My talk picks for #lca2018 – linux.conf.au

linux.conf.au 2018 heads to UTS in Sydney – where it hasn’t been since 2007 – which is a very long time in technology.

This year’s line up has swung away from the community-focused content of linux.conf.au 2017 Hobart, back to technically-heavier talks. Personally I think this was the right move – without robust technical depth, linux.conf.au risks losing its traditional audience of kernel and Linux hackers.

The conference theme of

a little bit of history repeating

plays out in the programme in a couple of ways. First, the conference welcomes back Karen Sandler as a keynote. Karen last keynoted linux.conf.au 2012 in Ballarat, in one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen about bodily autonomy, and the impact that software freedoms have not just on technology, but on our personal health. Her talk at linux.conf.au 2017 Hobart on ‘Surviving the next 30 years of free software‘ was also thought-provoking – as our community ages, how do we prepare for the death of our community members – and importantly – how to we curate their code legacy? I can’t wait to hear what Karen speaks out in Sydney.

Miniconfs

History repeating also plays out in the Miniconfs that we’re seeing this year. The Open Education Miniconf is back after a several-year hiatus, while the stalwart Sysadmin Miniconf is back. Open Hardware is as popular as ever, and has already sold out.

What I love above this year’s Miniconfs is the reach-out and cross-pollination with other disciplines. The Bioinformatics Miniconf is back, after debuting at linux.conf.au 2016 (disclosure: I was 2IC of LCA2016). The Art and Tech Miniconf, led by the amazing Kris Howard, is going to be my top pick, because of the cross over with elements such as data visualisation, and even a Knitting Printer.

Main talks

The next generation

  • History can’t repeat unless we have the next generation to repeat it – and David Tulloh’s war-story from volunteering to teach kids to code will provide insights to those running MakerSpaces and HackerSpaces, coding camps and so on about how to engage students in learning code.

Continual learning

Accessibility and inclusiveness

Open source community

Open hardware

Open source making the world a better place

 

Book review: Technically wrong: Sexist apps, biased algorithms and other threats of toxic tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

A must read for anyone who designs digital experiences, and doesn’t want to be an inadvertent dude-bro.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34068533-technically-wrong

Against a backdrop of increasingly ubiquitous technology, with every online interaction forcing us to expose parts of ourselves, Sara Wachter-Boettcher weaves a challenging narrative with ease. With ease, but not easily. Many of the topics covered are confronting, holding a lens to our internalised “blind spots, biases and outright ethical blunders”.

As Wachter-Boettcher is at pains to highlight, all of this is not intentional – but the result of a lack of critical evaluation, thought and reflection on the consequences of seemingly minor technical design and development decisions. Over time, these compound to create systemic barriers to technology use and employment – feelings of dissonance for ethnic and gender minorities, increased frustration for those whose characteristics don’t fit the personas the product was designed for, the invisibility of role models of diverse races and genders – and reinforcement that technology is the domain of rich, white, young men.

The examples that frame the narrative are disarming in their simplicity. The high school graduand whose Latino/Caucasian hyphenated surname doesn’t fit into the form field. The person of mixed racial heritage who can’t understand which one box to check on a form. The person who’s gender non-conforming and who doesn’t fit into the binary polarisation of ‘Male’ or ‘Female’. Beware, these are not edge cases! The most powerful take-away for me personally from this text is that in design practice, edge cases are not the minority. They exist to make us recognise of the diversity of user base that we design for.

Think “stress cases” not “edge cases”. If your design doesn’t cater for stress cases, it’s not a good design.

While we may have technical coding standards, and best practices that help our technical outputs be of high quality, as an industry and as a professional discipline, we have a long way to go in doing the same for user experience outputs. There are a finite number of ways to write a syntactically correct PHP function. Give me 100 form designers, and I will will give you 100 different forms that provide 100 user experiences. And at least some of those 100 users will be left without “delight” –  a nebulous buzzword for rating the success (or otherwise) of digital experiences.

Wachter-Boettcher takes precise aim at another seemingly innocuous technical detail – application defaults – exposing their (at best) benign, and, at times, malignant utilisation to manipulate users into freely submitting their personal data. It is designing not for delight, but for deception.

“Default settings can be helpful or deceptive, thoughtful or frustrating. But they’re never neutral.”

Here the clarion call for action is not aimed at technology developers themselves, but at users, urging us to be more careful, more critical, and more vocal about how applications interact with us.

Artificial intelligence and big data do not escape scrutiny. Wachter-Boettcher illustrates how algorithms can be inequitable – targeting or ignoring whole cohorts of people, depending on the (unquestioned) assumptions built into machine learning models. Big data is retrospective, but not necessarily predictive. Just because a dataset showed a pattern in the past does not mean that that pattern will hold true in the future. Yet, governments, corporations and other large institutions are basing large policies, and practice areas on algorithms that remain opaque. Yet while responsibility for decision making might be able to be delegated to machines, accountability for how those decisions are made cannot be.

