BuzzConf 2015 – Emerging technology festival

Note: apologies it’s taken me so long to write this up, largely because of prepping for linux.conf.au

Buzzconf‘s inaugural event, a 3-day festival, held at Phoenix Park near Ballan, was a unique experience, and one that struck an ideal balance between festival, conference, unconference and hackathon. Produced by Ben Dechrai and Rick Giner, Buzzconf brought together futurists, technology enthusiasts, developers, designers and thinkers for an open exchange of ideas in a relaxed park setting.

Key presentations

All the presentations I attended were great, and the ones that stood out in terms of ideas were;

  • Paul Fenwick on the Future is Awesome: Paul’s talk delved into the growing area of machine ethics, and posed such dilemmas for us to cogitate on as ‘what happen if an driver-less car has to make a decision about killing its occupants, or pedestrians?’, with the punch-line being ‘and if so, would you buy that car?’. Paul’s engaging and influential presentation style had the audience on the edge of their seat, and left us pondering not just the morality of machines, but the morality of man; the consequences for automata for areas like insurance, health care, the military and education are more than a little unsettling. One psychological technique he introduced us to was that of imagining that all of this is happening thousands of years into the future – as an exercise of fiction. By not having to confront the reality of the impacts of machines, cognitively we’re better equipped to think about them rationally.
  • Erick Hallander on emerging health technology: Erick covered key trends in healthcare, with some of the key findings being that UX in healthcare settings is almost non-existent. The simple example he used of trying to ensure rigourous hand-washing practices within a hospital highlight how much bureaucracy gets in the way of good design. He also talked a lot about patient – or user – empowerment in health care now that medical information is more accessible than ever, and the problem this brings with it of disinformation also being readily available. On reflection, I wonder if we’ll see the emergence of a field like ‘patient experience’ – as we have with customer experience, learning experience – and which also has a user- or patient- centred focus.
  • Blair Wyatt on SubPos: Blair provided a live demo of SubPos, an open-source wif-fi positioning system. It operates in a similar fashion to other beacon systems, but is fully open source. I was super impressed by Blair’s technical depth, and his discussions around some of the limitations of current hardware in this space, particularly for information interchange. This is a project to keep an eye on – it’s going to do Good Things

The human body as a development platform

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at the inaugural BuzzConf, and I didn’t want to disappoint. I chose the topic of The Human Body as a Development Platform because the evolution of computing platforms is something that fascinates me. How do we make the leap from one technological advancement to the next, and what is it that separates incremental change from paradigm change? From a personal perspective, I’d also had more than a fleeting imbroglio with healthcare concerns, and understood the mindset of bodymodders and bodyhackers – our bodies are our own to personalise, augment, and ‘hack’. I set some of these questions within the context of the evolution of computing platforms – how they have scaled down, become faster and more ubiquitous, but how common elements like security and testing are shared concerns.

The presentation raised more questions than it answered – and they’re questions I’d like to do more thinking around in the future.

Side note: I’m finding that Impress.js is my go-to presentation toolkit these days. It’s HTML based so I can run it off any machine with a standards-compliant web browser, and it also means I can easily host it on Github.io, and just push changes via Git. Not for beginners, but it works well with my existing toolchain.

Key takeaways and other discussions

There were many other discussions and elements at BuzzConf that I was really impressed by;

