Cape Breton’s First Hackathon

Cape Breton’s first what??

A hackathon is a place for programmers, developers, designers, as well as anyone interested in meeting and learning from them, to get together and collaborate.

The event takes place Saturday, May 18th from 10am ’til 9pm (hence the “marathon” metaphor). The location is TBA once total attendance is known, but it’ll be somewhere in downtown Sydney.

And it’s all free! You just have to register.

The day starts with 30 minutes dedicated to people pitching their project development ideas. Others vote on the ideas, teams get formed, and everyone sets to work building the projects or apps.

Rather than being centred around a particular programming language (which is normally the case), this hackathon will focus on the platform: anything you can build on a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming. (Raspberry Pi FAQ)

Let me emphasize that last part: “we want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.” There’s no age limit (in either direction) to participate in Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.

The day will end with demos of the projects and winners will be crowned. Food and beverages are provided all day, you get a t-shirt, and it’s all free! Don’t forget to register.

For more info, check out the Facebook page.

Programming a sustainable future

For anyone convinced that programming is just about wasting people’s time with Angry Birds and invading their privacy with Facebook ads…

Coding and design can be about so much more — even a new form of civic engagement. Just check out the National Day of Civic Hacking, taking place June 1st in the US.

A national event that will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build and invent, using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighbourhoods, our cities, our states and our country.

The White House is even hosting an event!

Coders and designers can help open up government; improve and increase community engagement; empower citizens to solve problems together; facilitate learning; and so much more. (Check out “10 Ways Civic Hacking is Good for Cities”.)

It can also spur economic growth. Check out this infographic[pdf] of Canadian high-tech companies acquired over the past five years. Including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of activity in the Maritimes from the sale of just three companies!

The new “superpower” that isn’t being taught in most schools

Despite its economic impact and potential for massive growth, programming is absent from most school curricula. Instead, websites, online courses, and hackathons have stepped up to fill the gap. You might have seen this video that went viral a few months ago, showing the workplace utopia awaiting those who learn to code:

Some have criticized the video above for equating programming with the paycheque, rather than with its transformative power to change the world. But it can be both. (It can also be neither). As the founder of Dropbox says at the 4-minute mark:

“Whether you’re trying to make a lot of money, or whether you just want to change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn.”


“I think that if someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it’s really about helping people, by using computer technology, it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier.”

If you have a young person in your life who wants to change the world, encourage them to register for Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.

Search Terms of Endearment: 2013

Today I combed through the statistics on my website from the past year. Among other things, I saw which blog post got the most hits in 2012. I saw which period of 2012 had the most traffic (not surprisingly, mid-September to mid-October, during the CBRM election). And I saw what percentage of visitors to my website arrived via Facebook (50%), via Google (40%), and via Twitter (7%). (The remainder arrived via links on other websites.)

But the most fun was seeing the actual keywords people searched on Google, before ending up on my website. Of course, most of the search terms made perfect sense, and I’m glad they found me!

“mike targett”

“cape breton + web design”

“cbrm district 5 candidates”

Other search terms included the names of colleagues and clients — names that  appear in my portfolio. The names of friends and acquaintances popped up as well — names that appear in comments, for example, and in mentions throughout my website. (I wonder if they were just Googling themselves. Not that I’m judging!)

Some searches can be explained easily enough, based on the keywords, but I wonder if the context was right? Did the person find what they were really looking for when they searched:

“how david beats goliath – what does it mean”

“kids flying kites on a grassy hill”

“sean casey cartoons”

“fuzzy’s fries”

“galerie uli schaarschmidt”

“cbrm property tax revenue”

Some search terms don’t show up all together in any one particular blog post. But the keywords are nonetheless scattered across multiple blog posts. If so, there’s a chance Google could have found them all together on an archive page. Archives are where every blog post on a particular theme (for example, “internet”, or “climate change”, or “coal mining”) is collected and indexed on a separate page. Not terribly helpful for some searches, and it might not have answered your question. (I’ve since fixed it for search.) But anyway, still good questions!

