James Turk

Rochester BarCamp 3

[an old post from 2008… not the best post but in a sense my introduction to organizing developers]

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the (fantastically organized) Rochester barcamp 3 on the RIT Campus.

A barcamp is basically a group of knowledgeable people that get together and give talks on subjects that they care about. It's quite possibly one of the coolest things I've had a chance to be involved in the entire time I've been at RIT. (I didn't hear about the first one, and last year I was out of town)

I was originally going to give my talk on Django, maybe sprinkling in a bit of discussion on political data, etc. if I had time. Around midnight the night before Barcamp began however I decided to toss out my presentation and start from scratch. What I ended up with was in my opinion a lot better. 95% of the people at barcamp are technical, but I realized hardly any would be political.. this in my opinion was a problem.

Of course, one might think it would be risky giving a political talk at a tech-oriented event on a tech-oriented campus. My audience was on the small side, which was to be expected, and also brilliantly illustrated my first point: most of us are apathetic.

I only had 30 minutes, so my discussion on why people are apathetic was limited, but it led me to the discussion of a vicious circle wherein apathy fosters bad government which in turn fosters further apathy.

I closed the talk with examples of what developers can do which I grouped into two broad and somewhat overlapping categories: software to get people involved, and software to get people information.

Going beyond the obvious examples of flash mobs, blogs, wikis, and the like, I discussed several projects like the UK-based PledgeBank and WriteToThem. These are projects that push individuals to get involved by encouraging either collective action (in the case of PledgeBank) or in the case of WriteToThem getting people to do more personal than sign their name to what are typically meaningless e-petitions. (think "303,222 email addresses against Genocide in Darfur")

I also pointed to examples of sites that aim to give people more information. Django creator Adrian Holovaty's new site EveryBlock is a great example of just getting as much information as possible out to people and letting them do with it what they like. There is also the Sunlight Labs project EarmarkWatch which is a hybrid of sorts as it not only makes it easier to look at details of federal earmark spending, it also encourages citizen involvement due asking citizens to help research earmarks. The very idea of researching an earmark on your own is empowering, and can also be seen as an approach to get people more involved in at least questioning government.

(Disclaimer: I was lead developer on EarmarkWatch, although my thoughts here do not necessarily reflect those of the Sunlight Foundation)

Wrapping up my talk I asked the developers in the audience to make use of the massive quantities of government data that is out there. Or at the very least keep in mind the social responsibility that they have as being part of a uniquely skilled class with the power to control the machines and software that dominate so much of our everyday life.

The last slide ends with an equation: Django + Political Data APIs + Barcamp = ?

The discussion stemming from this talk actually led to a second talk later in the evening, where we attempted to answer this question. We ended up having a 3 hour discussion on how a few developers from RIT most with no former political experience could move on a project that will "change the world."