Brian Shaler

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PHXdata Update and Fostering Community

I posted previously about the idea of having a user group for data. The group has come together in the form of PHXdata and 6 meet-ups have already taken place.

It’s exciting to see it unfold, as more people come together and get involved. The next meeting is 6:30pm Tuesday, July 6th, where the Civic Hacking work group will continue working on a challenging campaign finance project (“Open” data is not necessarily “Useful” data. 3,000 scanned documents as PDFs? Are you serious?). The group will also discuss the planning of an Open Government event, where government officials, technologists, and journalists will get together and discuss how to improve the accessibility of open data, making more data open, government transparency, and ways open data can change lives. If you’re interested to hear more, check out PHXdata.org and join the mailing list.

At this planning meeting, we are expecting to have special guests, technical representatives from various cities in Phoenix metropolitan area. The group is already getting serious interest from the local government, which is very exciting!

My Hidden Agenda

After my recent announcement about jumping into the world of self-employment and specializing in data visualization, it may become clear why I decided to help Mark Ng and Marc Chung get this group going. My involvement in this group has been part of a broad, long-term strategy. If I want to establish myself in this new industry, it is in my best interests to empower those around me with similar interests.

Collaboration over competition

A rising tide lifts all boats. While you can lift yourself up by pushing others down, you will get higher if you help lift everyone around you.

Community is serendipity

While helping foster community has few direct and measurable benefits, the possibility for all kinds of indirect benefits is immeasurable.

Humans are great filters. If you surround yourself with enthusiasts in your field, you’ll always know what’s new in your field, without having to spend all your time trying to read about everything. If something is new and exciting, someone will want to talk about it. This is why User Groups are extremely valuable.

If you are part of a community, you have people to go to for advice, to answer your questions, recommend alternatives, and miscellaneous human resources like beta testers, proofreaders, and referral networks. You also have a pool for professional help, like potential employees or subcontractors.

You can’t say, “I’ll help start a meet-up group and get [this or that],” but you can say, “I’m going to bring people with similar interests together in a meaningful way, and there will be opportunities for me—and everyone else—to benefit from it.”

A User Group… For Data?

Usually, a “user group” would revolve around a computer language, a development platform, or subsets of computing technologies. This title is phrased in such a way to imply that data is a platform under which statisticians, data analysts, and visualizers coincide

Last night, I had a conversation with Mark Ng and Marc Chung, two people who I have recently found to be highly enthusiastic in analyzing large data sets. The outcome of the conversation may potentially be two organizations, a user group and a work group.

The User Group:
I’m an interface guy who’s been doing data visualization lightly for 4 years and heavily for 1 year. My skill set for dealing with large amounts of data is creeping its way back, back, back from the front-end interface into the deep abyss of things that drive data visualization: statistical analysis, data mining, and distributed computing. In researching these topics, I’ve learned about some fascinating and useful tools that can do mind-boggling things with mind-bogglingly large data sets. This is stuff I would love to share, and even more, I’m interested to see what other people know and have done with these types of tools. My proposition was to start a recurring meet-up that would consist of presentations and/or demos of tools, languages, platforms, and cloud computing technologies.

The Work Group:
One VERY hot topic driving data visualization forward right now is government transparency. More and more local, state, and federal government bodies are releasing gargantuan amounts of data for the public to review. The problem? Gargantuan means BIG! Here, we need to connect a few dots:

First, we need to get the data. That can be through public repositories, or, as an example, a local news outlet that submits public records requests to obtain public data.

Second, we need to get the data in the right hands. Extremely large data sets are unmanageable to people who aren’t statisticians. So let’s get statisticians involved!

Third, we need to make the results public, which could mean looping back with a local news outlet to get coverage. It could also mean building and embedding interactive data visualizations into local news web sites, much like the New York Times.

I think both groups are excellent ideas and they even complement each other well (the user group would be an excellent resource pool for the work group). It is important to get data wranglers, statistics enthusiasts, and visualization gurus to come out of the woodwork and help these ideas come to fruition! Connect with me, Mark Ng, and/or Marc Chung to get in touch and stay in the loop.

Geek Week AZ Recap

As @AbeVigoda would say, “I am alive!”

Somehow, I survived Geek Week AZ. I went to Ignite Phoenix, TEDxPhoenix, Desert Code Camp, SustainaBIL, AZIMA, Developer Ignite, Arizona Entrepreneurship Conference (AZEC), Social Media Club + AZEC Mixer, Phoenix WordCamp, #evfn, and PodCamp AZ. All without taking any time off work. The only events going on during working hours were AZEC & WordCamp, where I co-worked!