“day care to send child occasionally in sydney ns”
(How did they make out, I wonder?)

“top 20 employers in cape breton creative digital media”
(20 is a lot, but here’s a start.)

“where can i find a speech on youth out-migration”
(Here’s one. Here’s another.)

Some searches made me simultaneously despair and awed at the power of the Internet:

“save the world from climate change”
(Search = ‘climate change’)

And some searches made me wish I could find out who was behind them:

“cape breton collective identity”

Now there’s something to blog about.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Tech Community in Sydney

Moore’s law predicts that the performance of microchips will increase exponentially over time. A variation seems to be governing the life-cycle of Atlantic Canada tech startups:

  • March 2011 — Salesforce (San Francisco, California) buys social media monitoring company Radian6 (New Brunswick).
  • July 2012 — Salesforce buys co-browsing innovators GoInstant (Halifax/Cape Breton).
  • January 2013 (???) — Salesforce buys LeadSift (Halifax), which mines social media data to generate sales for companies.

One of LeadSift’s angel investors is Jevon MacDonald, CEO of GoInstant. This is how it’s supposed to be. See the full story: via @innovacorp

Is the rate at which Atlantic Canada startups are moving from innovation to acquisition accelerating? And if so, is it a bubble? Or a positive trend? ‘Entrevestor Intelligence’ thinks it’s just the beginning.

The Tech Community in Greater Sydney

From Entrevestor Intelligence [pdf], sponsored by NSBI.

When co-browsing startup GoInstant sold out for more than $70 million this year, one detail that was lost in the hoopla was the fact that its technology was conceived and pioneered in Sydney, Cape Breton.

The company came together in late 2010 when Sydney-based programmers Gavin Uhma, Kirk MacPhee and David Kim showed up at one of the TecSocials organized by Robert Pelley, the Innovacorp Investment Manager based in Cape Breton.

The featured speaker that night was the agency’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence Jevon MacDonald, who was amazed when Uhma, MacPhee and Kim told him about the project they were working on – a co-browsing system that would allow people at different computers to work on the same screen…

The fact is that there is a community of tech talent in the former industrial hub that is exceeded in the province only by Halifax.MeConsider the case of eLearning company MediaSpark, which is developing GoVenture World, a massive multi-player online game that will train budding entrepreneurs in what it’s really like to start and grow your own business. The company has 17 employees, of whom 16 are in Sydney, including its entire development team.

As well as talent, Sydney-based companies have found capital needed for their businesses. Techlink Entertainment, which develops responsible gambling systems and products, has raised $5.5 million in VC investment and $6 million in loans from Nova Scotia Business Inc. World Health Outcomes and Marcato Digital Solutions have also raised VC funding, while MediaSpark received investment from what CEO Mathew Georghiou calls ‘quasi-venture capitalists’.

The tech community in industrial Cape Breton is as varied as you’d find in other centres, ranging from the healthcare systems developed by Corrine McIsaac at Health Outcomes Worldwide to the geological samples analysis software of Celtic Coring Systems.

One area of strength is developing technical applications for cultural industries – no doubt a happy byproduct of the rich artistic tradition of the area.

MediaSpark is a publisher of eBooks used around the world, while Marcato Digital has developed administrative systems for musicians and festivals. A newcomer to the space, TixCamp, is now developing software that can help concert organizers assess demand for specific acts.

Attention Span of the Internet

“The biggest fallacy of writing on the web is the idea that there is unlimited space,” says GigaOM founder Om Malik on his blog. “The true limitation of the Internet is attention.”

And when all you have is a “minute and a half of someone’s attention,” it takes a great deal of creativity to make a persuasive argument, tell a compelling story, or deliver a factual news piece.

But the obverse is also true: in a world of 90-second attention spans, it takes an even greater deal of creativity to grab hold of that attention and not let go!