  • Hackathons and inclusion of all ages: There was a hackathon and pitching session running for a lot of the festival, and measures were taken to ensure that children and people of all technical abilities were able to participate – great to see, given that this year is the National Year of Digital Inclusion. It was challenging to find time to participate in the hackathon with so many other events going on around the festival.
  • Peak hackathon: There were lots of conversations around the topic of ‘peak hackathon’ – with so many corporate hackathons and other hack days going on, the market is becoming very crowded, and there is growing dissatisfaction from the technical community. Many feel that their skills are being exploited rather than ‘harnessed’, with perhaps a few hundred dollars prize as the reward for 2-3 days of skilled technical work. My own view on this is that there is a growing distinction emerging in the focus of hackathons. A spectrum is emerging from the civic-good type events – GovHack, Random Hacks of Kindness, Techfugees and so on to more corporate-focussed events or ‘hackdays’. Jack Skinner provides a much better run down than I can. The resolution to this is unclear – if we have indeed reached ‘peak hackathon’ then we’ll see less of these events being run  – a little bit like the decline in BarCamps. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. Hackathons have taken the place of BarCamps, and sure as there’s a decline in hackathons, something different will fill the void.
  • Non-technical challenges of emerging technology: One of the overarching take-aways for me was that many of the challenges to adoption of emerging technologies are non-technical. Ethical frameworks, policy frameworks and regulatory frameworks are playing catchup to technology, and we need to pay as much attention to these to really catalyse change. This was a theme also underscored by the very respected Michael Cordover at the recent linux.conf.au with his talk on law and technology impedance mismatch. We need more people like Michael – and George Fong – bridging the gap between law and technology.
  • Social capital: Events like BuzzConf have a huge role in building social capital in technical communities – an intangible wealth of goodwill that facilitates information sharing, the favour economy and idea exchange. It was clear that Ben and Rick had done a lot of work in ensuring diversity at the event, and creating a place where children were not just welcomed, but explicitly included in activities.

All in all, I’m delighted to see an event of this nature and this calibre on the Australian technical event calendar. Moreover, I’m delighted that it’s being held in a regional area. Well done, Rick, Ben and team – and I can’t wait for BuzzConf 2016!

 

Your organisation’s new website – what you need to know

Having spent several years working with web technology, I often get asked what’s involved in setting up a new website; what’s involved, what are the different components, what needs to be thought about, and – importantly – how much is it likely to cost?

What’s involved?

You first need to understand that your website is a business asset. Like all other assets it is an investment – so the money you spent on the site should be commensurate with how much return it’s going to generate for your business or organisation. Your website is one of a number of digital properties your organisation is likely to have, and together these form your digital portfolio. You need to consider your digital portfolio as a whole, and how it ties back to your marketing and overall business plans. For instance, if most of your customers are on Snapchat, do you have a Snapchat presence?

Like all other assets, your digital properties require maintenance over time – just like real estate requires upkeep and painting. Websites are not ‘set and forget’ – they require refreshed content, and technical maintenance from time to time. These need to be factored in to your website development plan.

Takeaway: Your organisation’s website is a business asset, in a portfolio of digital properties. Understand how your digital portfolio is going to return value to your organisation, and be aware that like all other assets, it needs to be maintained.

What do all the terms mean?

When you’re confronted by all the options for a new website it can be overwhelming. Here’s some of the terms you need to know to make sense of the alphabet soup.

  • Domain name: A domain name is a unique URL or web address for your organisation. You may already have one, or you may be acquiring a new one. Domain names are registered with a company that can register domain names, often called a registrar. Often, website companies will bundle domain name registration, hosting and web development services into a bundle. Domain names have different meanings depending on what they end in. For most Australian businesses, this will be .com.au.

    Your domain name is registered for a period of 1-2 years, and you will normally get reminders when it’s time to renew. It’s important that you renew your domain name on time, otherwise it will become lapsed, and other businesses may be able to register it. For a .com.au domain name, you will normally need to provide your ABN. You can expect to pay $30-$50 for a two-year registration of a .com.au domain name.Every domain name has a domain password or EPP key. In order to move your domain name from one hosting company to another, you will need to provide this password. So, it’s important that you keep it in a safe place. Ensure that if your hosting company registers your domain name on your behalf that you get the domain key.

