Sitting around the data campfire

Similar to Gail Ramster, I went along to the Friday afternoon part of UK GovCamp 2012 without really knowing why. I suspect most people would say the same thing. You go because… well, you never know which useful people you might bump into, and what interesting things you might hear about. Plus a colleague Janet Hughes was going, and I’d cleared my desk of essential work for the week.

Here are a few takeaway thoughts from my afternoon.

1. I barely knew anyone

It’s years since I was a fish in a geeky pool, active in the free culture movement, the KDE community, software patent activism and other odds and sods.

For the past five years or so I’ve moved onto land, or perhaps a coral reef, to be more involved with issues around the environment, housing and pay inequality. The past two or so have been working as a local government employee at the GLA, supporting Green Party Members of the London Assembly. They have pushed for open data, but it’s not exactly a hot topic in our weekly meetings. My only remaining connection has been OpenStreetMap, my one geeky obsession.

Still, it didn’t matter, go along even if you know no-one at all.

2. It was nice to reconnect with optimistic techies

The event reminded me of one of the things I most like about these crowds: they’re all optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about the common interest.

I’m glad I managed to quickly chat to a few people I did know, sort of… Gail via Twitter, and Giles Gibson from the Herne Hill Forum, but sadly I only said as much as “hello” to people like Emer Coleman and Chris Osborne. That’s what you get for arriving late and leaving early.

3. It’s more meaty than you’d think

That’s “meatspace” as in “the real physical world”, compared to “cyberspace” online. Compared to events a few years ago on open data and technology, most of the discussion I heard was about councils and companies working on staff structures and consultation processes, and then thinking about how technology and data could help.

I used to get frustrated with discussions that started with the assumption that open data and technology was going to revolutionise the world. That seemed upside down to me. So I was pleasantly surprised at this.

4. There’s a lot of “we”

Somebody pointed this out in one session – it’s very easy to apply “we” to the wider population when you really mean “we sort of people in this room”.

Often “we” are innovators or early adopters of ideas that become more mainstream, like using a smart phone to access services. Sometimes “we” are set to be a significant minority, like journalists, bloggers and politicians who use data to enhance their investigatory work. Just as often “we” are a world unto our own.

It’s fine, innocent mostly, typical of any event with like-minded people. It just grated on me when people talked about reconfiguring public services or management around their preferences, as though the rest of the world will thank them.

I might make a badge for myself if I go again, with the slogan “we’re not normal” or similar!

5. Theres a lot going on out there

Cocooned in City Hall, working on affordable housing or the pay gap, it’s hard to keep even a toe dipped in this pool. It was great hearing from so many people in so many walks of work and life doing so many useful things.

Sometimes when I map an area for OpenStreetMap, walking down a street noting house numbers, I feel a bit bewildered by all these people living here! London feels impossibly enormous. I left UKGovCamp feeling similarly bewildered by the enormity of work going on in this field, relative that is to my own small bits and pieces in my job and my free time.