27 March 2009
Speaking & Events

Conferencing part 1 - ETech

As you're no doubts aware I'm an unabashed conference junky, so it will come as no surprise to you that I've spent the last couple of weeks in the States attending three such events.

First up was ETech, the emerging technology conference from O'Reily. Moved from it's spiritual home in San Diego, this year it was help in the Chino wearing capitol of Silicon Valley, San Jose. The event was much smaller than last year and the tone was somewhat downbeat. However I don't think this was necessarily down to the economy as a lot of people were speculating. ETech is an amazing place to showcase new technologies and is where start-ups like Flickr made their debut. However if there are no new breakthroughs on the horizon, the events obviously lacks its reason d'etra. I think that was the case this year.

As with the previous year, there was a lot of green technology being discussed, which led one attendee to suggest that it be renamed GreenTech. There was also a lot of ubicomp stuff like the lovingly realised siftables which made a big splash at TED. I definitely have to get hold of when they launch. O'Reily bought along their Maker Shed and I was tempted to buy a whole stack of tech to take back to Clearleft with me. Home assemble robot kits and botalicals arduino kits that will Twitter when your plants need watering. Sadly the weak pound put a stop to that.

One of my favourite talks was a session from Nick Bilton of the New York Times innovation labs. Nick showed some really interesting examples of the thinking going on behind the scenes at the NYTimes, including a lovely demo of a digital newspaper format that completely changed layout, image style and content density depending on the size of the device being used.

However the stand-out talk for me had to be a session on the info you can learn from monitoring GPS data, which turns out to be a lot. By mapping users GPS date onto census and commercial activity data, Sense Networks were able to deduce exactly what type of person a particular subject was and the percentage chance where they would be at any given time. By using a sort of Geo Page Rank algorithm they could look at the kind of place you had arrived from, the kind of place you had let to and by that deduce the kind of place you were at. They would then use cluster analysis to match you with similar types of people, thus defining you as a member of a particular type of tribe.

Sadly the current use was rather pedestrian, taking GPS data from marketing companies to deduce the type of people going to different types of bars to enable more accurate targeting. However the business opportunities were huge, and I could easily see the creation of some kind of Geo Google. On a very prosaic level you could create an amazing, geo-aware dating app that would let you know if you were in the same location as other people like you, and then facilitate you hooking up. A mundane use, but one that could prove popular and make a mint.

Apart from those two sessions I thought the rest of the presentations were rather weak, like an edition of Wired magazine in a month where nothing much had happened. My feeling that ETech was in a holding pattern this year, waiting on the next big thing to emerge. When it does, ETech will no doubt be at the front of the queue. However I'm not sure Ill be rushing back next year as it's all somewhat out of my domain. One for the Friends of O'Reily I think.