Wednesday, March 14, 2012

SXSW Quick Hits: Day 5

South by Southwest Interactive is a marathon, and inevitably there is a wall. I'm glad to have done it, and I'm glad it is done.

The Right Tool for the Job: Native or Mobile Web?
This discussion on building iOS apps vs using the mobile browser had promise. It was a subject I'm interested in, and had good panelists from Tumblr and Facebook. They knew what they were talking about, but their subjects just didn't resonate with me.

  • There are advantages to writing native apps because you are closer to the hardware, but there is equal advantage to web apps because you get a lot of features for free in the browser.
  • Many applications are taking a hybrid approach, building navigation and posting in the native space, but opening a webkit window in the app to display rich text. Facebook. Apple Store. Some apps, like Flipboard, are rendering json from the local machine instead of the web.
  • A lot of talk about web browser standards for mobile and the test.
  • Trying to guess which platform will be better a year down the road isn't wise. Develop for what you can do now.
Matt Thompson always puts on a great talk, and this was no different. Along with Gideon Lichfield of The Economist, they made a case that journalists could use some more Scientific Method in their reporting and publishing.
  • The Scientific Method makes a researcher's work collaborative, replicable and predictive. All things Journalists could use in their own work. Adding citations in stories, beyond the "xxxx, public information officer for yyyy, said." would allow readers and other journalists to see how the story was written. It would be more transparent where the facts came from, and others could replicate the work to verify that it is true (or false, under certain conditions, much like science.)
  • Some sites are doing this now: Politifact, by siting their sources on political statements, like the Obamameter. ProPublica has been able to spread the impact of their work by explaining their methodology and opening it up to others to test in similar or different conditions.
  • A reporter clarifying how they got information can influence the credibility of that information. Take these different attributions:
    • "blanket statement," he said.
    • "blanket statement," he said in a one-on-one interview.
    • "blanket statement," he said at a news conference.
    • "blanket statement," he said in a meeting over drinks after work.
  • Predictions need to be followed up on and be held accountable. They joked about the "Friedman Unit," which they define as "the length of time when a prediction will be forgotten." Apparently a policy watchdog tracked the predictions of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, of which there are many. Journalism needs a mechanism to test and track the the statements of their sources.
  • Whatever tools are created to help with these concepts of citations and hypothesis testing, the tools have to be self-justifying (useful to the journalist), interoperable (embedable in a story) and easy to use. Journalists are stuck in their ways and hard to change. Storify was put up as an example of such a tool that meets that test.
This was a great panel to follow the footnote speech by Jennifer Pahlka on Code for America, but unfortunately I missed that keynote to eat. At least this filled gave me some details on the project, even if I missed Pahlka's overview.
  • Matthew Esquibel of the City of Austin confirmed that government does have development challenges not unlike some other very large organizations with lots of red tape. (Like, say, a large media company?) They lack the hip, collaborative spaces and attitudes that startups and tech companies enjoy.
  • Esquibel held out the city's website redesign,, as a break in the old mold. It was actually two projects ... the rebuilding of the site and the release of They spent three years studying how to do it, getting RFPs and then finally decided, with the hep of Open Austin, to build it themselves on Drupal 7. It took them seven months to build it once they came to that decision.
  • Julio Gonzalez of Open Austin talked described how open government and open data can help reverse the erosion of trust that Americans have shown in government. 
  • He said to reach the mass of making change, you have to:
    • Target the median voter (because that's what our city council does)
    • Thank the pick up the people who help you
    • Reach into the government to find those who can actually make change, and help them get the power to make change if they don't have it already.
    • Use social pressures to help your cause. Build a scoreboard of openness to push others to open their data.
    • Keep a coalition and don't get stuck with a charismatic leader that becomes the face of your movement, for good or ill.
    • Broaden that coalition to include others that may not be developers ... journalists and others who live in the "excel world".
  • Kevin Curry is an organizer with Code for America, and he described the Code for America Brigade and what they do. Last year, they had 18 fellows or so in 16 cities or so to develop projects that help the public and the cities they are assigned to. They build on open source platforms so the applications can be repeated and modified for other users.
  • Example as an Adopt a Hydrant project in Boston. This gives citizens a chance to adopt a hydrant to dig out of the snow, to save city firefighters time and staff to do other things, like fight fires. This application is being modified for Chicago for Adopt a Sidewalk.
  • Aurelio Tinio was  the lead engineer at The Bay Citizen before joining the Code for America Brigade, which requires a year commitment. He talked about his decision process to join as a fellow. He is part of the Austin team along with  ...
  • Emily Wright-Moore described what the year looks like as a fellow. They spend January learning from others in an institute setting. February is spent at the host city meeting with city staff and the community. March is a time they cook up the project they will work on over the next six months, which they they show off in November.
  • There were 550 applicants for the 2012 "season," yielding 26 fellows.
Always the last talk at SXSWi, Bruce is usually an entertaining rant. There's little news here ... it's just fun to listen.
  • He complained last year that SXSWi need to be more international. He did his part by brining a bunch of Europeans over with him, but was also blown away by the international flavor this year.
  • He spent time in Mexico City, which was wonderful despite the Narco Cultura that permeates there.
  • He extolled the virtues or James Bridle, and said we should all dress better.
  • For his prediction, we said thus: The future for us is "Old people in big dirty cities afraid of the sky." That was the easy one.
  • He talked about the "Stacks." Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. They control everything and permeate our lives like no other five companies have in the past. They are not hostile to us, but they want to render the others irrelevant. We are their livestock, with no value to the Stack beyond the data we allow them to harvest.
  • The Stacks are killing our modes of expression. Newspapers, film, music. We've spent 400 years coming up with different literature, and now they crumble.
  • But, it's not going to end pretty. The Stacks will be destroyed, just like email lists, geocities, myspace and the blogs of today. And our kids will be asking us why we let it happen.


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