Category Archives: conferences

Solving the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum

Every now and then Elmine and I organize (un)conferences for our birthday party, in our home. We did one in 2008, 2010 and 2014 (with a BBQ party of similar effort in 2012). Each one brings 40-50 participants together, and double that for the BBQ the day after. (The whole thing started as a biannual BBQ in 2004, and we added the conference part to make it easier for friends and peers from abroad and clients to join).

We love the events, and we love the way it brings many from our international network together in an atmosphere that creates lasting connections between participants, as well as the inspiration and energy it gives us. (I think of it as invoking the ghost of Reboot)

But as you see several years can pass between two editions.
They involve a lot of work and energy, cost a considerable amount of money. After each one it takes a while before the itch to do it again plays up, and sometimes major life events get in the way.

After the last one in 2014, Paolo suggested doing these events on a yearly, or at least more frequent basis. I replied in similar lines as above. To which Paolo replied “What do you think you are? The Olympics?” As he’s putting on a yearly conference in Italy himself, simply ignoring his remark does not play. He knows the reality of putting on a proper event every year, let alone our smaller scale lower-key ones. Paolo’s question stuck with me, and has been deserving of a proper answer for the past three years.

I know I’m not the Olympics. I also know the ‘lot of work, and oh the costs!’ line of reasoning isn’t fully true. We started doing the events in our home as a way to cut costs after all (the first edition was in the local university’s conference center). And I organized similarly international meet-ups in my spare time every 2 to 3 months with 20-30 participants, which each event taking place in a different European city, all with zero budget, years earlier.

To me the important aspects that create the type of flow, quality of conversations and energy that make the events such fun are:

  • Picking a topic that fits all backgrounds, so it doesn’t put people off and can attract friends, peers, clients and family alike, of all ages
  • Picking a topic that is challenging as well, as that creates the energy
  • Having participants of diverse backgrounds and nationalities, with most (but never all) having a direct connection to either me or Elmine, but less connections to the other participants
  • Doing it in our home, as it creates an informal atmosphere for serious exchanges, and I think the distinctive flavour of it all
  • Providing excellent food and drinks, for all diets, and plenty of it

The reason it takes so much time to organize is mainly that I try to do it all myself. I’m not very skilled at delegating or asking for help (as anyone who’s ever tried to help me out in the kitchen can attest). Finding a topic on a yearly basis that is at the same time broad enough to potentially include anyone and provoking enough for people to start imagining contributing to it, can be challenging
There is also the suspicion that if we’d do it say yearly, it would attract fewer friends from our international peer network (there’s always next year after all), and overall less sense of uniqueness of opportunity or urgency to attend for anyone. Whereas it’s the mix of people that is a key ingredient.

The time since the last edition 2014, really was a matter of life events getting in the way (2015 a year of multiple losses, 2016 of welcoming a new life, this year of moving to a new city). Now the dust has started to settle, and in the coming month we can look forward to spending a few weeks camping and being away from it all. I am also trying to grow roots in our new city and having conversations with people to better understand the events, spaces and things the city has to offer. Maybe the time has come to use this as an opportunity to solve the “You’re not the Olympics” conundrum.

Asking for help, the location, the scale of it, maybe a bit of funding, setting topics, are all dimensions to play with and to reflect on.

I’d like to do a new event in 2018, I’ve already been imagining it in our new home since we started unpacking boxes (or rather from the moment we were viewing the house already). What will it take to have the one after that not in 2022 but in 2019? Especially if you’ve attended in 2008, 2010 or 2014, what would entice you to join the event in 2018 as well as 2019, what would make you come back?

