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Barcamp Southampton 2016

15 November 2016 No Comment

Around 100 people descended on Central Hall in Southampton on 12 Nov 2016 for another Barcamp Southampton, an unconference for geeks of all types. My day was punctuated by a variety of sessions, and ad hoc dialogue during the breaks, discussing the current state of Tech and where it’s going.

Using skills built around a knowledge of IBM’s Watson, eight year old Faith demonstrated her working example of the Owl Chatbot. With considerable courage and confidence, Faith showed that your first ever barcamp session can be instructive and educational. Chatbots and AI are still basically a complex “if-then” decision tree, and Faith’s most telling slide was that of stacks of paper cards on which the likely questions and answers had been handwritten. The laborious task of transcribing that into the Owl Chatbot engine had been shared by Faith and her older sister Grace, and the results were excellent.

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Using the speech recognition tools on her Mac, Faith showed how the engine was able to deal with around 90% of her questions and those from the audience. She also encountered the inevitable hiccup or two when the Owl Chatbot did not always understand the questions. So it’s the real thing then, just like other chatbots I’ve met!

The extent to which the engine actually contained data was constrained by the amount of cards, and typing, that could be finished in the time available. The data focussed on the 6 species of owl that are native to the UK, but I also learnt that there are 216 species of owl across the world. I was also reminded of the long forgotten fact that owls cannot move their eyes and that’s why they move their entire heads. A fantastic performance by Faith.

I made my way to Simon Perry’s round table symposium on the future of Virtual Reality. Well attended and lively, the chat largely revolved around gaming and entertainment. The 18+ side of that industry also provoked some interesting questions, with answers that could not readily be found! How do you cope with a player, who is effectively blind in the real world, wearing a VR headset and moving around his immediate environment taking part in a VR game?

What I had hoped to explore was a little more of the real life practical value of VR. Museums offering visitors a chance to have a VR experience of being a Viking was one suggestion. The amount of work involved (lots) and the user experience (one person per headset) may make it intolerably expensive to offer that sort of thing on a widespread basis, particularly in the not for profit sector. The other valuable suggestion was medical science, where there may come a day when a surgeon can operate on a patient remotely, using VR and robot tools. There may also come a day when 100% reliable internet allows that sort of risk taking! I came out of that session as I went in – thinking that VR is mainly an expensive toy for gamers, with one or two opportunities to make an impact in a very niche market for practical applications, but only for those organisations rich enough to afford it.

In this age of tech “how do we future proof parents”? That was the question being asked by Elbrie De Kock and her thought provoking session. The personal experiences and anecdotes gave us ample suggestions for managing the expectations of tech amongst parents and kids (of all ages). As Elbrie pointed out, the idea of limiting screen time is not universally accepted and there are merits in permitting kids to use lots of tech, in a measured way. “Measured” being the important word, rather than “abstinence”. What was clear was that a lot of people in the room had a lot of things to say about education and about kids. What also became clear was that few, if any, people in the room had ever worked in the field of education.

Being an ex teacher, I fear that there is a good deal of disconnect between what the layman thinks and wants, and what the Department of Education thinks and wants. I have no answers to that question and in part I am an ex teacher because the dusty old fossils at the Department of Education live in a different world to the rest of us.

The intriguing discussion at the end of the session came from a slide demonstrating what the future of education should focus on, with “problem solving” skills being one of them. I pointed out that the words “the future” could have been omitted from that slide, and that things like “problem solving” should always have been part of the educational agenda. Having worked as a teacher, the difficulty is “how do you define, measure and grade problem solving skills”? And given the prevailing flavour of education in the UK you may come to see that “problem solving” is not on the curriculum because nobody can demonstrate the “value added”, especially considering that it’s so hard to “define, measure and grade” such a nebulous concept! I have no answer to that. Nor does the UK government. All I know is that the most intelligent people on the planet do not spend their time in the public sector. They make money in the private sector.

I ran a session on “presentation skills” and likened “public speaking” to riding a bike. The more you practice, the better you get. I also discussed memory skills and mind maps and gave away a few copies of my book “The Spiral Mindmap”. Three places that you can go and improve your presentation skills are:

Thundercloud London
300 Seconds
Toastmasters

Sean Tracey from the Financial Times gave a fascinating talk on the digital workings of the FT. To a large extent, he explained how the FT transitioned from analogue to digital and how that meant working with OCR. Sean is a huge fan of Tesseract software which can be trained and tweaked to improve the OCR performance. At times he lost me with his technical enthusiasm, but clearly (if the two way chat was anything to go by) he made an impact on the geekiest people there.

A more general discussion of journalism also evolved, and it seems likely the this sector will continue to undergo a reduction in size (manpower wise) and will become polarised between the quality outlets at one end, who pay their journalists and who aim for quality, and a plethora of “platforms” at the other end who will generate “content” using bots, paid staff and unpaid contributors. Both ends of that spectrum will be aiming to operate profitable commercial concerns, yet only one end is going to inundate you with relentless, repetitive advertising!

Later in the day, Josh De Kock provided a short session and insights into the recent “Capture the Flag” competition. Somehow, I had never heard of this Europe wide challenge for those aged 16 to 30, a structured “game” to promote ethical hacking and infosec.

Likewise, Josh had not heard of it until recently, when he stumbled across a web link. That led him to take part in the local heats, which his team won. And then they all went to Germany to compete with the best across Europe. He proudly explained how his UK team hacked Switzerland and Liechtenstein, though they didn’t win the event in the end. Here’s a run down of similar events on www.ctftime.org if you’re interested!

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The barcamp closed after a lively round of lighting talks in the main auditorium. They were all worthy in their own way, but the one that stood out most for me was Ben Quaestor and his online traditional typewriter called Overtype. It has all the charm of a proper typewriter and a backspace key that behaves like a typewriter rather than a computer keyboard! You may need to use correction paper to overtype a wrong letter with the wrong letter again, before putting in the correct letter. Memories! Clearly, I’m showing my age, but I used to do a bit of journalism for a motoring magazine when I was young, and yes I used a typewriter! Go and try it for yourself – Overtype.

I had a great day, thanks to the hard work of the organisers and volunteers.

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