OKCON 2009

Where do I start?

Having done rather a lot of traveling this month, I was very reluctant to spend 12 hours or more on a Saturday going to London for this event. But as my name was listed as a speaker, and I knew that other Linked Data people were likely to cry off (for similar reasons), I felt it would be rude not to attend.

So what happened?

Well, I got there nicely (less than 90 mins drive), which was good.

But after that things weren’t so good. The talks on development (that is, development as in Aid and Development, it turned out), were OK to start with – sort of how Open Knowledge being made available to poor people about all sorts of things might help them. But it soon got quite bizarre.

A presentation, complete with baby crawling around a game that a Serbian group had made, was an example of how Open Knowledge might empower “Independent Thinkers” in some way. Well yes, but it didn’t need that long to get the idea – where was the chair? And where was the chair when the same guy later came back to tell us a bunch of similar stuff again? “Haven’t you spoken before?” – well, yes, he had.

And then we were treated to a discussion on how a Buddhist (I think) financial system based on coupons and things would be much better for the world, by turning our economies back to the middle ages (his words). Perhaps good fun, but excuse me if I find it hard to see the link to Open Knowledge.

Quite a lot of these presentations were quite interesting from the point of view of ideas, but often lacked much idea of the technology which might help them deliver it. Typical of the delivery platform was “We will use a wiki”, or “We think Flickr might be good to spread this”. Well, Flickr may be effective, but is hardly an open system, and there were a bunch of people in the room who actually might have some useful input on this. These Linked Data and Semantic Web people were wondering whether there would ever be time to discuss the topic for which they had come.

As it approached 4pm, I guess, we were told that we would be strictly limited to 5 mins – great to have some chairing, but would have been even better to have it for the previous 4 hours. I pointed out to the organiser (Rufus Pollock) that, as I was first up, I would need to introduce the idea of Linked Data and the Semantic Web, and perhaps needed a bit of extra time. The response that there would be such an introduction in the session at 5pm beggared belief – I could give my presentation before the topic was introduced? When I pointed this out (twice), the response was that “it should only take a minute to introduce the idea of Linked Data and the Semantic Web”. No suggestion of, for example, Mark doing his introduction from the 5pm panel session first.

So Rufus Pollock seemed to think that a sensible presentation that made my trip worthwhile could consist of:

1. 1 min complete introduction to Linked Data and the Semantic Web to a largely non-technical audience;

2. 2 mins on the use of RKBExplorer system to Open Knowledge

3. 2 mins on the problem of coreference in the Web, and an infrastructure to solve it to facilitate Open Knowledge.

I hadn’t expected much time, as I knew it would be “5-10 mins” per talk, and I might in the end have only been given one talk, but 5 mins without any time for discussion or questions was just insulting.

And not just me – I was followed by Sebastian Hellman on Dbpedia, who had flown in from Leipzig specially; he got the same treatment.

Paola Di Maio is probably glad she didn’t make the trip from Strathclyde, although she put in a lot of work constructing and sending slides, with voice annotation, in the expectation that someone would be able to show them for her (no-one did).

I confess I left before the end, about 5:30pm, as I thought that if I felt I had reclaimed some of my Saturday evening I may not feel as pissed off the next day – it was a shame, as I’m sure the panel presentations were good, and I might not see them elsewhere. Also, by this time I had a £40 parking ticket (the first real one I have ever had) for being 3 mins late back to my car during the afternoon, so my equilibrium was crumbling.

Of course, on the way out I passed a whole load of the Development people who had been speaking all day, chatting on the stairs, and not bothering to listen to Tom and Jeni, etc..

So what do I think? I’m sure lots of people enjoyed themselves, doing the stuff they do for their personal interest or hobbies. However, I and some others were simply doing this as part of our jobs – if the Open Knowledge Foundation wanted people like me to get involved, then this was not the way to do it. I am happy to apply my technology (and even expertise) to any area; but I choose carefully who the people are.

On this evidence, the Open Knowledge Foundation are the last people I would get involved with – not a clue how to get people who don’t actually care (like me) to further their cause; or perhaps they want to prove me wrong?

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