Shaking Trees: Changing the World, in the Face of Death

My friend Niels is dying and is celebrating life. Today he gave his ‘Last Lecture’ (viewable here in Dutch, Niels’ lecture starts at 42:00), following the example of Randy Pausch in 2008, in front of 400 people. He made us laugh, he made us think. He made us connect. So we can continue on after he’s no longer here. He turned us into his torch bearers, fakkeldragers in Dutch. That #fakkeldragers was the number 1 trending topic on Twitter in the Netherlands this morning, even as a major storm passed over and we like nothing more than discussing the weather, tells you a little something about Niels.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
400 people in the audience

I met Niels 10 years ago. He reached out to me online to ask me a question. Today he said to realize your dreams you have to start by asking a question. He asked me about learning online. He was a student then, and despite assurances to the contrary he could not access the univ’s buildings with his electric wheelchair and fully participate in the curriculum (Niels has spasticity and requires daily care). Undeterred he set out to arrange his own education online. We explored Second Life together, and we hung out in knowledge management fora, on blogs and social media. Only some 3 years later we finally met face to face, on a Mobile Monday meet-up in Amsterdam. Later we were both active in the topic of complexity management, and worked together to help build up a new company around participatory narrative inquiry. He married, and became a father, and despite every Kafkaesk requirement the ‘system’ threw at him he cut out his own path and became an entrepreneur. “He does not think it is impossible he’ll hold a regular job” someone wrote in his case file once. Another that he was a difficult patient to work with as “he keeps insisting on creating his own plans”.

His sense of humor not only keeps him sane, but also is his primary ‘weapon’ to create a space to be heard in health care and social care discussions and systems that are mostly accustomed to deciding or talking over him. “My case file never mentions the happinness of our family or the joy I find in my work” as key to personal wellbeing. That also drives him as an entrepreneur, where ever he goes he brings together those stakeholders that normally don’t enter into a proper conversation, and in those conversations plants the seeds to make the social and health care system work better. To replace faceless bureaucracy with a human face. To align the sometimes bewildering logic of the system with the logic of actual life. To make the system more efficient as well as more effective that way. Niels his last name roughly translates into English as Shaking Tree, and that became his brand. Shakingtree Interventions shakes things up. All trees in the Netherlands shook today, because of the mentioned storm, and it seems a fitting tribute.

A testament to him shaking things up is that the Secretary General of the Ministry of Health Care was an opening speaker today. He launched the annual ‘Shakingtree Award’ and presented the first one to Niels himself. At the same time he asked Niels, as he is wont to do anyway, to set the criteria for the Shaking Tree Award. Those criteria center around having experience with the health care system, being able to shake things up, and having a sense of humor.

'Last Lecture' Deluxe @shakingtree #fakkeldragers
The Shakingtree Award Statue, a tree of touching hands

Even if this maybe, hopefully, isn’t his real last lecture, “I hope I will have cancer for a very long time”, it was a great day to call upon 400 friends, colleagues and strangers to step up and be a torch bearer, a #fakkeldrager. That message, even without his personal shout-out to me to ‘fix this already’ (to use maker spaces to create cheaper tools and adptations), was loud and clear to all I think. Niels wants us to learn how to “dance with the system“, that was his lesson for us today. He is launching a ‘social domain lab’ to continue teaching that.

Today was a good and a fun day, despite the reason why it was organized. Or as Niels quoted Pema Chödrön “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Over the past 18 months in my personal life I’ve learned (again) that to me beauty resides in that room where such layeredness is allowed to exist. Today reinforced it once more. Thank you Niels.

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FOSS4G Keynote: Open Data for Social Impact

Last week I had the pleasure to attend and to speak at the annual FOSS4G conference. This gathering of the community around free and open source software in the geo-sector took place in Bonn, in what used to be the German parliament. I’ve posted the outline, slides and video of my keynote already at my company’s website, but am now also crossposting it here.

Speaking in the former German Parliament
Speaking in the former plenary room of the German Parliament. Photo by Bart van den Eijnden

In my talk I outlined that it is often hard to see the real impact of open data, and explored the reasons why. I ended with a call upon the FOSS4G community to be an active force in driving ethics by design in re-using data.

