Senior Science Writer
David provides advice and editorial services to the OII faculty, and writes commissioned content for our publications.
There are worse destinations than Barcelona for a (rather grown-up) class trip, and certainly worse conference venues than the World Trade Center Barcelona. Conveniently located by the Port of Barcelona, the center provided us with prime views of the sea and harbour from all three conference rooms, and our little group of 20 Oxford Internet Institute MSc students (plus one lucky DPhil) felt pretty lucky to enjoy a brief city break in Catalonia’s beautiful capital, getting first-hand insights into the messy and fascinating world of civic technology and exploring the city on our own in the sunshine and after dark.
“Why is TICTeC trending? Shouldn’t this be Tic Tac?”, a confused Twitter user enquired once #TICTeC 2016 started trending locally on Twitter mere hours after the conference started. TICTeC – The Impact of Civic Technology Conference – is now in its second instalment after the 2015 debut, and this year, mySociety brought together 142 people from 29 countries to discuss the hot topics in civic technology research – a pretty international affair.
How do you measure impact? How can you make sure that the tools you are building will actually be used, and be useful? How do you empower the people who need it, and question the role of powerful players? These were only some of the guiding questions behind the many presentations and keynote talks at #TICTeC, and it’s not difficult to see how the answers to these questions matter – even for those of us who don’t naturally gravitate towards civic technology.
In fact, there was a little something for everyone at this diverse conference – and I’m not just talking about the strong coffee and attractive selection of pastries and nibbles between talks.
From the potential of gaming for social change, how to use Minecraft to generate engagement with public space design and data-driven storytelling, to the use of Facebook data to understand political engagement, the importance of finding the right tool for the job and being transparent about failure – the conference offered crucial insights beyond its focus on civic technology. TICTeC reminded us all of the need for thorough research, the importance of appropriate measurement, and how crucial it is to put humans at the centre of everything we do to generate valuable research – even when dealing with vast amounts of quantitative and seemingly impersonal data.
This message was affirmed as Helen Milner from the Tinder Foundation reminded us in her keynote talk of the digital exclusion that is happening everyday around us and stops people from gaining access to jobs and public services as communication gradually moves online; do not forget the millions of people (yes, even – or especially – in countries like the UK) who remain disconnected in the digital age.
Another highlight for our group was seeing our very own Juan Ortiz Freuler, Oxford Internet Institute MSc, present to a packed room on the challenges of open government data in the developing world. Juan asked us to question the role of powerful players in shaping what we know and what kind of data the government collects (and what for), emphasising that citizens ought not to be treated as consumers – we need to promote healthy debate on data.
Of course, we also enjoyed everything Barcelona had to offer beyond the conference, from tasty Tapas bars to exploring the city on beautiful sunny walks and a healthy dose of sightseeing.
Thanks to the Oxford Internet Institute for sponsoring a much-needed post-deadline break from the intense Oxford environment, and to mySociety for generously providing our entire group with free conference passes – we had a lovely time!