MozFest 2015

I had the privilege of attending MozFest last week. Overall it was a really great experience. I met lots of really wonderful people, and learned about so many really interesting and inspiring projects.

My biggest takeaway from MozFest was how important it is to provide good APIs and data for your systems. You can't predict how somebody else will be able to make use of your data to create something new and wonderful. But if you're not making your data available in a convenient way, nobody can make use of it at all!

It was a really good reminder for me. We generate a lot of data in Release Engineering, but it's not always exposed in a way that's convenient for other people to make use of.

The rest of this post is a summary of various sessions I attended.

Friday

Friday night started with a Science Fair. Lots of really interesting stuff here. Some of the projects that stood out for me were:

  • naturebytes - a DIY wildlife camera based on the raspberry pi, with an added bonus of aiding conservation efforts.
  • histropedia - really cool visualizations of time lines, based on data in Wikipedia and Wikidata. This was the first time I'd heard of Wikidata, and the possibilities were very exciting to me! More on this later, as I attended a whole session on Wikidata.
  • Several projects related to the Internet-of-Things (IOT)

Saturday

On Saturday, the festival started with some keynotes. Surman spoke about how MozFest was a bit chaotic, but this was by design. In a similar way that the web is an open platform that you can use as a platform for building your own ideas, MozFest should be an open platform so you can meet, brainstorm, and work on your ideas. This means it can seem a bit disorganized, but that's a good thing :) You get what you want out of it.

I attended several good sessions on Saturday as well:

  • Ending online tracking. We discussed various methods currently used to track users, such as cookies and fingerprinting, and what can be done to combat these. I learned, or re-learned, about a few interesting Firefox extensions as a result:

    • privacybadger. Similar to Firefox's tracking protection, except it doesn't rely on a central blacklist. Instead, it tries to automatically identify third party domains that are setting cookies, etc. across multiple websites. Once identified, these third party domains are blocked.
    • https everywhere. Makes it easier to use HTTPS by default everywhere.
  • Intro to D3JS. d3js is a JS data visualization library. It's quite powerful, but something I learned is that you're expected to do quite a bit of work up-front to make sure it's showing you the things you want. It's not great as a data exploration library, where you're not sure exactly what the data means, and want to look at it from different points of view. The nvd3 library may be more suitable for first time users.

  • 6 kitchen cases for IOT We discussed the proposed IOT design manifesto briefly, and then split up into small groups to try and design a product, using the principles outlined in the manifesto. Our group was tasked with designing some product that would help connect hospitals with amateur chefs in their local area, to provide meals for patients at the hospital. We ended up designing a "smart cutting board" with a built in display, that would show you your recipes as you prepared them, but also collect data on the frequency of your meal preparations, and what types of foods you were preparing.

    Going through the exercise of evaluating the product with each of the design principles was fun. You could be pretty evil going into this and try and collect all customer data :)

Sunday

  • How to fight an internet shutdown - we role played how we would react if the internet was suddenly shut down during some political protests. What kind of communications would be effective? What kind of preparation can you have done ahead of time for such an event?

    This session was run by Deji from accessnow. It was really eye opening to see how internet shutdowns happen fairly regularly around the world.

  • Data is beaufitul Introduction to wikidata Wikidata is like Wikipedia, but for data. An open database of...stuff. Anybody can edit and query the database. One of the really interesting features of Wikidata is that localization is kind of built-in as part of the design. Each item in the database is assigned an id (prefixed by "Q"). E.g. Q42 is Douglas Adams. The description for each item is simply a table of locale -> localized description. There's no inherent bias towards English, or any other language. The beauty of this is that you can reference the same piece of data from multiple languages, only having to focus on localizing the various descriptions. You can imagine different translations of the same Wikipedia page right now being slightly inconsistent due to each one having to be updated separately. If they could instead reference the data in Wikidata, then there's only one place to update the data, and all the other places that reference that data would automatically benefit from it.

    The query language is quite powerful as well. A simple demonstration was "list all the works of art in the same room in the Louvre as the Mona Lisa."

    It really got me thinking about how powerful open data is. How can we in Release Engineering publish our data so others can build new, interesting and useful tools on top of it?

  • Local web Various options for purely local web / networks were discussed. There are some interesting mesh network options available commotion was demo'ed. These kind of distributions give you file exchange, messaging, email, etc. on a local network that's not necessarily connected to the internet.