Web Technology

Make Web not War

I spent yesterday in Montreal at Make Web not War. It was a really fun time, and I learned a lot of neat things and met some interesting people. I was tweeting about it a fair bit, as were many others, (#webnotwar was actually the top-trending topic in Canada for much of the day) but for the benefit of those of you that don’t follow me on Twitter, I thought I’d sum up the experiences I had while I was there.

The keynote was a good start.

Joel Perras gave a great opening speech that really set the tone for the day. There were a lot of thoughtful tidbits about how closed-source platforms and open-source platforms can interact with one another, but by far the most-quoted phrase from this introduction was the following:

Interoperability isn’t a feature. It’s a requirement.

This simple sentiment sums up exactly what Make Web not War is about. Different platforms must interact with one another to be part of the modern web.

Next I saw a crazy-looking WordPress development process.

Morten Rand-Hendriksen develops WordPress applications, but he does things a little more radically than most people. He uses Expression Web to make presentational changes through a GUI, rather than editing CSS himself, and the speed of results was pretty remarkable. This was a really thought-provoking presentation, and lucky for you, some of the content is available on Morten’s blog.

Morten also shared a bit of interesting WordPress knowledge. Did you know that WordPress 3 (which is currently in Beta 2) will support custom CMS-style menus? The interface for it is very slick; select what you want, and drag/drop to set the order (no more HTML-level changes). Secondly, he found a really neat hack for creating custom template pages per-category: simple add a page called categoryName-categoryId.php and it will be used by WordPress for that category’s landing page. Lots of potential here!

Then there was a really interesting panel about communities.

The panel set-up was very informal, and provided a great atmosphere that really made it feel like we, the audience, were simply listening in on a conversation between the panelists. It’s hard to describe what I liked so much about this particular panel, but from what I remember, the take-aways were something like this:

  • In the world of web development, the community is your best friend.
  • In order for the community to grow and remain healthy, people have to participate.
  • Waiting for the “big” meet-ups that happen every four or five months isn’t good enough.
  • All big cities have a variety of technologically-inclined groups that meet up much more often than that.
  • The meet-ups don’t even have to be techie; a karaoke group or patio night is just as productive.

So the message overall was pretty loud and clear: get out there and spend some time with others in the web development world, doing anything from talking about new technologies to trading bacon-themed recipes.

After that, there were some five-minute web-app demos.

The one in particular that caught my eye was the not-very-carefully-named Flockoo. This is a service that allows you to log in with your Twitter account and enter a location, and then returns a list of all the users you follow from that location. Very useful for conferences, for example.

My favourite panel of the day was actually about SEO.

Man, was I shocked. I went into this one thinking it would be a drag (I have a relatively low opinion of self-proclaimed SEO-experts) but it turned out to be absolutely full of practical, useful information. The speaker promised that the slides would eventually be available via SlideShare, and I’m anxious to give them a re-read. They filled in quite a few gaps in my SEO knowledge, and I’m sure they’ll help you too.

Next was another panel, this one about cloud computing.

I’m not much of a cloud-guy yet, so I didn’t really gain much from this session. The only thing I distinctly remember was one of the panelists describing the current state of your average cloud-based service as a “cloudsterfluck”, which is a term I’m sure I’ll re-use for months to come.

Then I was pretty disappointed with the HTML5 session.

This is a topic I know a lot about, and I was really looking forward to seeing some interesting demos or cool new techniques. Unfortunately the speaker spent most of his allocated time rambling about spec changes, something that I (a) could have learned about myself in about half that time, and (b) was already intimately familiar with.

He did mention HTML5 Doctor, though, which is a fantastic resource for all things HTML5, and I made a point to share this awesome HTML5 demo with the other attendees via Twitter, as it’s my favourite HTML5 application to date.

The CSS3/jQuery session wasn’t much better.

The material wasn’t quite so dry, and the presenter was much more animated, but there still wasn’t anything really new or interesting.

Finally, there were the Coding Competition finals.

This is where the very best of two-dozen-or-so web-apps were shown off by their developers and voted on by their peers (the other attendees). The criteria for these submissions was that they used PHP, open data, and/or Microsoft Azure.

The entry I voted for was TaxiCity, a really creative game that uses geographical data from Vancouver to overlay a 2-dimensional game world on top of the Bing maps for Vancouver where you, the cab driver, drive around the city picking up and dropping off fares. The execution was very well done, and the distributed team clearly worked very hard to put a lot of polish into their product — an A+ in my book.

The idea that won, however, was an application with a lot of potential called Find a Home. This is a real-estate-type tool that lists homes in the Edmonton area and ranks them by novel criteria such as family-friendliness (based on proximity to schools and parks) and safety (based on proximity to Fire and Police departments). It’s certainly a good use of open data and new technologies, but I felt it wasn’t quite “finished” yet, even by alpha standards.

All in all, Make Web not War was a great time.

The food was delicious and plentiful, the venue was gorgeous, and the staff were fantastic. I’ll definitely go back next year.