Impact is often hard to see, because measurement takes effort
Firstly, because it takes a lot of effort to map out all the network effects, for instance when doing micro-economic studies like we did for ESA or when you need to look for many small and varied impacts, both socially and economically. This is especially true if you take a ‘publish and it will happen’ approach. Spotting impact becomes much easier if you already know what type of impact you actually want to achieve and then publish data sets you think may enable other stakeholders to create such impact. Around real issues, in real contexts, it is much easier to spot real impact of publishing and re-using open data. It does require that the published data is serious, as serious as the issues. It also requires openness: that is what brings new stakeholders into play, and creates new perspectives towards agency so that impact results. Openness needs to be vigorously defended because of it. And the FOSS4G community is well suited to do that, as openness is part of their value set.

Impact is often hard to see, because of fragmentation in availability
Secondly, because impact often results from combinations of data sets, and the current reality is that data provision is mostly much too fragmented to allow interesting combinations. Some of the specific data sets, or the right timeframe or geographic scope might be missing, making interesting re-uses impossible.
Emerging national data infrastructures, such as the Danish and the Dutch have been creating, are a good fix for this. They combine several core government data sets into a system and open it up as much as possible. Think of cadastral records, maps, persons, companies, adresses and buildings.
Geo data is at the heart of all this (maps, addresses, buildings, plots, objects), and it turns it into the linking pin for many re-uses where otherwise diverse data sets are combined.

Geo is the linking pin, and its role is shifting: ethics by design needed
Because of geo-data being the linking pin, the role of geo-data is shifting. First of all it puts geo-data in the very heart of every privacy discussion around open data. Combinations of data sets quickly can become privacy issues, with geo-data being the combinator. Privacy and other ethical questions arise even more now that geo-data is no longer about relatively static maps, but where sensors are making many more objects as well as human beings objects on the map in real time.
At the same time geo-data is becoming less visible in these combinations. ‘The map’ is not neccessarily a significant part of the result of combining data sets, just a catalyst on the way to get there. Will geo-data be a neutral ingredient, or will it be an ingredient with a strong attitude? An attitude that aims to actively promulgate ethical choices, not just concerning privacy, but also concerning what are statistically responsible combinations, and what are and are not legal steps in getting to an in itself legal result again? As with defending openness itself, the FOSS4G community is in a good position to push the ethical questions forward in the geo community as well as find ways of incorporating them directly in the tools they build and use.

The video of the keynote has been published by the FOSS4G conference organisers.
Slides are available from Slideshare and embedded below:

Sunday Serendipity Reading Links

Every day I save a bunch of links from my explorations over the interwebs. Stuff that passes my radar, may become fodder for my writing at some point, but often gets piled and forgotten.I thought maybe it is good to share some of the unsought links I encounter, and some of the notions why I bookmarked it. Blogging of course used to be linklogging, sharing links to your blog neighbourhood, so let’s say it’s returning to a respected tradition. Here are a fistful of links from this week.

    Distributed web

  • IPFS, a distributed way of delivering webpages and files. Pointed out to me in the context of my postings on distributedness and agency. Napsterizing/torrenting everything. Also seems to want to preserve everything on the web better.
  • Steem is a blockchain based social media platform. Aims to ‘pay’ you for contributing, and do the bookkeeping in a blockchain ledger. Not sure that may work, nor that permanent records of each social media utterance are desirable. Like with IPFS mentioned above, ’not forgetting’ may not be a feature but a very concerning social bug. My friend Boris Mann is trying it out, looking forward to reading more of his reflections. I may not understand, I never understood the purpose of Medium either, which superficially seems to be the same thing but without the bookkeeping.
  • Anil Dash reflects on the lost infrastructure of social media. This resonates strongly with me in terms of what made blogging so exciting 10-15 years ago, as well as with my recent writings about agency. Part of the picture is weaving a tapestry of functionality across different services and tools that together are a potent mix. It needs plumbing like RSS, trackback and discoverability over the lines of conversations distributed over the individual blogs of the participants. My friend Lilia did her Phd on those distributed conversations. And as Hoder wrote seeing the web again after six years in an Iranian prison: much of our web now, such as Facebook, is just TV, not coffee house interaction.