This is the philosophy of Atavist, a digital publishing app for long-form writing and multimedia storytelling. And its goal — a world where there’s space for attention.

Cofounder and CEO Evan Ratcliff recently spoke at XOXO, an arts and technology festival in Portland, Oregon. It’s not your average conference presentation. Instead he employs a narrative style that evokes — and references — the very kinds of storytelling you find on Atavist.

It includes surveillance footage of a $150 million helicopter-assisted heist of a vault in Sweden; a 7-year old’s diary of her troubled childhood; Brian Wilson’s original recordings from the making of Smile; a graphic novel chronicling a young boy’s escape from slavery in Ethiopia to a job as a retail clerk in Long Island, New York; and the time Ratcliff tried to vanish, like people who fake their own death.

When Ratcliff gives presentations about Atavist at publishing conferences, the reaction is often cynical.

“The publishing industry assumes that there’s a relationship between size and editorial control; that in order to do things that are high quality, that involve great writers, you need editors, and to have editors you need a huge building on Park Avenue that has twenty floors.”

Maybe the biggest fallacy of writing not on the web is that there is a direct correlation between overhead and quality.

Engaging CBRM to reinvent itself

“Around the world there are cities in desperate need of rejuvenation and transformation. Elected officials are scrambling to equip their cities for the 21st century, talking about creating ‘open’, ‘networked’, and ‘smart’ cities.”

So writes social media commentator Don Tapscott in a blog post titled “Engaging the Population of a City to Reinvent Itself”. And not just elected officials, but also people like yours truly who are running for municipal council. For example, see my recent post: Access to Information & ‘Open Government’.

Tapscott continues:

“Cities need new strategies for meeting [their] challenges, and fortunately, the Internet and new digital tools provide a low-cost and effective way of doing this. These tools allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process and be engaged in public life. Residents can offer their wisdom and enthusiasm on an ongoing basis. When citizens become active, good things happen. People learn from one another. Initiatives get catalyzed.”

An example he gives is Bogota, Columbia, which recently elected a new mayor. The local Chamber of Commerce led the charge on increasing community engagement. Here’s what the story would look like if you simply swapped CBRM for Bogota:

“With a municipal election scheduled for the end of October the Chamber saw an opportunity to challenge the mayoral candidates with ideas and proposals to fix the city. But rather than doing the back room lobbying that characterizes municipal politics, it took a different approach. It decided to engage the citizens of [CBRM] in a process to reinvent their city.”

“…It was an extraordinary exercise that is rich with lessons for anyone wanting to help their own city. The goal was to encourage local businesses, community leaders and citizens to become involved in the [CBRM’s] affairs.”

“The process involved a mix of online and local face-to-face initiatives. The Chamber wanted voters to help set the agenda for the new mayor and government. However this was not simply about asking the candidates to adopt platitudes about building a better, more open city. Many of the proposals were not only fresh, they had teeth.”

Or, as Fr Jimmy Tompkins put it, and as I quoted him in my Ideas talk, the ideas “had legs”.

The Chamber was able to involve more than 10,000 citizens. Its 26 roundtables attracted 1,800 citizen, business and student leaders. During the sessions participants made 1,600 proposals and 1,700 commitments towards the city. More than 8,000 people filled out the virtual and face-to-face surveys.

(Tapscott will elaborate on the results in a future blog post.)

Get smart, go mobile

In 2009, George Colombo produced a New Yorker cover using an iPhone app called Brushes. When neighbours referred to him as the guy who draws on his phone, he corrected them: “I occasionally make phone calls on my easel!”

The ability to make “calls” is no longer what distinguishes a mobile phone from other tech. I can make voice calls on my laptop using Skype or Google Voice, right from Gmail even! Indeed, the smart phone is closer, on the evolutionary tech tree, to a laptop computer than it is to a cell phone. (A cell phone, in turn, is probably closer to a rotary phone than it is to a smart phone, let alone a computer.)

