Busy weekend

9 December 2008 (Tuesday)

I was a useful visitor at sicamp08

I had a busy weekend being a social innovator. Well being social at least (let’s keep the claims reasonable): I think I met more people in one weekend than I have done in the whole of last year. Enough  great ideas to give me a headache too (or was that post-sicamp pub session?).

It started off, I have to say, inauspiciously with a crowdvine site (a group/conference supporting micro-social site), which, for me, didn’t really work. Why not? Maybe because of some specific social dynamics – some of the people knew each other, others didn’t. Plus there wasn’t a clear purpose to why we were using the crowdvine… yes it aggregated our tweets (but do I want to introduce myself to strangers through my tweets?) but I found judicious use of  twitterific on iphone more useful. But maybe I was just nervous… looking foward but not sure what to expect…

So this thing, Sicamp December 08,  kicked off with a Friday evening  of frenetic socialising —  trying to meet as many people as possible, and work out (if you didn’t know already) what  project team to work with. For the first time in my life, I managed to ‘mingle’ properly; that’s to say, I managed to move on from people with whom I’d have been very happy to spend the rest of the evening chatting with (about Erlang’s relevance to web technologies … or … music in Sao Tome … or…  how  “volunteering” and charitability can be the cause of holding back the development of the developing world …).

On Saturday morning I still had no clue what project I was going to be working on, and came in to the Young Foundation offices to find out what clever process they were going to use to divide us into teams. They stoked us up with coffee and  croissants then pointed out the labels with arrows to each of the project’s spaces in the buildings … and then got out of the way as people started running to get to into their chosen project. We-need.com (that had rechristened itself already) and Going postal (that later was to becom post post) were both very fervent teams, and had already organised what from the outside looked like a very disciplined structure from the off.

I had decided that being on a small team would be a good idea (not just an idea –  Denise Stephens had pointed out to us that  her Enabled By Design winning team last year had been the smallest); somehow I found myself gravitating to what was turned out to be the largest team, Useful Visitors. The idea was either about something I was skeptical of – getting business people to donate pieces of time to charitable works when they have extra time on trips to the developing world, or was about something I found more compelling – harnessing the drive (and guilt!) of any country’s diaspora. Very different kinds of visitors, very different kinds of visits, very different kinds of network/site that would need to be built.

As expected by all, the size of the team was almost our downfall… Femi, whose idea and project Useful Visitors is, was keen to get as many ideas as possible – bring it all on. For him the weekend was as much about driving the concept forward for the long term as about building a proposition and prototype for the Sunday show and tell. But then again we had to have something.

We split into groups, working very effectively on different ideas, but when we were trying to all pull together a consistent vision of the site / service and the user journey through it, it all felt like it was getting bogged down in treacle. Despite having initially asserted that I couldn’t help with the content/context, just the tech (and really I was right, I have no experience in these areas), I none the less became passionate advocate of this and that. In particular I loved an idea which we we called the Useful Lunch – an idea of a free exchange between a visiting business person (probably a high flier) with a local business person – over a local business lunch, that gives the visitor an insight to the country and context (and some company),  and the local access to some external points of view that may differ from what everyone around them are saying. A nice idea, but who knows if it would actually fulfil any existing social need.

But other more general ideas held sway (probably a good thing) my passions about particular ideas subsided (ditto). I was not 100% clear if the slightly abstract user journey that emerged on the whiteboard was intended to be a site that might take months to make, or what we were going to do in the weekend. Could be either. Too many people in the room perhaps. Too much design up front perhaps. Not enough coffee maybe. I looked over at Tom’s laptop  (Tom Ten Thij, a rubyist with way more rails & tech cred than me)… and noticed that he was coding up what he saw on the laptop into a database model and basic rails scaffold. To fill in the time. Yay! let’s just get stuck in. I often feel I just want to see something to get a reaction as to what it will be.

So we split into groups and Tom and I, together with  Tim Jackson standing in as our on-site customer,  made a basic construct of the a very simple arc of interaction working getting another . Funny things (I can say that, it wasn’t me doing the ‘fun’) like setting up deployment were more time consuming than we guessed (isn’t it always trickier than you guess) – a good idea to get that out of the way in advance, but we got it sorted and some decent work done before poor tired Sicamp leaders had to chuck us out of the building (that didn’t stop us coding of course).

There were a lot of other people working in separate teams and we occasionally crossed over, and sometimes stepped on each others toes (both metaphorically and literally – there were a lot of people in a smallish space).  I was aware of their work and had to dip in and out of my coding mind (which added to the brain ache slightly), to see what others were doing – pulling together stats and business cases,  getting video endorsements from high-powered contacts in Nigeria, creating graphics and designs which  required only subtle changes.

The next day we were fired up doing lots and more of the same. Somehow my enthusiasm for adding more and more to the site waned as it became apparent I was going to demo the site as part of the presentation team. Hmm, invited guests and cameras (The People Speak were on hand documenting and being video provocateurs throughout the wekekend) made me a little more nervous about adding in edgy features at the last minute. Tom managed to sneak in a cap deploy of what he had been working on a few seconds after I’d closed my laptop to leave for the big room at the Museum of Childhood round the corner. Chuckle.

I was really proud of what we’d done with the prototype http://uvisitor.com. At least until I saw what everyone else had done. Ouch! Now that stuff is impressive. AccessCity did four APIs to the webservice they’d built and an iphone app on top of one of them (ouch ouch). We-need did novel UI stuff (appropriate for their target market) and clever information visualization. Good gym actually ran after runners on the canal and got video of them signing up to join the website. OwnGrown seemed to have implemented a full trading system, as well as doing their first delivery during their talk. Do I have to go on?

The weekend was so packed with ideas and people (and code!) it seemed to pass by in a whizz, at the same time as feeling like it went by  in slow motion. I have a feeling it’s a weekend that will last for a long time.

UPDATE: I wrote this late at night, so I forgot the really obvious… a major thank you to all at SICamp for setting it all up, and all at and in the Young Foundation for putting us up and putting up with us (and our aftermath)!

UPDATE: Filled in Tim Jackson’s last name

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