Web4Dev wrapped up last week, and Anna & I are back from NYC. It was a great experience .. the presentation went really well, we met many people at the UN and with NGOs/etc, and got a good insight into the United Nations system.
Wednesday morning, I gave my presentation of Wikis at the UN, the projects Anna and I worked on at the UNDP and INSTRAW, in the session on Collaborative Tools with Sarah Kerr. I was really excited to speak on this and advocate more wikis at the UN. The presentation was received well, and we met many people interested in wiki projects. It was even suggested to use a wiki to organize next year’s conference. The web4dev wiki we set up demo’d great, and I we had a bunch of attendees add details.
The entire event was webcast, and immediately archived; great job by the UN AV guys. Here’s the video of my presentation. You can download the slides from here watch out, this is 22MB!. And there’s the transcript of what I said.
The Web4Dev conference proper was insightful, to understand how web development operates within the UN. However the impact on Monday, the Global Alliance-AIT sessions, was not positive. The AIT Global Partnership is a series of events to strengthen the UN’s use of technology through cooperation with IT corporations and professionals. Their sessions came off as a brazen sales pitch; during a panel on SOA (just web services and widgets, jargon for CX0), an audience member asked “What does this have to do with development?” and it appeared that the panelists didn’t even understand what “Development” meant in this context.
Now I definitely agree that public-private partnership is crucial to successful Development ICT. Sometimes the market responds in unexpected ways; for instance, Intel is apparently considering developing a competitor to the $100 Laptop. But Monday showed the dangers of such initiatives being hijacked by the private portion. AMD’s 50×15 project to have internet access to 50% of the world by 2015 is great, but will their educational initiatives be pushing open source software development in classrooms? Several times I heard the phrase “Open Source is not free”, referring to maintenance and other costs, which of course if true, but it was being used as a dismissal of open source as a viable option.
I think it’s more than a viable option .. it’s absolutely central to ICT in the developing world, not only because of the cost savings, but the freedom to modify and educational opportunities. Socially, open source software leads to open knowledge and open democracy, which I am pushing for with wikis. The UN itself works at cross purposes on this, with many open source initiatives, while at the same time licensing more and more from Microsoft internally. The UN itself could do so much to raise the profile of Open Source internationally.
I raised these issues during the final feedback session, and others in the audience encouragingly concurred. Overall there was a wonder on Web4Dev was all about, and a real desire to find that .. how can we continue to work together, finding leverage points with the UN system, working effectively, “UN 2.0”.
Another surprise was the call to build large and not “just release”. The school of thought to architect completely before building is alive and well .. while rapid prototyping and iterative development is accepted practice everywhere else on the web. Or at least a “lightweight” approach. One UN project which really impressed me was the UN Online Volunteering Service. They “connect development organizations and volunteers over the Internet and supports their effective online collaboration”. If you want to volunteer, you search for postings from organizations, get in touch, and get to work .. all online. They eat their own dog food .. a large part of the site redesign and translations are done by the same volunteers. The actual staff is only 3 people. Sounds like a Web 2.0 startup!
Being inside the UN was great. The international style still feels so optimistic, formal and relaxed at the same time. Not too anachronistic, though the cafe outside the meeting rooms is probably the last place in NYC that allows smoking inside a public building (diplomatic immunity and all). Wonder if that will survive through the upcoming renovation. After the conference closed, we had lunch at the Delegates Dining Room, great food and a ridiculous amount of fresh berries on the desert table.