  • Free private cities. Sign up to live in one, so you have an ‘equal’ position based on contracted service provision. Because tinkering with democracy and the fact that others have different needs is bothersome, or such. Apparantly the social contract isn’t good enough. This has high overtones of Snowcrash Burbclaves, and the micro-democracy states (100.000 people each, and with every election there is freedom of movement globally to pick the government (corporate, value or ethnicity based) of your choice in the very entertaining near-future SF book Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. These private city contracts don’t seem to account for the cost of leaving if you cancel your contract, as it is still territory bound, so finding a new service provider means physically moving. With all the social and monetary cost of doing that. Also seems to me that the Principality of Monaco held up as a good practice example, incorporated US towns, or the City of London for that matter provide ample demonstration of why this may not be the way forward to a more inclusive global society.

  • The Ribbon Farm, a blog by Venkatesh Rao, newly added to my feed-reader. His recent newsletter edition on premature synchronization as a cause of problems, chimes with a lot of my experience. Converging too early (because there are just 10 minutes left in the meeting), or forcing convergence in a group doesn’t help much usually. The leading example in the link being military reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “the world championship of armies” where the US military units were failing because they waited or tried to confirm orders continuously, and the Dutch fared better because they upon receiving others did what seemed worth doing based on context and observation, not seeking further orders and disregarding the literal meaning of orders in the process. Desyncing, as a practice seems valuable advice, and similar to making stuff distributed by design, or probe-based evolution. Seek out new perspectives and let yourself be challenged as part of your routines.

Koppelting – Session on Leaving Gmail

This weekend the grassroots FabLab conference ‘Koppelting‘ is taking place in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Together with Dirk van Vreeswijk I’ll be doing a session this morning on how to leave Gmail and other walled gardens.

In this session I try to summarize the way I constructed my path out of Gmail in such a manner that it becomes a guide that may enable others to act for themselves. The talk explains why I wanted to leave Gmail, how I finally found a way, and what the replacement solution(s) are I now use. It ends with a ‘recipe’, based on how I found a way out of Gmail, to help you think about what keeps you in your own walled gardens, so it becomes easier to explore alternatives.

Outline and slides
Setting the scene:

  • Using gmail since July 2004
  • 250.000 conversations, across 770.000 messages. 21GB total.
  • 12 years the central hub for all my personal and work e-mail

Why I wanted to leave

  • In part: everything was on US servers
  • In part: because Google with my Gmail and all other data has a very extensive profile of me
  • But most of all: Gmail was a single point of failure. Losing access would mean losing everything concerning mail communications

How I left Gmail

  • From early 2014 started seriously considering it
  • Getting to action was hard as it is extremely easy to use what you have, to stick in your routine. Ease of use keeps you locked in
  • Finding “The Alternative” seemed impossible. Until I thought about the specific aspects that made Gmail so easy for me
    • Multiple addresses into 1 inbox
    • Cross device availability
    • Great filtering and tagging
    • A generic mail address as throw away mail
    • Spam filtering
    • Large free storage space
    • Great search
  • Two core things stood out after making the list
    1. GMail makes it easy to be lazy (piling not filing). I needed to treat myself to a better process: spend a few seconds now (delete, file, delegate), to save more time on search later
    2. What made Gmail great to me in 2004, is now widely available functionality and technology

What I have now
This is described in more detail in my earlier posting that triggered this session. For each item that made Gmail attractive to me I searched for an alternative. Recombining them into a new workflow is a viable alternative for my Gmail usage as a whole. Apart from the technology replacements, key part is up front contemplation and more continuous reflection on my working process. I’m a piler, not a filer, but adding a few seconds during e-mail triage to at least decide putting it in a pile that is not my Inbox, makes all the difference.

The slides are available in PDF on this site, and will be embedded below (currently upload is failing).

Leaving a walled garden planning aid
Although the path for me leaving Gmail took quite a bit of time, I think the journey can be abstracted into a recipe to make it easier to spot your own path out of a walled garden (Gmail, Dropbox, etc.)
The basic steps are:

  1. Pick the walled garden you want to leave
  2. List all the things that make it so convenient for you
  3. Reflect on what that list tells you, about your process and your tools
  4. Find replacements for each element, then recombine them into your new workflow
  5. Share what you found and did, so it is easier for others to follow in your footsteps

The outline and collaborative notes from the session are online on one of the etherpads of the Koppelting conference.