  • Hosting: Each domain name translates into a unique internet address, called an IP address. The IP address resolves to a server somewhere on the internet. That server will usually belong to your hosting company. The server is where your website’s files, and any supporting software, are held. The hosting company will usually charge you a monthly fee for hosting, and there will be different elements that make up the costing of the hosting package;
    • Bandwidth: This refers to the amount of data that is transferred between the server and the website user, or vice versa (for instance if the website user is uploading files to the website). For static, or low volume sites, the bandwidth requirements will be quite low, but if your website is going to be hosting files which are large, such as videos, then you may need additional bandwidth. Often, hosting companies will display a message on your website like ‘409: Bandwidth exceeded’ if you run out of bandwidth with your hosting plan.
    • Storage: This refers to the amount of data that is stored on the server. Again, for a static or small site, this is likely to be small, but for a larger website with lots of images, videos and attachments (such as PDF files) then you may need additional storage.
    • Databases, subdomains and other technical features: These may be required if your website will be database-driven (such as with WordPress). Your developer should be able to give you a good indication of the bandwidth, storage and other technical requirements for your website.
  • Web design: Web design usually refers to the design or visual appearance of your website. Before embarking on a new website for your organisation, it’s very useful to understand your overall branding, and how the website will fit into that. Preparing examples of websites that you’ve seen that fit well with your brand will save time in the development process. Most small websites will not have a bespoke design. Instead, you’ll normally start with a template or theme, which will be altered with your organisation’s name, your imagery and logo. Bespoke web designs can be prohibitively expensive.
  • Web development: Web development usually refers to producing the website, and creating any customised components, usually through code. Here, the theme or template, your organisation’s branding such as logo, colours and imagery are applied, and the website is tested – functionally (is it working the way it’s supposed to?) and for acceptance (is it what I expected?). Web development will normally be the largest cost component in your new website project.

Takeaway: Understanding what key terms mean prepares you to have an informed conversation with a website developer.

How involved is your website going to be?

The next key decision you have to make is how much investment you’re going to make in your organisation’s website. The levels of investment can be summarised as follows:

  • Introductory: This type of website is usually a few static pages of content, usually 5 or less pages, and will often be generated from a theme or a template, often using a build-it-yourself approach. Key examples of this type of website are Wix, Weebly and SquareSpace. Plans for these sorts of websites start at around the $USD 10 per month mark, and go up to around the $USD 30 per month range. You can expect to pay extra for additional features, such as eCommerce, and you may have a limited range of themes or templates to choose from. Support is usually built in to these packages, but expect it to be email only support.
  • Intermediate: This type of website will usually have between 5-50 pages of content, and will usually be driven by a publishing platform, such as WordPress or Drupal. A basic WordPress or Drupal site will usually set you back around $AUD 3000 to $AUD 4000 if you use a commercial development agency. An initial build should include a contact form so prospective clients can contact you, the location of your organisation and other key information. The upside with this is that as long as you provide the content to the agency, they will do the initial build for you, which can be time-consuming. Expect to pay extra for an ongoing support package, particularly if you require telephone support.
  • Advanced: This type of website will usually be driven by an enterprise-grade publishing platform, but will have significant custom or bespoke design and development, may require additional production such as shooting of video or photographic imagery, or integration with other systems such as booking systems, reservation systems and so on. Prices for this sort of advanced development usually start at around $AUD 10k and go up from there.

Takeaway: Understand what sort of website you’re in the market for, and how much you’re prepared to spend. Understand upfront as well as ongoing costs of having a website.

What you can do to prepare to meet with a web development agency

There’s lots that you can do before meeting with a web development agency. The better prepared you are, the less work the agency or developer has to do, and therefore the lower your costs will be.

