Enlightened Geek Listening

geeklisteningFor some reason I never did any podcast listening until about 10 months ago. At that point I decided to give it a go and quickly assembled an initial list of subscriptions by googling around to see what similar minded peers were listening to. Its amazing (and frustrating) how much interesting stuff is out there.

My current list has evolved considerably since then and the purpose of this post is to give an overview of the shows I’m currently subscribed to and why. Hopefully it may inspire others to listen to some of them and share their own.

The different subscriptions cover my interests in technology & software, programming, (aerospace) engineering, and socio-economic/political topics. As well as a broader interest in science related topics and the scientific method.

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ICT4D and me

3332044876_9c1866b997A couple of months ago I was asked by somebody at the Global South Forum to give a talk about some technology related topic. My initial idea was to talk about Taarifa but after some thought I decided to open it up more and talk about the wider ICT4D field. In particular related to my own experiences and assumptions.

I have been wrestling with the whole concept of ICT4D for some time and thought it would be a good opportunity to engage with “the experts”.

My slides are below. Though they contain very little text the narrative should be clear from the pictures. As background reading I strongly suggest Can Technology end Poverty from Kentaro Toyama and The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D” by  Erik Hersman.

The Research Software Engineer

Some months ago I attended the 2012 Collaborations workshop in Oxford, something which I blogged about in my post The Researcher Programmer, a New Species?.

This then triggered some discussion on the LinkedIn group for scientific software engineering, and that eventually led to a collaborative paper, presented at this weeks Digital Research Conference, also in Oxford.

I didn’t find a link to any kind of proceedings and in the interest of the discussion thought I would reproduce the paper here.

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The State of Africa

This post collects my thoughts on a book I just finished reading. The State of Africa by Martin Merdith. Its taken me a long time to read but that has nothing to do with the book, rather with the events in my own life.

The book covers the evolution of the African continent since independence (50 years or so). Its a mammoth undertaking and I think Merdith did a great job pulling it off.

The book itself was an impulse buy at Heathrow Airport. Having grown up in Africa I feel connected with the continent and thought it was only right I educate myself more about its history.

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#RHoKSoton is going to rock!

In 30 minutes we have the #RHoKSoton pre-RHoK Event social gathering in a nearby pub. Tomorrow morning we will join 30 worldwide locations and 3000+ participants to work on a number of challenging problems for the good of humanity and the environment. This is the first time RHoK is organized in this part of the UK and we are the only event in the UK this round!

Its been a lot of work getting this organized and not everything will be perfect, but all I can say is….

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The researcher programmer, a new species?

Update: There has been some good discussion on this post at the LinkedIn group on Scientific Software Development and ManagementSee also the papers by Victoria Stodden and the great complmentary article by Ilian Todorov.

Update 2: There is now a Part 2 to this post: The research software engineer.

Last week I attended the 2012 Collaborations Workshop at Queen’s College in Oxford. Organized by the Software Sustainability Institute its goal was to bring together software developers and researchers and relect upon how both groups interact and if anything needs to be changed.

I only found out about the two day workshop and the existence of the SSI a few weeks before but immediately signed up. It was the first time I attended a conference so relevant to my own position and work. There were about 50 attendees, all in a similar position: PhD degree, working in academia or research lab, strong computational/software skills and working closely with researchers from at least one other scientific field (with a strong representation from biology/chemistry).

The conference went very smoothly, expertly managed and organized by Simon Hettrick and Neil Chue Hong. There were hardly any conventional talks, rather lightning talks and a whole series of break-out sessions which resulted in a lot of interesting discussions. One of the fundamental problems that kept coming up was the problem of defining ourselves as a group. What kind of species were we?

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RHOK Water Hackathon – Team Tarifa Won!

The past weekend I finally got the chance to attend one of the RHOK hackathon events. These events concentrate on using technology to solve humanitarian problems such as those related to draught, overpopulation, earthquakes, etc.  The current hackathon was the first to concentrate solely on water and sanitation related problems.  Held in 9 cities across the world, I attended the London event, organized by fellow compatriate Julian Harou.

I was one of the first to arrive, and although there weren’t too many people we quickly had a good mix of water and tech people.  The event started with pizza and calling in to various countries around the globe so the problem submitters could briefly describe the motivation behind their problem statement.  There were quite a few problems, some with curious names such as “Map the crap”.  Initially my interest went out to a problem that involved writing a Google Earth plugin that would enable water management people & researchers to quickly and automatically identify catchment areas for a given location.  A challenging algorithmic problem I figured.  Unfortunately I was one of the few (or only?) person interested in the problem & the problem submitter was not physically available.  So progress would have been difficult & slow.

Instead I decided to join fellow attendee and problem owner Mark Iliffe.  Mark had just started working at the World Bank and his problem revolved around extending the Ushahidi platform to improve the reporting and feedback process of complaints.  If you have never heard of Ushahidi, dont worry, neither had I.  Turned out is quite a useful and successful CMS system that allows users to file reports about problems in their area (broken pipes, blocked public toilets, etc.).

From the start it was great to see how enthusiastic Mark was about his team (about 4 of us).  Quickly we were sketching out use case diagrams, sequence diagrams, flow charts, TODO lists, etc.  I think we pretty much filled up all the white boards available.  We were only about 20 minutes into this and our progress was already caught on the akvo.org blog by Mark Charmer.  Great stuff.

As people were working stuff out Mark would bring on beer, biscuits, wine, and gently coerce other hackers in joining us (at peak we had about 12 people!).  Star of the team was probably Caz.  Ushahidi is written in php and my php foo is … well … not stellar 🙂  But no worries for Caz who did a great job of coding stuff up.  The hardest part about the whole exercise was understanding the code structure (Ushadhidi uses a custom framework based on Codeigniter and Kohana).  I helped around with various bits and pieces and added support for geocoding sms messages by using a custom location code (Tanzania lacks an official postcode system).  We worked right up to the deadline, with our tweaked Android application only finally working during our presentation (props to Gitmeister Florian!).

Anyways, long story short.  We won 🙂  The other teams had some good stuff too but I think we had the edge with Marks mad selling skills and a very clear route to sustainability.  So what did we win?  Not quite sure yet.  Some gadgets from Google and a teleconference with some IBM guys next week.  Lets see what happens.  After a great social gathering at the local pub it was time to head home.

As I undertook the 2 hour journey back to Southampton it struck me again how important these kinds of events are.  First of all for meeting new and interesting people, secondly for learning new stuff and learning to get something together quickly.  I still have a long way to go but thats a great excuse for attending a next event 🙂

More pictures here.

-Dirk