As smart phones become more and more powerful, they become more and more indistinguishable from tablets, laptops, and desktop computers (the same, only smaller). And last year, more smart phones (not cell phones, but smart phones alone) were purchased than home computers (desktops, laptops, and tablets combined). So then the “year of mobile” was, like, two years ago. We’re firmly in the smart phone era. (An era these days might only last a week.)

So what does this mean for web design, if more and more people are viewing websites — big, beautiful, complex websites — on their teeny, tiny little phone-ish computers?

It certainly adds a new element of variability to the already cumbersome task I described two years ago when I wrote about the effect differences between web browsers has on web design:

print designers see the finished product as it will be seen by end-users. Web designers, on the other hand, have to account for all sorts of variability in end-use, including differences in users’ screen resolution, computer and internet speeds, and choice of web browser.

“Difference in screen resolution” used to mean accounting for whether the user was looking at your website on an older, smaller monitor or a newer, wider one. This usually meant playing to the lowest common denominator.

But now with mobile handsets and tablets in addition to laptops and desktops, there is an infinity of variability! And to cover all your bases you’ll need to build infinity versions of your website! Oh no!!

Just kidding. Instead, we’ll build one website that responds differently to different screen resolutions. For example, compare the two views above of In the MacBook view, the navigation menu is big and floats to the right; in the iPhone view, where we have much less space to work with, the nav menu shrinks and lines up in a neat little row below the header. Same website, different layout depending on the medium. It’s called “responsive web design.”

In the past, web design involved a fair bit of wrestling (mainly with the differences between Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc) to ensure your website looks the same across all browsers. Now, it’s not so much about making your website look the same on all screens, but good on all screens.

(Also see “Responsive Design: One size fits all” in the Globe & Mail)

Everything: Make It Better

The Internet is a tool, and like any tool, whether it is creative or destructive comes down to how it’s used:

United Nations Proclaims Internet Access a Human Right

When Social Networks Become Tools of Oppression

Many of the contradictions of the Internet are wonderfully contained in “Made for Humans: A Digital Manifesto”, on Crush+Lovely, whose mantra is:

  • Behavior can and does change through design. People respond to their environment.
  • There is no substitute for the richness of the physical world. Go out and play.
  • Digital remains in its infancy and will evolve for better or worse. Make it better.

At the 2009 World Economic Forum in Dubai, the Global Agenda Council on Design created a set of design principles based on the idea that “design is an agent of change that enables us to understand complex changes and problems, and to turn them into something useful. Tackling today’s global challenges will require radical thinking, creative solutions, and collaborative action.”

As MoMA curator Paola Antonelli puts it in Seed Magazine, this translates into a design approach that is:

  • transparent (complex problems require simple, clear, and honest solutions);
  • inspiring (successful solutions will move people by satisfying their needs, giving meaning to their lives, and raising their hopes and expectations);
  • transformational (exceptional problems demand exceptional solutions that may be radical and even disruptive);
  • participatory (effective solutions will be collaborative, inclusive, and developed with the people who will use them);
  • contextual (no solution should be developed or delivered in isolation but should instead recognize the social, physical, and information systems it is part of);
  • and sustainable (every solution needs to be robust, responsible, and designed with regard to its long-term impact on the environment and society).

What designer doesn’t aspire to these lofty goals? The trick is to get policy-makers to adopt them as well, and to recognize that society’s problems are often if not always in need of designer solutions.

Beaton Institute’s “MUSIC” website wins award for Archival Excellence

The Council of Nova Scotia Archives has awarded the 2010 Dr. Phyllis R Blakeley Award for Archival Excellence to the Beaton Institute in recognition of its project Music: Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity.

The award recognizes exemplary projects which have focused in some way upon archival holdings; or have promoted the concept and value of archives; or have displayed excellence relating to a specific archival function (accessioning; appraisal; arrangement and description; and public service) and which have lasting archival value.

As I said when I first wrote about working on the website, the digitization of over 100 songs, more than 20 videos, and more than 175 photos from the Beaton’s archives — thus ensuring their preservation while increasing accessibility to the public — is what the Internet was made for.

Better Browser, Better Web

Designing for the web is different than designing for print in countless ways, many of which come down to the differences in how the two are consumed. For example, print designers see the finished product as it will be seen by end-users. Web designers, on the other hand, have to account for all sorts of variability in end-use, including differences in users’ screen resolution, computer and internet speeds, and choice of web browser.

As the Mozilla Foundation’s Open to Choice campaign puts it, “the Web browser is the lens through which we look at the virtual world, and the medium by which we connect, learn, share and collaborate.” However, some people don’t know they even have a choice of web browser. The computer on almost every office desk is a PC running Windows that came out of the box with IE already installed. (One wonders whether incorporation comes with a Microsoft contract.)

With a little over 50% of the usage share of web browsers, Internet Explorer is indeed an institution. But it is a good product? Does it load web pages as fast as other browsers do? Does it allow users to customize it? Does it protect users’ online security and privacy? Does it render websites the way designers intend?

No, nono, and… almost.

While different web browsers may render the web differently, making “cross-browser compatibility” tricky sometimes, web standards such as those produced by the World Wide Web Consortium (or W3C) are designed to reduce that variability to near nil, ensuring the web renders as intended no matter which “lens” the user is looking through.

Web standards matter because they ensure everyone the same experience on the web; reduce the amount of time and money wasted trying to design one way for one browser and another way for another browser; and give developers guidelines to ensure their work is accessible to those with disabilities.

Internet Explorer is, at best, slow to adopt web standards, and even slower to adopt experimental, cutting-edge stuff. But it’s not like rounded corners that are all-code-no-images are going to make your experience of the web more open, safe, easy and fast. There are plenty of other reasons, like the ones described above, to ditch IE.

Firefox is made by Mozilla, a strong advocate for keeping the web public, open and accessible:

The Internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible. It’s the most powerful communication tool in the history of humanity and the nervous system of trade, education, governance, activism, and play. It lets a single idea achieve global impact. All without needing someone else’s approval or permission…. The web must be protected from confusion, monopoly, exploitation, centralization and control.

Opera accounts for about 2.5% of the global market share of web browsers. Doesn’t sound like much until you realize there are almost 2 billion people online.

Chrome is just plain fast. Faster than a potato gun. Faster than sound waves. Faster than lightning.

Rewiring Rotten Brains: The Internet After TV

Following up on his (in)famous article in The Atlantic MonthlyIs Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr argues (this time in Wired) that the way we read online is changing our neurophysiology. (CBC interview here.)

It was Marshall McLuhan who pointed out that the way information is transmitted determines the way it is received, not only providing the stuff of thought but structuring the way of thinking. The Web – as Carr’s argument goes – promotes less-focused reading: hyperlinks direct your attention elsewhere; multiple tabs, windows, apps divide if not divert your attention entirely; animated flash ads dare you to do anything other than… what was I saying?

The result is a loss of focus, literally rewiring our brains to make us less likely – indeed less able – to engage in deep reading/thinking.

Internet guru Clay Shirky responds that abundance is good, and notes that reading is not gone, just the certain kind of reading associated with literary and academic types. While Carr laments the impending passing of the “complex, dense and ‘cathedral-like’ structure of the highly educated and articulate personality,” Shirky says good riddance.

But deep reading/thinking doesn’t simply require being able to follow a linear argument; it involves circling in on an idea, along the way picking up contextual aids – and counterarguments – from around the periphery. In a nutshell, context creates meaning and contributes to understanding. Notwithstanding philosopher Hilary Putnam’s quip that any philosophy that fits in a nutshell belongs in one, nothing (arguably) embodies this philosophy better than the hyperlink. There is a limit, of course, to the amount of context one can handle; passing the threshold is called ‘information overload’. But segregation (‘de-linking’) is not the answer.

The paradigm of information segregation is the University and its ‘disciplines’, a model of the ‘specialization’ trend described by Adam Smith and theorized by F. W. Taylor. Hence the “cathedral” metaphor must be recast in light of – or in the shadow of – the information “silo”.

The Internet is in many ways the University’s antithesis. (In many ways not.) And in its present incarnation – as a carry-over from the Industrial Revolution – the University is in many ways a problem in need of a solution. The Web might be just the thing.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the unprecedented scope and complexity of the problems the world faces demands an equally complex (syncretic and interdisciplinary) approach to social and biological systems; to the interconnections within, between and among them.

The Medium and The Message

Etsy’s Mandy Brown, writing on A List Apart, suggests that what might look like attention-deficit hyper-surfing is similar to the reluctant, reflective and ritualistic way we approach traditional print media: scanning the front page of a newspaper for topics of interest or perusing the back cover of a book before deciding to commit. There is a fidgety dispersal of attention leading up to the part where you actually attend to something.

Once I find an article I want to read online, I click Readability, a bookmarklet that converts any noisy webpage into a serene e-book format; and then Shift-Command-F, which sends my Chrome browser into full-screen mode so that I’m not beckoned by open tabs and windows or desktop applications.

Carr’s argument conflates the medium and the message – the means and the format, the tool and its use – the way people often conflate the Internet (physical transmission of information) and the Web (virtual presentation of information). If New Media is turning us into attention-deficit twits, how much of the blame lies with the mode of transmission; how much with the method of display? This is an important distinction, because the Internet isn’t going to change much (it’ll get faster), whereas the Web is profoundly if not infinitely malleable.

Sure, even with my focusing strategy, some attention-drain is bound to result from knowing a vast sea of information and entertainment is only a click or key-stroke away. But the same is true mutatis mutandis of a bookshelf at arm’s reach, or a newspaper’s half-dozen other sections scattered across my coffee table. (Isn’t the hyperlink’s precursor the footnote?)

In fact, there’s an even more powerful attention-drain even closer: one’s own imagination. Remember daydreaming? “Of course you don’t,” says Walter Kirn in The Atlantic, arguing that the ubiquity of handheld devices, and the subsequent availability of limitless entertainment, heralds the End of Boredom. On the contrary, this suggests to me that we are insatiably bored.

Since the advent of interactive media we’ve been told that a shift is underway, from “lean back” (TV) to “lean forward” (Web). But the victory of the active over the passive mode is mitigated by the brain- and bum-softening effects of half a century of television, which has produced a sedentary and less-than-curious populace. Do we have a hunger for engagement, or simply an insatiable appetite for entertainment?

Again, Shirky:

“Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already… more than five and a half solid years… Somehow, watching television became a part-time job for every citizen in the developed world.”

The turn from passive to active media frees up this “cognitive surplus”: time and energy that can be put toward something productive and useful and that is otherwise wasted in front of the boob-tube.

“Once we stop thinking of all that time as individual minutes to be whiled away and start thinking of it as a social asset that can be harnessed, it all looks very different. The buildup of this free time among the world’s educated population – maybe a trillion hours per year – is a new resource.

“Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year. [Using] … a back-of-the-envelope calculation … all the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits [on Wikipedia] represent around 100 million hours of human labor.”

Given that our thinking has been structured (in McLuhan’s sense) by television – Carr’s real if unacknowledged target – we must be vigilant about not reproducing its mind-enslaving effects. (Perhaps rewiring a rotted brain is a good thing?) Indeed, some of the results of the pooling of cognitive surplus are less than inspiring. But some are empowering, even transformative. The meaning of a tool is its use. In other words, the Internet can be as much about interruption as disruption.