James Governor's Monkchips

Activate 09: The Guardian’s Catalyst for UK Open Culture

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Yesterday I lucky enough to go the inaugural Activate event, organised by the Guardian newspaper.

“an exclusive one-day summit providing a unique gathering for leaders working across all sectors to share, debate and create strategies for answering some of the world’s biggest questions.”

At the risk of getting carried away Activate felt like a seminal event, perhaps even a watershed in UK business and media culture. The Guardian has created a space to pull together a lot of really important conversations about where we go from here. Now the investment banks are “profitable” again we’re all fine, right? Global warming – its just a fad. No – the fact is the hard work starts now and a return to the status quo would be crass. We need new ways forward. Activate is unashamedly targeted at makers and doers, people that will build things…. such as the future.

I remember having a similar feeling at the first Future Of Web Apps conference, when Ryan Carson helped kick start the current buzz in the London web design and development community. The feeling in question… “it’s time”.

From Hacks to Hackers: The Guardian’s Transformation

In some respects Activate09 is simply the logical culmination of a newspaper aggressively reinventing itself as a community-driven news operation. Emily Bell, editor in chief of the Guardian’s online operations, should get a lot more credit from the new media than she currently does. Emily has all the online nous of a Jeff Jarvis, but she is actually putting it into practice at a major news operation. She is smart enough to have Jeff as a regular contributor and advisor. But Emily is evidently no pushover.

I had to chuckle when she reintroduced one of the superstars at Activate, as

“Ariana Huffington, editor in chief of the second best comment site on the web…”

What’s the best evidence the Guardian’s online strategies are working effectively – US readership. At a time when US newspapers are collapsing the Guardian is winning many new readers there.

There is another important strand to the Guardian’s current reinvention. It is now employing some of the UK’s best application developers.  There probably isn’t a web company in the world that wouldn’t hire Simon Willison. He built the MP’s Expenses crowdsourcing application – which employed Guardian readers to investigate thousands of pages of MP’s expenses claims. Now that’s active reading!

The Guardian has long campaigned that the public sector free our data so its good to see the organisation actually do something with it when the government “obliged”. And developers are key to doing useful stuff with data. The Guardian even has an application programming interface, opening its own content up to outside use. Matt McAlister is chief developer herder and API wrangler at the Guardian, and he invited me to the event (and comp’d me). I understand Matt was a, if not the, driving force in organising it. There’s a lot more to be said about the transition from Hacks to Hackers, but that’s a story in its own right.

Open Culture and its Curation

Open culture will require new modes, mores and methods. We had a great opportunity to see how this can work during one of the sessions yesterday morning. I was a little surprised that a negative comment I made about Adam Afriyie, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills was edited out of the twitter stream that was being projected onto the huge screens like so:

Moderating twitter for spam makes a great deal of sense-but of content less so. It was fun to be involved in a vigorous debate about the issue going on behind the talking heads on the panel. The resolution was amicable and showed a real commitment to the tenets the Guardian claims to represent. Well done Chris Thorpe aka jaggeree. Roo Reynolds, writes up the episode up here.

Open Culture and The Truth To Power

Until yesterday as far as I was concerned the jury was still out on digital MP Tom Watson but to see him tear Ordnance Survey a new one from the stage was magnificent. Watson called OS refusal to open its data to the public a disgrace, and said that as taxpayers we’d already paid for the information the organisation holds, and sells to commercial companies. He went further and said that any privatisation would make matters even worse. What made these remarks remarkable was that Ordnance Survey was one of Activate’s sponsors. It would appear Watson is enjoying life outside the cabinet.

Open Culture and Epidemiology

One of the presentations I most enjoyed came from Ian Lipkin, Director, Center for Infection & Immunity, Columbia University. Lipkin made the case for open data in talking about our ability to respond to diseases. When it comes to virus identification and tracking, proprietary information kills people. Pretty simple, no? Swine Flu is a great ad for open data.

Lipkin is Big Pharma’s worst nightmare. If his ideas catch on then privatised science could take a good hard knock. For a deep exposition of the argument for Public Science I thoroughly recommend James Suroweicki’s Wisdom of the Crowds.

Format This

Of course nothing is perfect, and for all my praise there is plenty of work for the Guardian to do to make Activate10 better. My biggest concern was that the schedule of talks and panels was so regimented there was not much time to just relax and talk to people and share ideas. The best 20 minutes of the day for me was lunch: standing on the terrace, overlooking a canal, with Werner Vogels – Amazon’s chief technology officer. I am a big fan of Werner, and though we know each other online, there is still no substitute for meeting somebody face to face. Especially in these surroundings. What does Werner want now, and why was he perfect for Activate? Big, Open Data: If you have it, Amazon wants to help you share it.

Another opportunity is to include more of the attendees, perhaps by using the unconference format or some open mike lightning talks. When you have Stephen Wolfram at your event you probably want more from him than one question for a panel.

My other complaint is the Guardian Newspaper seemingly didn’t have the courage of its event’s convictions. To be fair I know the online operations are currently evaluating new search technology for the site but the fact I couldn’t immediately find any new content from Activate09 on the Guardian homepage or through its search bar shows the online and offline ops are not completely integrated yet.

I am not going to try and write up everything I saw and heard at the show, although there may be some follow up posts. Roo Reynold’s roundup is very good, and I stole a picture from him. I did eventually find, by tipoff, the Guardian’s online write ups of the event – and I particularly recommend you find out more about Jay Parkinson, a Williamsburg, NY doctor trying to build the future of healthcare. He wants seeing the doctor to be as easy as picking up a Zipcar. I know Stephen would approve… And as a company that subsidises our employee’s healthcare in the US better, cheaper healthcare using web technologies and open information would be good for us too.

Format issues aside, the event totally rocked. I am already looking forward to next year.

photos – thanks to Roo Reynolds and Glemak for the photos.


  1. James Governor’s Monkchips » Activate 09: The Guardian’s Catalyst … http://bit.ly/12cTnn
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. […] this technology to make a difference. The event has been covered by the Guardian Activate 09 blog, James Governor, Roo Reynolds, Martin Belam, and Matt McAlister has described what the Guardian was trying to […]

  3. thanks for attribution of photo james – it was a good summit and i enjoyed your twitter stream contribution 😉

    1. cheers mike! thank you for the creative commons attribution 2.0 license! it was indeed a very good summit

  4. I find it amusing that you think that the Guardian’s invite-only shindig represented ‘open culture’ in the UK.

    If you’d wanted to see the people who are building the UK’s open culture rather than their bosses, various imported celebrities and assorted talking heads then you should have come to OpenTech: http://www.ukuug.org/events/opentech2009/

    Take a look at that conference’s history, the people who attended it and it’s use of modern technologies if you want to see what the UK’s online future looks like.

    See you at PubSub.

  5. […] Emily is The Guardian’s online editor. You’re probably thinking.. but the Guardian isn’t a startup. True True – but its beginning to act like one, and any newspaper that wants to survive the ongoing shakeout better do just that. I am a huge Bell fan. She is doing some very important things and writes about digital policy masterfully. See my post here. […]

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