The parting thought of this book is that good intentions aren’t enough. The implications and cascading consequences of seemingly minor design and development decisions need to be thought through, critically evaluated, and handled with grace, dignity and maturity. That will be delightful!

Joining the Dots Data Visualisation Symposium 2017

Joining the Dots – The Art and Science of Data Visualisation came about as the brainchild of Fiona Tweedie – a business analyst and data scientist who has worked in open knowledge, open data and digital humanities for several years, after completing her PhD in humanities at the University of Sydney. At Pycon AU, Fiona identified that most of the talks on data visualisation had strong representation from STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – but poorer representation from the humanities. Held at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, part of the broader University of Melbourne research precinct, #jtdwehi sought to address that by providing the opportunity to cross-pollinate multiple disciplines – and by all accounts it was a roaring success.

There were several excellent and engaging presentations over the course of the day, and my personal highlights are covered below.

Keynote – Professor Deb Verhoeven

Deb Verhoeven is incredibly respected in digital humanities for her creative take on visualisation and sonification – and not least of all for her untiring efforts to improve gender representation and diversity in the digital humanities  – for more on this, check out her famous ‘Where are the women?’ speech at DH2015:

https://vimeo.com/144863312[/embed]

Her incisive presentation covered broad ground. In particular, her exposé of “gender offenders” in Australian cinema – men who do not work with women, and choose to work exclusively with other men – denying women opportunities in the industry – was one of the most impactful data visualisations I’ve ever seen.

This is what the patriarchy looks like! – Professor Deb Verhoeven, speaking about data visualising of gender representation in  Australian cinema

Using a technique called social network analysis, Verhoeven’s team were able to show the gender of project members and how they clustered. Words don’t do it justice.

https://twitter.com/datakid23/status/898399563559587840

You can read more about the project via this article on The Conversation.

Another thought-provoking element of Verhoeven’s keynote was the work her research team had done on sonofication, as part of The Ultimate Gig Guide project. Walking us through the project, Verhoeven explained how the team had gathered data on the spread of bands across Melbourne via gig records. To add an extra degree of difficulty, many of these records were not digitised, and the data had to be gathered manually (another argument for digitalisation projects – it makes accessing and using data so much easier). The team then sonofied the data, resulting in a sequence of notes representing the frequency of gigs and their location as distance from Melbourne CBD. To add additional interest, a backing track was added, and the data was transposed into Cmaj scale. A meta gig – a gig about a gig!

Mind much blown.

You can read more about Deb Verhoeven’s academic work.

“Visualising the Australian Transport Network” by Xavier Ho, CSIRO

Xavier, an interactive data visualisation specialist with CSIRO, presented on TraNSIT – the Transport Network Strategic Investment Tool. This tool is designed to help identify and implement efficiencies in agribusiness supply chains by mapping the logistics and transport networks of different modes of transport – road, rail, air and sea. This work was amazing – not just because the data needed to be sourced from so many different repositories – another argument for open data  – but because of the direct impact data visualisation could have on planning and strategy.

Xavier was a seasoned presenter, with an engaging style – an excellent speaker.

“Ungodly cocktail – visualising three editions of Raynal’s “Histoire”” by Geoff Hinchcliffe, Australian National University

I cannot honestly say that French literature is something which excites me, but Geoff Hinchcliffe’s excellent presentation brought this project – which sought to visualise the differences between editions of Raynal’s Histoire – to life. Using the ‘ungodly cocktail’ of several data visualisation tools, combined with an iterative design and development process (instead of the usual tiered and discrete ‘front end’ and ‘back end’ approach), the changes between versions were mapped and visualised, providing a narrative to explore the influence of collaborator (in writing), Diderot.

What struck me about Hinchcliffe’s approach was the remarkable work that had gone into making something so esoteric and complex so accessible and simple – the true power of data visualisation.

You can follow Hinchcliffe as @gravitron on Twitter.

Further thoughts

Throughout the day, I came to a number of conclusions:

  • There are a small number of ‘tried and true’ tools for data visualisation specialists – among them d3.js and R. Processing did not seem to have found the same traction in the datavis community, likely because its mature implementation is still Java-based, while the Javascript – and therefore more web accessible and interactive implementation – is not as mature. There are several Python libraries for visualisation, and Python continues to ascend in popularity across not just the sciences but increasingly the humanities – and is firmly established as a programming language of first choice. Colour choices remain important, guided by tools like Color Brewer. Typography choices remain geared to the minimal and the sans-serif, indicating a need to have the visualisation speak for itself.
  • Interactivity is not a necessary part of every visualisation – with some visualisations such as Hinchcliffe’s not having a high degree of interactivity.
  • The interplay between design and development is tightly coupled – as seen with presenters having both back-end and front-end and process ’round tripping’ skills – data visualisation combines design, coding and statistical skills in equal measure and the more highly sought after practitioners will be able to work ‘full stack’.

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