domain.  With open data and blogs we can now use our skills and training for the betterment of democracy or as a lever to move a personal agenda.

Now that I am ready to wield this data in the name of Democracy and Truthiness I’m headed over to listen to Tom Janofsky talk about his experiences with Cloud Computing on EC2.

After all, once this great Philly data is out I’m going to need that elastic processing power….

my Barcamp Philly 2010 summary

Every year Philly’s BarCarmp gets better.  Last year I met great people and learned new tactics from my peers.  This year I enjoyed a number of roundtable discussions where we taught each other and had my core paradigms challenged.  (of couse still met great people, but that is implied)

The day opened last night with a fantastic hosted party @indyhall.  It had a vibe that reminded me of my college days where the future was bright and everyone you talked to has excitement around what they were doing.  I loved being surprised by people.  Even the kids from Phillymagic had more going on then I would have thought.  First off the magician was a Rensselar student and I was saddened to learn the bars I institutionalized as a student were no longer in vogue.  More importantly he was not just flipping cards for pay, he is building out an online hub for magicians to fill a market need that he noticed.  I’m barely through my first tequila and completely impressed by this fellows accomplishments in building a passive income stream is a business he loves.

There were another half dozen similar occurrences that night and I could tell all the stories.  One of them being that I met the “Best storyteller in Philadelphia” and learned that StorySlams happen around the corner from my house.  My wife Jen tells a great story and I’m looking forward to coercing her to get in there and compete.

Innovation, entrepreneuring, passion, community – good start!

The next morning saw me walked up Broad street at 730am to help unload a car and get setup.  I was listening to music and passed a colleague heading south.  Checking my phone’s walking GPS I realized I was not lost, he was just early and meandering about.  Little did he know there was heavy lifting to be done and in true barcamp fashion he did not hesitate to roll up his sleeves and help us out.  I thought that there might be a shortage of people in the early AM and there were actually plenty of bodies.  A good start.

It is hard to keep saying how the day kept getting better, but even the act of mindlessly stuffing badges was fun.  The debate about giving extra or fewer ‘dot’ votes to sponsors was hilarious and socially relevant at the same time.  When you want to lead a talk at barcamp you simply put a card up on the wall.  If you want to attend a talk you put a ‘dot’ sticker on it.  The organizers use the sticker to determine what size room to put the talk into, it is not a vote.  Everyone gets to talk if you have a card up.  A common misconception around this was that cards with fewer stickers would not be attended.  It is like voting in that most people have decided in their heads what talk to go to but don’t bother walking up to ‘vote’.  But that is another topic.  It is safe to say I didn’t see any bare cards and I’ve never seen an empty room.

Interlude for carafes of old city coffee, overflowing platters of bagels and jams and baskets of fresh fruit.  No pretentious croissants, just honest local philly goodness.

For the first session my wife listened to LessAccounting‘s Steve for the topic of Making Money.  She is a Terry Pratchett fan.  I’m looking forward to her dad’s take on their offering.

Personally I went for the VIm talk by Trevor.  I’m a big VIm fan and recovering Java IDE addict.  Yes I went down the dark road where I relied on IDEs to generate pages of boilerplate code that locked my development into that particular IDE.  I even skipped reading the documentation of third party code and just let intellisense autocompletion help me muddle through.  Moving back to VI forced to to really understand the code and look for the elegance that comes with refactoring around concise code.  Additionally since I partner VIM with command line processing I can use the same toolchain on dev, qa and CI without much fuss.

Also modal editing rocks.  Fingers stay on the home keys and regex navigation makes pages of code seem to grow on the page rather then being written top down.  Most of the people there had at least dabbled with VI and we shared some great tips.

More importantly I’m not alone in thinking VIm breeds productivity and automation.

And most importantly for my not so secret agenda VIm runs on Linux, Windows and Mac.

More on that later, stay tunned for part IIOpen Data Philly!