About Koppelting
Koppel is an old Dutch word for communal fields, Ting a Germanic word for a meeting of the free. Organized by the Amersfoort FabLab, a fully opensourced bootstrapped FabLab, Koppelting is the annual grassroots festival about peer production and free/libre alternatives for society.

Germanische-ratsversammlung_1-1250x715Germanic Ting, after the Marcus Aurelius column in Rome, public domain

Open Communities / Refugeehack Wuppertal

Last November I attended the yearly Open Communities North-Rhine Westphalia barcamp (OKNRW), which was combined with a hackday called #refugeehack. The latter focused on using open data to help refugees find their way in Germany.

I presented my experiences working with local governments to help them use open data as a policy instrument. We did a year long project with 9 municipalities and 1 province in 2014-2015. The driving thought behind it was that releasing data can be a deliberate intervention in a policy field, as having data in my hands changes a stakeholder’s agency. Slides shown below.

Now a video, showing how the OKNRW 2015 & Refugeehack played out has been released (in German).

Open Data Readiness in Serbia

Last June I spent time in Serbia doing an open data readiness assessment for the World Bank. Early this month I returned to present the findings, and to mentor a number of teams at the first Serbian open data hackathon. The report I wrote is now also available online through the UNDP website.

odrareportthe printed ODRA report

The UNDP organized a conference to present the outcome of the readiness assessment and discuss next steps with stakeholders. At the conference I presented my findings to the Minister for Public Administration and Local Self Government (MPALSG), and a printed version was made available to all present.

ministerme conf1
(l) the minister (center, me left of her) on open data (photo Ministry PALSG), (r) discussing presented app (photo

At the conference the 11 teams that created open data applications at the hackathon the weekend before, called, were also presented. The hackathon took place in the recently opened StartIT Centar, a coworking space (which got funded through kickstarter). I had the pleasure to be a mentor to the teams (together with Georges and Brett from Open Data Kosovo), to channel my experience with open data communities around Europe and open data app-building in the past 8 years. The quality of the results was I think impressive, and it was the first hackathon where I saw people trying to incorporate deep-learning tech. I aim to post separately on the different applications built.

mentorMentoring during the hackathon, with Milos and Nemanja. (photo

That the hackathon was about open data was possible because five public sector institutions (Ministry for Interior, Ministry of Education, Agency for Environmental Protection, Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices, and the Public Procurement Office) have been working constructively to publish data after our first visit in June. In the coming months I hope to return to Belgrade to provide further implementation support.

The report is also embedded below:

Serbia Open Data Readiness Assessment

Planning for Impact with Open Data

On July 1st I gave a keynote at the OpenData.CH conference in Bern, Switzerland. I talked about using open data as a policy instrument, and looking at open data as a way to provide new agency to stakeholders around an issue, so they can create real impact. The conference organizers have published the video of the presentation, which you can see below, together with the slides I used.

Midsummer A Year Ago: Make Stuff That Matters Unconference and BBQ

Today is midsummer. The heating system came on this morning, and it has been raining since then. Quite a contrast with last year, when over 40 of you came to brighten our home for the Make Stuff That Matters unconference birthday party, and double that for the BBQ the day after it.

#mstm14 crowd
#MSTM14 crowd during my opening remarks, by Paolo

To me it is still a great source of energy to think back to the atmosphere and spirit of MSTM14, and the joy of seeing so many of our colleagues, peers, friends, family and clients interact, having travelled from all over the country, from all over Europe, and even from Canada and spanning 6 decades of age differences. As a bit of sunlight on this day that feels like autumn, some impressions from last year.

We used an introduction game and process, designed with Peter Troxler, to get everyone involved in making something.

