#ukgc11 – My Unconference Log

'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph
'#ukgc11 t-shirt' by lesteph

Back in the day I used to attend and speak at a lot of conferences. I was even instrumental in organising the UK’s first eDemocracy conference.

But since starting at the FCO I’ve had my head down. I don’t get out on work time as much as I used to; these days I rely far more on the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up on what’s what and who’s who. It works, but I miss the face-time with smart, creative people who are as passionate about digital as I am (my wonderful FCO colleagues excepted).

So it was I was really excited to attend UK GovCamp 2011. This was my first time along and tickets were hard to come by, so I thought to record my experiences and observations here to add to the other great commentary from the day and latterly.

Attendees

It won’t be any surprise that it was a total geek-fest, but it was the number and range of geeks that was impressive.

There were about 200 people there, which I understand was the biggest UK GovCamp to date. Amongst the 200 were local government people, central government people, commercial sector types as well as a few academics and journos. There were developers, policy officials, site managers, CIOs and IT representatives. It was this mixing of the discipline pools that was one of the most interesting aspects of the day.

Format & Venue

I’ve been to one or two unconferences and to be honest attendees sometimes struggle with the participant-led facilitation. But the Barcamp approach was perfect for the attendees and there was no shortage of people stepping up with good ideas for sessions when the grid was opened up. From there it was relaxed and playful but always focussed and meaty.

Microsoft were the hosts, putting us up in their swank Victoria offices. What a place! Loads of room, airy, good meeting rooms and quality breakout areas. Plus a Kinect set up, although I didn’t get time to play.

Sessions

What a choice! You could go to sessions on AGILE, open data, hyperlocality and an introduction to the new HMG CEO of Digital. Unkindly there were a lot of clashes, but such is the way with unconferences.

I made it to three…

Session 1 – How to hack government websites

This was led by Glyn Wintle, the point of which was to examine basic mistakes made by government when procuring websites, errors made by developers and ways these holes can be exploited. But don’t worry Gly’s aim was to teach us how to patch these vulnerabilities.

It was an excellent clinic (and bit of discussion) covering 4 common attacks – cross-site scripting, link manipulation, buffer overflow and SQL injection, as well as DoS and PDF malware. I won’t go into all the detail because Glyn recorded a very informative interview covering much of this at CityCamp London in October 2010, which I highly recommend.

The moral of the session was don’t get scared, get schooled.

Session 2 – Digital government and the law

Again, another clinic-style session; this time led by David Allen Green.

I’m told that this was the first session of its kind at a UK GovCamp which surprises me and doesn’t. Practically every aspect of government digital has a legal framework (data protection, Ts&Cs, procurement etc.), but you we don’t see much of our legal colleagues and, while most of the work done in this area is all above board, I’ve found a general lack of awareness amongst my official and practitioner peers.

After David gaves us a quick lecture in the diferences and cross-overs between public and private law, we got down into a good discussion albeit one that felt a little like being on a ship tossed about in a grey sea of legal nuances and Latin. If coding websites isn’t technical enough for you anymore, try some of this stuff.

Still, I came away inspired to learn more and better armed with the materials to challenge some of the conventional wisdom and quasi-legal obstacles to better engagement and data release.

Session 3 – Location-based services

Apparently another first for Uk GovCamp, expertly facilitated by my workmate, Shane Dillon.

Anyone who knows Shane knows he’s a superfan of location-based tools and has been advocating their adoption by government services for ages and he was out to float some ideas but also to listen.

A mix of local and central government peeps covered software, apps, trust, applications, demographics, in fact I don’t think there was an angle that we didn’t cover. A special shout-out goes to Paul Taylor, who despite probably being in a pub somewhere watching Man City, bravely chipped in with an attempt at 100 potential uses of location-based tools by government.

It was a fascinating session that made my head spin at times with the potential opportunities and the potential obstacles. But I came out of there thinking it is definitely something we should experiment with more. It might not have much cut through now but I remember the same being said of microblogging at one point.

The rest of the time

The rest of my time was spent chatting away with other attendees and generally making up for lost time. I had so many good conversations and was glad of a chance to make my aquaintance with people who I’d previously only known as an avatar.

Conclusion

Would I go again? Well it was on a Saturday… but in all seriousness the UK GovCamp is a great way to seed ideas, pick up new ones, see good work and make contacts with people you wouldn’t usually bump into in an average week.

So yes I will be back again. That is if I can find one of the golden tickets next year,

Finally a big thanks to Steph and Dave for taking the time to put the day together.

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