  • Bring a clear understanding of your requirements – what is it that you want the website to achieve, and how does this link back to your overall business strategy and objectives?
  • Bring any logos, branding collateral, imagery you wish to use with you to the meeting. Bonus points if it’s in electronic format.
  • Have a list of websites you like the look and feel of and a list of sites in your industry that you don’t like. This will help give the web developer a sense of what you’re aiming to achieve – and what you’re aiming to avoid.
  • The web developer will usually have a platform in mind – as companies usually specialise in one or two platforms. It pays to do your homework and understand which platform the web development agency specialises in, and how common this platform is. For instance, what if the relationship doesn’t work out and you’d like another agency or developer to take over, but it’s a bespoke platform that only the first company has expertise in?
  • Be prepared to talk about what ongoing maintenance or support you will require with the site, and have an understanding of what tasks are required to maintain the site over time. Explore what your organisation can do to reduce costs with ongoing maintenance.

Understanding quotes

After you initially meet with the web developer or agency to brief them on your requirements, they will usually prepare a quote. Read through this carefully to understand exactly what’s included, what’s excluded, and what comes as part of the package, and what features or services incur a ongoing or monthly recurring charge.

Some of the things I’ve seen web development agencies charge for are questionable, so here’s a list so you don’t get caught out;

  • Analytics: Google Analytics is a free service that is easily integrated into websites to give you information on who’s visiting you, how many times, where they’re from and what sort of device they’re using. Google Analytics is a great addition, but getting an account itself is free, and integrating it with a website should take less than half an hour, and this should be priced accordingly.
  • Software charges: Platforms such as WordPress and Drupal are actually free software. It costs the web development agency nothing to download this software, although they incur mainly labour charges in installing it on servers, paying for server equipment and so on. So do challenge any software charges where the platform software itself is free.
  • Testing: Testing should be included in the overall charge for the website build. What carpenter doesn’t ensure joins fit correctly? What seamstress doing ensure that a dress is a good fit?

Ongoing maintenance and support

Once you’ve gone ahead with the website and it’s live and running, you’ll need to turn your attention to ongoing maintenance and support. The sort of tasks that can be expected here include;

  • Content updates: Think carefully about who will be doing these, and what skills they will need to have. Does this person have content updates as part of their position description? Will they need training or guidance? Do they have time to be able to do the updates? Do they have an appropriate tone of voice and do they have a content strategy? Having a content schedule that matches the key business lifecycle of your organisation can be helpful, particularly in integrating all of your digital properties.

    One thing to consider is whether to have plugins or functionality that allow your audience or customers to help create the content on your site. This is called crowd-sourcing and is a rising trend among websites. Tools such as IFTTT allows people to easily submit content to your website based on certain attributes, but you should always have the final say in content that gets published on your site.

  • Platform updates: Platforms like WordPress and Drupal require around-monthly updates to keep them safe and secure. This is usually a push-button process, but check what’s required with the developer of your site.

Anything I’ve missed? Leave your feedback in the comments below.

What I learned at #DrupalSouth 2015

Run by the awesome Donna Benjamin, I decided to volunteer for #DrupalSouth because of the community, and also because a lot of the schedule topics interested me, particularly around continuous integration and design processes. The venue, Melbourne Exhibition and Convention Centre, was great – easy to access, and lots of accommodation within easy walking distance.

Day 1 went brilliantly. Donna had prepared everything beforehand, including all the attendee lanyards etc – which were outsourced to an external provider for packaging and alphabetising – which made registration an absolute breeze. Registration opened at 0800hrs, but many delegates didn’t register until 0845hrs – meaning a last minute rush.

The key thing I took away from registration was how heavily Drupal is used in government and in education – with several agencies and tertiary and research institutions represented. T-shirts were issued, and the sizing concerns often besetting technical conferences were avoided by having a wide range of sizes. We decided to issue t-shirts that people had ordered first up, and then doing swaps on Day 2 when we had a better idea of who had registered and who hadn’t – and this worked well.

Better Remote work by Jarkko Oksanan

The first session I room monitored in was by Jarkko Oksanan, a Finn who does a lot of Drupal work remotely. He went through a great presentation on putting together a remote working team, and remote working practices that are highly effective. I was blown away by the statistic quoted, that globally there are over 219 million people who work globally – so imagine the productivity increases if we can improve remote working even marginally!

