Sunday, 20 July 2008

Pret-a-porter for the web?

The term "pret a porter" means ready to wear. Is the web about to explode with ready-to-wear content the same way as 60s fashion moved things out from the couture house to the high street and the market stall? Blogs, wikis and Facebook, Flickr and podcasts, RSS and Twitter - all have helped. But chaos prevails in our online activities - too many passwords, sites, profiles, contact groups, communication channels and more and more. Dataportability aims to address this and, today, they reached a significant milestone with the selection of a steering group of 12 people to drive the effort.

Since the group formed late last year, organisational issues have hampered progress. Two attempts at establishing a logo (a simple task you might think!) have been met with cease and desist communiques from various quarters. As an open movement, many large internet companies were quick to jump on board but the actual day-to-day work was left to a small number of committed volunteers. Everybody had an equal voice and a unique set of opinions, making it difficult at times to find consensus or to stay focused.

The new steering group has a lot of work to do. A guick glance at the dataporatiblity wiki will frighten all but the most curious minds. Too many links, too many directions, too much information - too much of which ends in blind alleys and unfinished business. But the underlying idea is almost clear - a desire to give web users ownership and control of their data on the web.

The challenges facing the steering group remind me of the film, Twelve Angry Men, where Henry Fonda was relentless in his pursuit of truth and fairness. Their prolonged deliberations were concerned with:

  • coming to the truth
  • overcoming personal limitations
  • serving the public
  • coming to know people they would never meet otherwise
  • a pressure cooker because the stakes were high
  • great personal cost
  • every voice was important

The stakes for dataportability are very high. The aim of breaking down the walls of privacy on the web is commendable, but turning a list of standards and protocols into a viable framework with solid working examples is not easy. In an industry where many web developers don't even pay lip service to the needs of security or accessibility, the business case for adopting dataportability must be crystal clear and the techniques and processes must be well-devised and documented.

The open movement is maturing and gaining credibility. But, until the use of open standards becomes an expectation from users and businesses, the revolution will limp along while the software giants continue their race for control of our online activities and content. If the dataportability group can deliver concrete working examples, solid business cases and a viral mechanism for spreading the news, we could be on the brink of something great.

Dataportability is an open movement and anybody can join and help out. If you are interested, visit their website or just go directly to their wiki, where all the meaty (and confusing) stuff resides. There you will find links for various different action groups and links to google groups and skype public chats.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Open source synergies

Today I was in London to help users understand how to use a new Drupal site I am developing for an educational research project in London. Tonight I attended the inaugral meeting of the Drupal for NGOs group because it coincided with my trip and seemed like a useful way to spend my evening.

Now I am sitting in All Bar One in Holborn, who had a sign outside inviting people to come and hot desk here. My time is short or I'll miss the last tube so here it is. Today's training was exciting and interesting - lots of user feedback, occasional friction but amazing progress and vision going forward. Tonight was amazing.

The synergies between open source , theeducation sector and NGOs is mind-boggling and the passion, commitment and professionalism I met this evening was heart-warming. This is where I want to be, where I want to work and be useful.

I learned that the scary timeframe I have of delivering a Drupal site as a public prototype in 2 weeks is unheard of. Six months seems to be considered a reasonable timeframe. I met the guy that designed one of the Drupal core themes and designed it with a view to accessibility. I met a couple of guys that are stuck on some aspects of a stunning social network site for people with cancer - and learned from them what are the technical blockers to their project. I met with a compatriot from Dublin who works for Concern (the "fasting charity" all us Irish know and love so well) - he's over to learn more about Drupal and off to Bristol with a bunch of tonight's attendees to be trained in scrums - think agile development rather than scrummage. I met a young developer from Brighton as young as my kids that referenced Douglas Adams (a boy thing) and Bucky Fuller - an over there, totally creative thing.

My mind is full of ideas, creativity and the potential of open source and Drupal to empower. But now I must dash to catch last tube back to Balham. What a day, what a night, bring on more of the same.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Little peepel doing it for themselves

The last few weeks have been as volatile as they get in the stressy life of a tech writer in the world of web apps, open source and agile development - when the ink is hardly dry on a text string or a protocol before the terminology, the requirements and the brand itself are reinvented - again.

