Unconferences Galvanize Local Techies

By Robert Janelle

Originally published in National Capital Scan February, 2008

On a snowy Thursday evening, web consultant Derek Featherstone stands before a crowd packed into the basement of the Clocktower Brew Pub on Bank Street giving a presentation on accessibility using Google Maps. He goes over the difficulties of navigating the online mapping service for someone who can only use a keyboard, along with demonstrating what someone with vision problems goes through trying to use it with speech recognition software.

Then Mr. Featherstone goes over the work-arounds he’s developed so far to address these problems.

It’s the first meeting of Refresh Ottawa, a new common-interest group focusing on web issues. Refresh was started by Mr. Featherstone and freelance web developer Jonathan Snook.

“We just wanted to see the web community in Ottawa grow,” says Mr. Featherstone. Ottawa isn’t the only city holding Refresh meetings. Many U.S. and U.K. cities are holding their own gatherings of web designers and developers under the Refresh brand.

In fact, the Ottawa group owes its creation to a chapter in Texas.

Inspiration for the group came when Mr. Featherstone was speaking at South by Southwest, a large multimedia conference in Austin, Texas. There he learned of the Refresh group and discussed setting up an Ottawa branch with Mr. Snook.

Refresh Ottawa is one the most recent common-interest groups to pop up with international ties.

There’s Third Tuesday’s for social media discussion, DemoCamp for developers to show off their work and, possibly the biggest, DemoCamp’s parent group BarCamp.

BarCamp, which stretches globally across North America, Europe, Asia to Australia and New Zealand, bills itself as an “open source unconference.” The conferences are user-generated with presentations often being decided at the event itself by whoever is in attendance. Topics tend to be a mish-mash of technologies presented by social media or application developers showing off their most recent work. Everyone attending is supposed to participate, whether they’re presenting, contributing to the discussion or blogging about the event.

BarCamp came to Ottawa after iotum CEO Alec Saunders attended the conference in Toronto and suggested on his blog that someone should get it going here.

Marketing consultant Peter Childs saw the post and took up the challenge, organizing four BarCamp events to date.

Mr. Childs says it’s about networking and putting an international banner on the get-together. It’s not just between local individuals, it’s about networking different cities across the globe.

“It’s like a franchise,” he says.

The most recent Ottawa BarCamp, held last November, was supposed to feature a live link-up with a BarCamp happening concurrently in Leeds, England, though technical glitches frustrated that plan.

Mr. Childs says they were looking to Leeds because of what they share with Ottawa. “We’re high-tech cities trying to find an identity for ourselves,” he says.

The aspirations behind Refresh Ottawa share that same desire for connectedness, not just between individuals but between cities.

We’re part of a small community in Ottawa, but it’s like we’re part of something bigger,“ says Mr. Featherstone.

“Having that camaraderie is great,” adds Mr. Snook.

Being able to work in small groups with support from a global community is also helpful when it comes to gathering of those with more esoteric interests.

Take dorkbot, for example.

Formed in New York City by Douglas Repetto from the Columbia University Computer Music Center, its tagline is “people doing strange things with electricity.”

Dorkbot brings together people creating art using electronics, like sculptures that are actually complex machines, robots and various other combinations of science and art. Like other groups, dorkbot has chapters across the United States, in Madrid, Spain, and Tokyo, Japan along with Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

New to the dorkbot family will be an Ottawa gathering organized by physicist Sebastien Bailard.

Mr. Bailard had been attending similar groups in Wisconsin and Montreal along with BarCamp in Ottawa, but decided it was time to bring the art-geek community in Ottawa together.

“I’m quite interested in electronic art, and while Ottawa has people doing interesting work in that field, the community seems to consist of gallery openings and irregular how-to workshops, without any kind of recurring community meet-up,” Mr. Bailard wrote in an e-mail.

So far, all of these groups are cost free to join, covering expenses through sponsorships. BitHeads and Carleton have provided space for BarCamp meetings. Web Directions North covered the cost of chicken wings for the inaugural Refresh Ottawa meeting. Advertising for the get-togethers is done by word-of-mouth or online, usually with members connecting through blogs or other social media (almost any kind of gathering generates a Facebook events page.)

With the groups being so technology focused, they also serve to dispel the stereotype of geeks trapped in front of monitors all day.

“It’s partly about providing that social aspect for people who are usually stuck in front of computers,” says Mr. Featherstone.