There was a rundown of the best remote work tools to use, including;

  • Videoconferencing: talky.io, Google hangouts all got a mention
  • IM and team communicatiion: Slack got a huge mention, and IRC is still huge. Still! Hipchat is rocking for people who work with other Atlassian tools. Just to test it out, I created a Slack account and integrated it with my GitHub repo just to take it for a spin, and, quite frankly, I likey.
  • Git all the things: GitHub, private repos, git synching for backups, and integration with GitHub and Slack for team comms. If you’re not into Git, get on to it.

One aspect of this presentation that surprised me was the focus on team building and social opportunities to facilitate remote working – because it’s hard to have conflict with someone you’ve shared a few drinks with.

Drupal 8 Migration Choices – Jerry Maguire (Jam)

Jam gave us a rundown of the architectural decisions around moving to Drupal 8 – essentially, D8 is experimental, useful for small scale deployments or for prototyping, but is not ready for mission critical, complex or massively public facing scenarios. Awesome presenter, would see again A+++

Peter Henderson – 2.9 million words in two months

Peter, from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority, gave an engaging presentation on content workflow and website redesign in a heavily regulated government environment. As a centralised web team, they had to convert over 2.9 million words of content into a new CMS (Drupal) within two months. Many shortcuts were taken, and the end result was that the end users of the site didn’t really enjoy the experience – so they refactored by using analytics t0 guide UX improvements.

Because of the high degree of centralisation, they also implemented Dashboards in Drupal, so that pieces of content could be tracked across the complex legal, SME and technical review workflow – something that was all too familiar from my own work experience. The Dashboards worked well, and help to secure senior management buy in in to making content owners accountable for reviewing their content.

At the end of the session, I asked Peter whether or not a decentralised content authoring approach had been considered – and his response was also intuitive – and seen all to often in large organisations;

“they’re not capable of this yet – the maturity isn’t there”

Amelia Schmidt – Red flags in the design process

In what I judged to be one of the most insightful talks of #DrupalSouth, @meelijane took us through a number of ‘red flags’ in the design process. Aside from her compelling and engaging slide deck, some of the point she made were controversial and challenging – such as questioning whether in the digital age, it was still appropriate to get client sign off on designs, as the design itself may not perfectly resemble the finished product. For example, Photoshop layered files cannot always easily translate to HTML and CSS.

She also made a number of compelling points about tools for design – and introduced us to a number of great products such as;

Using Sushi Cats (bonus points, cats as food), she demonstrated design ratio problems for common elements such as lead text and featured images, and took us through some techniques to have better overall design patterns, such as different style crops to match defined styles.

Well worth a look through the slide deck.

Michael Godeck – Go for Continuous Delivery

Michael’s presentation centred around the practice of Continuous Delivery, which incorporates the practice of Continuous Integration, and introduced an opensource tool called ‘Go‘, which is in a similar marketspace to tools such as Jenkins and Ansible. I hadn’t used it before, and Michael provided a great overview.

Michael took us through various development metrics, such as cycle time, lead time and development time – and showed how a continuous delivery framework enabled you to spot where bottlenecks were in your process. He strongly underscored that you need to ensure that you’re building the right thing – in the same way that Agile is a project management methodology, continuous delivery tools allow agile thinking to be applied in the software development process.

This talk spurred a number of great questions, which touched on topics such as how to convince clients to pay for quality – as continuous delivery models allow for greater quality.

Lasting thoughts

DrupalSouth was a fantastic event. Well organised, with a great venue, a space conducive to relationship building and knowledge sharing, very strong wireless internet, and well-prepared Speakers who were clearly experts in their field. The surprising takeaway for me however was just how strong UX, UCD and CX practices are infiltrating traditionally technically-heavy communities – and in so doing, delivering better products and experiences.

DrupalSouth Melbourne 2015
DrupalSouth 2015 Group photo, credit: Peter Lieverdink