Friday, May 10, 2013

Notes on re:publica 2013

This was my second time to attend re:publica. It is a yearly social conference that takes place in Berlin. It started as a conference for bloggers, but now it include lots of other themes from startups to activism to campaigning and marketing. In fact, I attended less sessions this year than the previous one, and I am going to write a brief about them later on in the post, but let me first start with some random notes I grabbed from the conference.

I love the style of those posters of re:publica
  • The smaller the room, the better the session. Well, not only me, but many others have noticed the same thing. The less known speakers giving a workshop-like sessions are more interesting than the well known ones or panels arranged in bigger auditoriums.
  • More than speeches, I enjoy the new ideas I stumble upon while attending such conferences. So here are some of those ideas.
    • Re:public is not held in a fancy conference centre per se. What surprises me last time is that the venue used to be deserted factory, it was prepared and converted into a conferences venue later on. It is cool, cozy and suitable for the spirit of a bloggers conference.
    • In the main hall, where key note and major speeches take place, there is a screen behind the presenter, and his speech is being transcribed on that screen in real time. It is a tough task done manually, but it is very useful for those with hearing impairment, or even journalists or others who take notes of what is being said.
    • This is a new idea, but it is new to me at least. Fabbeo allows those who do not have 3D printers to send them an STL file for an object they want to print. In fact, they do not have 3D printers themselves, but they just serve as a marketplace matching customers with service providers with 3D printers.
    • In conferences like this, people are busy tweeting and taking photos with their phones. So, their mobile batteries are not expected to last for the whole day, right? As a way of promoting their company, Simyo, a German mobile operator, allows people to borrow portable chargers for their mobiles.
    • Last year one company was doing one fine marketing idea. They had a vending-machine-like stand that is connected to the internet. When you go there and publicly check into the machine via Foursquare, it gives you a soda can or something. They were generating a lot of buzz on Foursquare about their company this way, as well as attracting people to their stand.

Eric Hersman
The conference's keynotes was given by Eric Hersman. For those who do not know him, he is an American born and raised in South Sudan. How now lives in Kenya. And you can call him an African entrepreneur. He started iHub, a startup incubator in Kenya, he made Ushahidi with others and is widely respected technologist, blogger and commentator who specialises in the impact and application of technology throughout Africa. I believe the choice for the keynote came because, although he is a bloggers, but it also reflects re:publica's intention to present itself as a conference for entrepreneurs and business startups too. His choice also reflects the need to shed the light on a usually ignored continent, especially when it comes to technology and development.

Eric is an okey speaker. The speech was not impressive or strong as Eben Moglen's keynote last year for example. Eric was focusing on the startup scene in Africa, giving examples from different countries. Showing the incubators across the continent, the entrepreneurs and their challenging spirit was a good thing, but the choices for some of their products was patronising in a way. He pointed one of the main problems that face local investors in the Middle East and Africa, where there are lower hanging fruits such as real-estate business and food chain, which attracts investors diverting them from funding technology startups sometimes. For sure, market economics shall fix that someday, but this still is one of the issues. He then stressed on the need for entrepreneurs to find way to collaborate with each other and build communities and ecosystem. He referred to huts building in Africa as an example where a whole village collaborate to build it. It's up to each one to choose whether he want to be a "villager" or an "individual". Being an individual is okey, but they shouldn't expect people to help or collaborate with them. Then came the main point of his speech, at least according to me. He said that Africa does have its own problems, and entrepreneurs have to solve those problems of their local communities as no body else is going to offer to fix them. In other words, a product made for Berlin or London is not usually suitable for Nairobi or Delhi. He gave an example with a 3G model they are producing in iHub. In a way, it is not a new idea, it is just 3G modem produced everywhere. But giving it a second thought, you can see that electricity is not stable in Africa. Hence, their 3G modem (BRCK), is rugged, portable and can work on batteries rather than electricity. He finally ended his talk with the following summary notes: "There is A LOT going on (in Africa)", "Local problems need local solutions" and "Support and growth are lacking".

Ben Scott
Another session I attended was given my Ben Scott. Ben used to work as a Policy Advisor for Innovation at the US Department of State. He worked at the intersection of technology and foreign policy, or to use his own words, he worked with Hilary Clinton on how to change the US policy in the internet age. Prior to that he worked for 6 years in Free Press. He described Free Press as a non-profit organisation that tries to organise people online and help them engage with wider audience on the internet to discuss internet policies and see how to put forward "good" internet policies. I put good in between quotes here because I have no idea how he defines good policies. Ben started talking about internet campaigns and how all successful campaigns share the same aspects. He added that the internet doesn't really care what you are for and what you are against. Using internet for campaigns is basically the same for all causes. He then referred to Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, and how for the first time they harnessed the internet with such scale. "What Obama realised in his 2008 campaign was that the power dynamics is changing because of the internet", he added. Although, most of what he is saying is well known, I enjoyed some of his examples. To elaborate the contrast between social campaigns now and twenty years earlier, he wondered what are the odds that someone with a camera is taking photos when something like the Boston Marathon bombing takes place in 1985, compared to it in 2013? He then warned that it is - however - not about technology any more, it is more about social change. A successful campaign should make use of technology, but it should also know how to use it to get engaged with the audience. To elaborate more, he added that two companies might use the internet and social media to deliver their message, but a successful social media strategy should not be how you shrink your press release into 140 characters, it is how you engage with people. Back to Obama campaign, he added that they realised than that people want to be heard. The campaign success came from the fact that they gave people a platform to be heard. A campaigners objective should focus on engagement with audience even before listening or just speaking to them. Additionally, social media is not only about delivering a message now, it is also used for collaboration or even funding causes, for example: kickstarter. Both SOPA and PIPA are example how laws can be defeated by the power of internet collaboration. When one of the audience asked whether he is very optimistic about the internet and its super powers, given that some countries like Iran already control and censor the internet. He replied: "30 years ago, if you wanted to start a revolution, you had to control the broadcast station; and to stop it, you had to install armed forced around the station. Now it is that you go online to start a revolution, and you censor and police the internet to stop it". Then he added regarding the case of Iran, "the thing to do in such case is to find alternatives for the internet, or any other parallel ways for communication".


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