IMG_6972 L1020788

MSTM14 IMG_7080

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Designing together

We had the Frysklab mobile FabLab parked in front of our home for two days, staffed by Jeroen, Aan, Marleen and Jappie of the incredible Frysklab team. Next to their equipment (multiple 3d-printers, a laser cutter, a CNC mill), we had our own 3D printer and four more on loan through the kind collaboration of Ultimaker. This allowed everyone to get their hands on the machines, guided by the Frysklab team and Elmine.

Frysklab in da house! IMAG4153
Frysklab, and the line-up in our living room

mstm14d2_079 IMG_7017
Klaas ‘borrowing’ our printer 😉 & at work in the Frysklab truck

People started out creating objects with Doodle3d, and then after encountering its limitations, by themselves moved on to more capable but also more complicated software tools. Guiding each other, searching for tips & tricks online, and through trial and error. The 3D-printers kept going for over 2 days, until the last guests left for the airport! Seeing how well everything went, and how our process delivered above our own expectations, made Elmine’s “Maker Moment“. I remember standing in the Frysklab truck towards the end of the first day, with everyone around me excitedly talking, working and making, and I just felt happy seeing the energy all round me. We set out to show ‘making’ as a communal process, and seeing it succeed is joyous.

MSTM14 IMG_7024
Peter and Oliver explaining 3d printing from Minecraft, Tjores proudly writing his name in 3D

MSTM14 Minecraft design, 3d printed
Amarens printed a 3d-hug, after a scan of herself. A castle made in Minecraft printed by Floris

The second day was all about the bbq, bringing about double the number of people together compared to the unconference day. And people kept on making, neighbourhood kids got busy in the Frysklab truck, and unconference participants showed newcomers how the machines worked. Fine food, fine wines, and many helping hands, such as Ray’s, in the kitchen, kept everyone around for conversations, making and fun.

MSTM14 Day 2 IMG_7179
Ray and Harold making food, Martin and Paolo making music

And even after the event, the ripples kept spreading outward. New connections were made, with friends opening their own home for other participants to stay in during the summer for instance. Elmine and I used a visit to Copenhagen to bring the MSTM experience to our friends Henriette and Thomas, and their sparkling daughter Penny, where we shared what we ourselves had learned from Peter and his son Oliver. My colleague Frank took that same lesson from Peter and Oliver to a whole new level, involving dozens of neighbourhood kids in a 3D-printing event where he lives.

Now a year later, the energy is still palpable to me. On this rainy day a year later I am grateful for the inspiration and friendship of last year. And although it will be hard to top, I am slowly starting to think about what we could do in 2016 for a new edition.
If you are entertaining the thought of doing something similar yourself, do read the e-book we wrote after a previous edition (download the PDF), where we describe the basic steps of hosting your very own birthday unconference and bbq. If you do and we’re invited, I promise Elmine and I will try our best to make it possible for us to attend.

Flemish Open Data Day 2015

Today I am in Brussels, as a guest of the Flemish government. For the fourth time the ‘open data day’ is held in Flanders, bringing together public and private sector to explore possibilities for open data. I gave the opening keynote this morning, on building public services with ‪#‎opendata‬ in collaboration with other stakeholders.

At the request of Noel van Herreweghe, the organizer and Flanders’ open data program manager, I focussed on public service delivery with open data. My main message elements were to start from where you want to see impact, and then mobilize data and people around in such a way that the data change the opportunities stakeholders have to act.

In my examples I showed how it does take a different perspective on public service, with the citizen at the center of the design, not the internal processes. And that with open data you bring many more new stakeholders to the table, which makes collaborative services possible that become better as more people use them. In practice we see that in many cases civil society organizations or businesses create front-ends to what essentially are public services. At the same time, also data collection can be collaborative (such as BANO in France).
To turn government into a platform, a system of connected core reference data sets is a fundamental element. Denmark and the Netherlands have such systems, which are largely open data as well. France and others are discussing this, and Belgium and Flanders have identified some what they call ‘authentic data sources’. This allows others to build on this fundament, creating value that way. The end game for government itself is to be open by default and by design, as well as providing performance data on dashboards generated from live open data streams. This allows the public to simultaneously see, interact with and use the data for service provision and provide feedback.

Slides are online: