After several months of preparation, yesterday we held Open Tech NYC, a conference dedicated to exploring how open source and open technologies are powering the New York City innovation community. I organized the event with my colleague, Justin Dunham, and partnered with the Coalition for Queens, a local non-profit that is fostering the tech ecosystem in Queens.
When we were planning the conference, Justin and I spent a lot of time talking with Jukay, Ben, and David from Coalition for Queens on what audience we wanted to attract and how technical we wanted to go. While we wanted to draw a fairly technical audience, we also wanted to keep the sessions high-level enough that those that were new to open technologies could be introduced to this world.
For a single-track event, I was thrilled with the diversity of people, experiences, and topics that were covered. It’s tough to please everyone in a single track event but overall I was happy with the balance that we struck. Here is an overview of what was discussed at Open Tech NYC.
Sumana Harihareswara introduces you to your Open Tech neighbors
The conference kicked off with Sumana Harihareswara of the Wikimedia Foundation providing a broad overview of all of the interesting open source, open hardware, open data, and open culture happenings around the city. Despite a lingering cold, Sumana’s charisma, humor and energy shone through and was the perfect way to begin the day. This morning Sumana summarized in a blog post 50 links to institutions and events in the city, which is a great collection of resources for those of any background interested in getting involved in the open tech community. Below are some of my favorite moments from Sumana’s talk.
Joel Natividad on Open Data and Open Source: The Wonder Twins of Civic Hacking
Joel Natividad, the founder and CEO of Ontodia, presented on open data in the context of New York City’s Open Data Law, which mandates that the city’s various agencies provide access to their data. As citizens, we produce all sorts of fascinating information through our actions: metrocard swipes, 311 service requests, parking tickets, graffiti, and on and on and on.
With this data open and available, Joel explained that we can challenge our traditional view of government as a “vending machine” in which we put in money and receive services. We can start to participate in the conversation by building applications that take advantage of the information that is produced. There are, however, challenges to working with this open data. As Joel explains, each city agency has been collecting data over time in a silo, and there is no standardization across agencies. His company, Ontodia, aims to address this challenge by helping to do the data wrangling and normalization so that anyone can manipulate this powerful data.
Alan Hudson on 3D printing and open source at Shapeways
Alan Hudson, the Director of 3D Tools at Shapeways, talked about the 3D printing process, Shapeways’ factory in Long Island City, and the open source software that they use. Alan explained how open source enabled startup velocity, not only for Shapeways but for the designers that upload designs on their site to print. For example, he showed how the Steampunk iPhone case went through 9 different designs and $6,000 of sales over the course of a year. In parallel, Shapeways itself maintains over 2 million lines of code and relies heavily on open source to enable iterative development of their product.
Jon Gottfried on the History of the Hackathon
Jon Gottfried is a Developer Evangelist at Twilio, where he goes to hundreds of events and hackathons to talk about the Twilio API. His talk gave an overview of the different types of hackathons, from community-focused open source hackathons to brand-focused hacakthons with prizes. He cited my favorite hackathon, hackNY, which brings students from around the northeast to New York City to work with local startups and receive mentorship from the local tech community. Jon’s call to arms at the end was to focus on why we come together for these types of events, emphasize the community aspects of hackathons and celebrate the art of building.
Vanessa Hurst on Developers for Good
Vanessa Hurst explained how, while working as a programmer for a financial institution she was looking for a way to apply her technical skills in a more fulfilling way. She started an organization called Developers for Good to connect non-profits with people who have technical expertise. She explained that many non-profits benefit from open source since most don’t realize that most of their needs are solved by open source tools such as WordPress. She further explained that for her, helping a non-profit was often the motivation that she needed to learn a new technology. After the event, I felt inspired to join the Developers for Good meetup group.
Michael Li visualizes NYC using foursquare’s check-in data
Michael Li‘s talk generated a ton of conversation and excitement. He presented several fascinating data visualizations based on the foursquare check-in data set. For example, he showed us a moving map of color-coded New York City check-ins by time of day, showing how the city wakes up and moves from the outer boros and burbs into midtown for work, then shifting to lunch and shopping destinations and eventually to night life spots. He presented a graph that demonstrated that for every degree increase in weather, people are 2.1% more likely to buy ice cream. He also showed us the graph of check-ins to popular places like Grey’s Papaya, which had a clear 3am post-clubbing surge in check-ins
After all of this “data porn” Michael showed the underlying technologies that foursquare leverages as well as the machine learning principles that he applies to determine venue recommendations.
Andy Parsons on the New York City Startup Stack
Our final talk of the day came from Andy Parsons, the CTO and Co-Founder of Happify and serial New York City entrepreneur. Andy began his talk with an anecdote about a startup that he was part of during the late 90’s that had a major outage. While the majority of the stack was .NET, a forward thinking engineer had suggested that they use Postgres, an open source database. During that outage, the only part of the infrastructure that didn’t go down was the database — because he was able to see the underlying source code. That experience gave Andy the insight that using open technologies was a more pragmatic approach.
Andy also talked about the importance of community. He referenced a dinner for entrepreneurs that he and I frequent where the organizers says “If you leave without helping someone, you’ve failed.” Andy encouraged everyone to give back to the community, whether it’s through contributing code, open sourcing a project, or sharing knowledge in a blog post or talk.
The Event Overall
Overall, I enjoyed all of the presentations and learned something from each of the talks. When we started planning the event, we decided to start with a smaller, single track event to see what the response was to make sure that we didn’t take on more than we could handle. I’m glad we went with this approach, because with 180 registered, the event was intimate enough that we could do Q&A during each session and have good conversations during the breaks and at lunch.
The venue was also amazing, with rooftop space and an amazing view of the city that everyone enjoyed. We lucked out with incredible weather on one of the first beautiful days of spring. Everyone could sit in the sunshine between talks.
The Next Event?
Now that the first Open Tech NYC is complete, I’m already thinking about what to do next with the event. Justin wants to organize a second event this year, which is both exciting and daunting. For those of you who were at the event, I’d love to hear in the comments your thoughts and feedback on the conference and what we can do better next time.
Thank you to all of the amazing speakers: Sumana, Joel, Alan, Jon, Vanessa, Michael, and Andy
Thank you to Jukay Hsu, Ben Wei, and David Yang at the Coalition for Queens for partnering with Justin and me on the event.
Thank you to Joyride for the coffee, StackOverflow for lunch, Send Tech for the wireless, Team Bubbly for the video production.
Thank you to everyone who came to the first event, and special thanks to volunteers Andrew Morrow, Ian Whalen, Dan Crosta, Andy Dirnberger for helping with set up and registration.
Thank you Justin for motivating me to do this!