In the midst of this chaos, it seemed like a good idea to ground myself and my aspirations in an office. Bucking nigh-on 15 years of home-working tradition (ironically, my stint at Skype was the exception), I took an office in a new business centre at the end of my street. Home working has been good to me, enabling me to earn a reasonable income living in remote and idyllic places while being more productive in my writing which is, in its defining moments, a solitary task.

It has become more difficult for me to work from home - when the kids return from school they want to natter and too often I respond with "later, I've got to work right now" - sound familiar? So, I got an office and on Tuesday I moved in. The office has 2 desks and a filing cabinet and a view over the playground where my kids sometimes play. The children are on school vacation and my daughter has taken up residence on the second desk as my "apprentice".

Wednesday, my apprentice sets up a spreadsheet for my business expenses. To do so, she had to download and install Open Office, all done easily and without problem. Wednesday I also learn that OpenX, the main source of my current income, is moving HQ from London to LA - oops - who will pay my office rent? Time for some soul-searching.

Thursday, in the office before 9am, and a number of pings about OpenX news. My apprentice arrives and I put her to work on another spreadsheet but this time she is a "guinea pig" 12-year-old using Peepel. She captured my ideas on whiteboard first. Next, she set up a Peepel account. Then she entered the contents of a new spreadsheet which defines different rates for different tasks/expertise. Finally, my apprentice shared this with me through my Peepel account, which I was able to edit before returning edit control to her.

I've been a small business for a long time and have learned many ways and means of collaboration to simplify my work. Personally, I'm not a lover of Google apps because I don't trust their motives or the ability of a monster to deliver the goods for the individual. I'm impressed by the ability of Peepel to make it easier for me to collaborate with my daughter without a big learning curve or complicated downloads.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Smiling Irish fall foul of Quebec language police

On a business trip to Montreal, I was amused and slightly perturbed by an article I read in the Montreal Gazette about a local Irish pub, McKibbins. The pub is in trouble with the Quebec Office Quebecois de la Langue Francaise (OLF) because a customer complained that they did not receive service in French. When the OLF inspected the premises, they were not impressed by the many antique, English-only adverts for Irish beers and other products. The antique signage must come down, the bar was told, or face a fine of $1,800 for each offending sign.

Bishop Street, home of McKibbins downtown bar, boasts not one, but three Irish bars, and an Indian, Brazilian and a Mexican restaurant among others. Down the street from McGill and Concordia Universities, the street reflects the multicultural dynamic that makes Montreal a great place to visit. Everywhere you go in this city, people slip easily and seamlessly between French and English - non-French speakers are never made to feel like outsiders here as happens in Paris. And if you stumble in your effort to speak in French, you get a smiling helping hand and not the cold reproof you encounter so often in northern France.

It is a credit to Quebec that it has retained a vibrant language and cultural identity in a nation and continent that is largely english-speaking. But, as a bilingual Irish person, I think that linguistic repression is counter-productive. I was brought up speaking Irish in an era when it was distinctly untrendy to speak our ancient language. The language was force-fed to every Irish schoolchild and you could not work in government service or qualify for university without it. Virtually all of my peers hated it and promptly forgot the little they learned as soon as they left school.

In the past 20 years, a seed change occured. The Irish language became non-compulsory for school leavers and, at the same time, the Gaelscoil (Irish language school) movement was born. A network of independent primary schools developed where Irish was the core medium of teaching and parents (many of whom spoke no Irish) were invited to play a much more proactive role in the running of the school. This spawned a new generation of bilingual Irish people, largely middle class, who were proud of, and knowledgeable about, their linguistic heritage. By removing compulsion, Irish was enabled to grow and flourish among an appreciative audience. The movement is so significant it has made its own entry in wikipedia.

En route to Montreal on this trip, I stopped in Bordeaux for a few days. The Bordelaise have a reputation for being bourgeois (whatever that means in this day and age!). I found them warm, friendly, and increasingly multilingual, unlike their northern counterparts. I had the same mix of french and english conversations with people there that I enjoy in Montreal, while in Paris they still cling to a monocultural attitude that the world has little interest in supporting. The biggest English-speaking country in the world is India and it doesn't seem to be doing their culture or economy much harm.

McKibbins is enjoying a certain notoriety and increase in business because of the media attention surrounding this bizarre story - they've made national TV - you couldn't buy that publicity as a side-street bar in Montreal. And they have decided to fight the language police (as they are known locally). On Monday they launch a website where visitors will be able to register their views on the matter - as they say in French - quel bordel. I know what I'll be voting as an Irish-English-French speaker.