Second time I’ve been to the Open Tech conference, and it was just as energetic as the first. Billed as “an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, politics and justice” it took place in the heart of the University of London – ULU, Malet Street.

The schedule was packed: 3 and sometimes 4 streams of talks, often pitting fascinating speakers up against one another, forcing participants to make difficult choices.

I started with the talk by John Sheridan and Jeni Tenison, about the roadmap and some of the processes behind data.gov.uk. Gridworks looks a fascinating tool, and we saw how a basic data set can be enriched in many ways, produced in different formats and how data can be validated or reconciled against other indexes. The TSO data enrichment service looks something to explore. Key things to take away from this session were how much work is going on in the background to achieve an open data environment – many of the standards needed simply don’t exist, and have to be developed and tested.  Secondly, how important it is to create sites which work for people – non-coders who want to consume the data, and which also provide the underlying material in the right formats for machines to process. John talked about the new hugely impressive Legislation.gov.uk site, which does exactly that. Enquirers will find many ways of navigating through the complex world of UK legislation, while developers can access the underlying data in a wide range of formats. Finally, Dan Smith joined the stage and presented his work using one of the other data sets released recently – roles and organisational structure of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Besides presenting the data in a series of ever more detailed pages – visitors can move from department > section > roles and see all elements of information in context, you can also see the provenance of the data.

Next session was in the main hall, complete with stage and disco lights (we made do with daylight though!). Hadley Beeman was on first, outlining a new project which builds on the drive to release lots of public data, but recognises that this data needs to be usable. LinkedGov aims to use a variety of means to identify and then fix data sets which contain gaps, codes and acronyms, multiple formats and do not adhere to common models. Very early days, the team are looking for volunteers to help them take the project forward.

Next on stage was Ben Goldacre – who spoke faster than you would think humanly possible, yet still manage to be clear and entertaining.  He covered efforts to shine light on the complex process of the registration and subsequent publication of clinical trials. He mentioned the curious situation whereby many thousands of trials which are favourable receive wide publicity, while those that are not so positive never appear. The problem is that is is no ones job to track this process to make sure it happens consistently and regularly, and reports can be run to illustrate clearly what drug companies are doing. He and Louise Crow have taken 3 main data sets (described as the good, the bad and – you know) from the US, the UK and the EU, and are working on a tool which should enable patterns to be found and reported on. Not live yet, but something to look forward to.

Last on stage was Emma Mulqueeny to talk about Rewired State. Alongside her were 3 participants from the recent Young Rewired State event (which I blogged about here) and they took over the session to highlight some of the things they had created.

Presenters at OpenTech 2010

Presenters at Open Tech: Hadley Beeman, Louise Crow, Ben Goldacre, Emma Mulqueeny and the Young Rewired State team

After lunch, and a chance to get some fresh air and marvel again at the impressive art deco pile that is Senate House, 3 more presentations. First, Tom Steinberg, Louise Crow, Edmund von der Burg and Tim Green, talking about a handful of MySociety projects. First was the forthcoming Fix My Transport. MySociety’s aim is to provide simple and tangible benefits, even when the problem is complex – and transport problems provide plenty of challenge. Under the heading “Euston, we have a problem”, Louise talked through the example of a man who tried to get a huge puddle in front of Euston Station fixed. He shuttled between Camden Council, Railtrack, and others – and after what sounded like an exhausting 6 months, the problem was only partially solved….. This illustrates how the new project – Fix my transport – will aim to enable people to report problems to the appropriate body, and track them as they (we hope) move to a solution. Louise then went on to talk about Project Fosbury, which aims to take problem reporting on to another level, and enable people to find likeminded others and band together to address more complex problems – of simply those which appear too much for one person to know where to start. It aims to provide a toolkit for campaigning: from simple directions for basic action – like writing to your MP, to more complex recommendations (in the style of amazon?) along the lines of “other people who had your problem found this solution worked for them”.

Tom talked about lessons learned from the project Groups near you – which exists, but hasn’t delivered the solution they originally hoped.  In essence, it would appear to be at the heart of the government’s plans to create a Bg Society – encouraging individuals to find out what is going on in their local area, and joining groups that share common interests. The site has many groups registered, but that in itself is part of the problem – leaving it up to group owners to complete their entries, with no moderation, means there is a huge variation in quality – many groups are mis described or mis-categorised, meaning the data can’t easily be mapped on to other services. For example, Tom’s vision was that after reporting a problem in a site like Fix my street, you would be able to find out groups in your area who shared similar views on the sort of issue you had reported, whether it was environmental, about anti-social behaviour, lack of or threats to local services etc. As I said, the site still exists, but without further investment, or a group of volunteers to take on its development, it is unlikely to become any more than an index.

Last speakers in this session talked about their activities in the lead up to the UK elections this year. A joint project between Democracy Club, Your next MP, and TheyWorkForYou, it aimed to ask all candidates a set of questions – many of which would cover local issues, and they were invited to answer personally, not from a party standpoint. An intriguing and challenging exercise – not least because of the tight timelines once the election was finally announced, but also because it was carried out by volunteers. Telling fact – very few conservative party candidates actually responded to the questionnaires. Hmmm

Penultimate session for me was Stephen Dunn talking about the Guardian’s open strategy. This fascinating initiative deserves a blog post all to itself – but for now, you can read all about it on their own site.

My last session was one on a subject about which I know absolutely nothing: Gaming. We’re not talking the odd bout of solitaire, but fantastically popular multi player online games. The panel included Tom Chatfield, Alice Taylor and Cory Doctorow, who talked entertainingly about the opportunities such games might offer for changing people’s behaviour, perhaps changing models for participation. In fact this session really does deserve a separate post – the questions at the end raised so many intriguing ideas to follow up, and sparked memories of other gaming-related online ideas I’ve come across, that I’ll wrap up this post on Open Tech now, and create chapter 2 soon.

Overall, an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining day – any mistakes in the reports above (entirely possible – some of the topics discussed went way over my head!) I apologise for – please feel free to comment and explain!

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