SciBarCamp Toronto recap

After last year’s success, the organizers put on a another great SciBarCamp show! It was this past May 8th and 9th at the University of Toronto’s Hart House.

What is SciBarCamp, you ask?

SciBarCamp is a gathering of scientists, artists, and technologists for a day of talks and discussions. The second SciBarCamp event will take place at Hart House at the University of Toronto on May 9th, 2009, with an opening reception on the evening of May 8th. The goal is to create connections between science, entrepreneurs and local businesses, and arts and culture.

I’ll just do some fairly detailed commentary of two of the sessions I attended.

First of all, the Friday night was set aside for socializing and program setting. Both went quite well, with everyone of the 100 or so attendees getting a chance to give a very quick intro about themselves. After that, people who were interested in giving a session filled out a little form and then everybody got a chance to vote on what they would like to see. The organizers then set up the program grid for the day basically in front of everyone. With all the commotion and suggestions raining in, it was a bit chaotic but in a good way.

Saturday morning got things off to a good start, although with the rather stormy weather there were probably a few less people than Friday night.

First off, I attended Kaitlin Thaney‘s presentation on the Science Commons. She began with a brief over view of Creative Commons and Science Commons. CC licenses about 1% of all web content, allowing it to be recreated, shared, remixed and hacked. The Science Commons licenses are meant to apply to the scientific literature and especially to scientific data. Unfortunately, there’s a huge cultural barrier amongst scientists to adopt open licenses — they just get used to signing over their rights to publishers. We need to get more open access to literature and data and the CC license is a legal implementation of that OA vision. And we need to find the best fit for scientists.

There are major obstacles to data sharing, in part because data is a complicated mess, the USA also has a strong establishment of the public domain but not everywhere else does. One possibility is the CC0 waiver for data that immediately puts it in the public domain. One problem with the current situation is that when you are querying large federated datasets, usage is complicated by different bits of data having different licenses — the most restrictive license wins. Putting it all in the public domain fixes that.

For example, the Personal Genome Project used the CC0 waiver. In general, CC tries to be a 3rd party, honest broker in promoting more openness amongst scientists and scholars. It’s all about changing the culture that makes sharing seem risky or dangerous to one that makes it natural and empowering.

Next up is Michael Nielsen‘s session on Mass Collaboration in Science. This is a topic Michael writes about quite a bit on his blog, but he brought an interesting new spin to it in his presentation — he focused on the Polymath Project, a recent case in the math blogging community where the blogger Tim Gowers used his blog as a way to aggregate mathematical collaboration to solve an interesting and, more importantly, fairly difficult problem. You can read details of the project in three of Michael’s posts: here, here and here so I won’t attempt to describe it in any detail in this post. What’s significant is that a small but significant part of the mathematical community coalesced around the blog and solved the problem and did it fairly quickly too. Twenty three people made significant contributions to the project over numerous blog posts and over 1000 blog comments. What is very interesting is that the project really only had two important rules: be polite (no mean feat on the Internet) and keep individual contributions down to one real idea per blog comment. As well, there was no spam and no cranks (even more impressive for the Internet).

What were some of the issues? First of all, it was very hard for anyone to enter the project in the middle — the burden of reading all the posts and comments was too much. So, the conversation needed to be better modularized, perhaps like bug-tracking software works. Second of all, when looking at projects like this, what’s the incentive to participate beyond a novelty project like this one? What are the rewards systems, how does official academic credit get allocated? How are publications credited? All these are interesting questions and fortunately, most of them seem to have pretty good answers, at least in theory.

Of course, there’s also an interesting question that Michael posed for the librarians in the house (ie. me): how does this kind of new research conversation get aggregated and preserved? In a case like this with numerous blog posts and comments spread all over the place by people at many multiple institutions, that’s not a question I really had a good answer to, but of course the same question applies to all the academic blogosphere as well. It’s early days and hopefully there will be a trend towards institutions either preserving their own blogging output or perhaps picking a discipline or blogging community to aggregate and preserve.

Overall, it was a great conference. I really enjoyed touching base with old friends and especially meeting a bunch of new people. Of course, pretty well everyone I met had questions about the future of libraries in the digital world and I hope I had at least the beginnings of some possible answers. Like last year, I also brought my 16 year old son Sam to the conference; like last year, he stayed until lunch. It was a bit disconcerting that my he seems somewhat more famous than I am with the SciBarCamp set — everyone really remembered his enthusiastic contributions from last year and wanted to make sure he was going to there again this time. I guess there are worse problems to have than a smart, outgoing and engaged son; he had a great time again this year. Here’s a link to his blog, which hasn’t been very active during the final months of his grade 10 experience.

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