The spaghetti is on the wall, and it’s time to see what stuck. The event organizers who banded together to make it happen pulled it off. It was no easy task, because they’ve already got their handful with their own events, but this year, they went above and beyond to create something new. The culmination of 2 years of conversations about making a big splash in the local tech community resulted in a festival of independently organized tech-focused and tech-related events.

Geek Week AZ became what it was because the idea evolved WITH criticism. “You don’t think this will work? Then propose a better way of accomplishing the same goals.” What Geek Week AZ was looks nothing — NOTHING — like what Geek Week AZ initially set out to be.

Now that it has happened, there are new criticisms. It’s very important that this criticism doesn’t fall of deaf or defensive ears.

There are at least a dozen people who have said they are opposed to multi-day events. Perhaps something like Geek Week AZ isn’t for everyone, but the beauty of the model is that most of the events are free and you don’t have to pay for the full event and feel obligated to attend as much as possible. Some people just can’t handle 4 days in a row of learning, networking, and staying out late.

I thought one of the major problems would have been people not knowing what is going on and where to go. That’s why I put together a pocket guide to Geek Week AZ. Either the site solved the problem, or the problem didn’t end up being there to begin with.

There are justifiable concerns about the momentum and energy of attendees who participated in multiple events. It also seems possible that events could have built up more excitement and anticipation if they were standing alone and not a smaller part of a bigger thing.

Does this mean Geek Week AZ shouldn’t exist? No. This means there is valid criticism that should be addressed — not ignored — and addressed in a way that still accomplishes the same goals. What are the goals? I might have posted about them before, but feel free to ask me.

The way you respond to criticism shows your ability to think creatively. You can say, “It doesn’t work like this, so maybe we should go back to the old way of doing it.” Or you can say, “If it doesn’t work like this, what can we do to make it work better so we still go in the same direction: forward.”

Here’s to going forward.

Geek Week AZ: Cross-Promotion

One of the goals of Geek Week AZ was to get event organizers to work together to benefit each others’ events. The result is more exposure and more attendees for everyone!

If you ask someone if they’re willing to cross-promote, they’ll surely say yes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always translate to action.

I decided to see which event sites were linking to other events going on during Geek Week AZ. I was looking for a score of 7, which would count as all of the “major” GWAZ events. There are at least 10 “extra credit” events (smaller ones that occur monthly or weekly, but occur during GWAZ).

Ignite Phoenix: Nov 3
Events linked: 0
Honorable mention for linking to Social Media Club Phoenix and PodCamp AZ, but the links are buried on the site in 2 blogs posts that are over a year old.

TEDxPhoenix: Nov 6
Events linked: 6 – AZ Entrepreneurship Conference, Desert Code Camp, Ignite Phoenix, PodCamp AZ, SustainaBIL, and WordCamp Phoenix
Disclaimer: I’m an adviser for TEDxPhoenix.

Desert Code Camp: Nov 7
Events linked: 0
(Note: The organizers of this event are doing a great job of putting together another great DCC, and I’ve even talked to Joe about cross-promoting on the site. He’s totally on-board, but he just recently obtained access to the site from its previous webmaster. This is not intended to “shame” DCC, but perhaps serve as a reminder and maybe even a sense of urgency?)

SustainaBIL: Nov 8
Events linked: 9 – AZ Entrepreneurship Conference, AZIMA, Desert Code Camp, Developer Ignite, Ignite Phoenix, WordCamp Phoenix, PodCamp AZ, Social Media Club Phoenix, and TEDxPhoenix
Disclaimer: I’m the lead organizer for this event, so of course I’m going to be cross-promoting!

Developer Ignite: Nov 11
Events linked: 1 – Ignite Phoenix

AZ Entrepreneurship Conference: Nov 12
Events linked: 3 – Ignite Phoenix, Social Media Club Phoenix, and PodCamp AZ
Honorable mention for linking to TiE AZ which has an event the week before GWAZ. Unfortunately, they linked to a broken version of the site that hasn’t been updated since 2006.

WordCamp Phoenix: Nov 13
Events linked: 0
UPDATE 10/28: Honorable mention for linking to AZ Entrepreneurship Conference and PodCamp AZ in a blog post (there are currently only 4 posts, so it’s relatively easy to stumble upon!).

PodCamp AZ: Nov 14-15
Events linked: 2 – AZEC09 and WordCamp Phoenix
UPDATE 10/28: An awesome email went out today, promoting and linking to Ignite Phoenix, TEDxPhoenix, SustainaBIL, Creative Connect, Gangplank Hacknight, AZEC09, Social Media Club Phoenix, and WordCamp Phoenix.
Disclaimer: I’m a helper / committee member.

All of the events listed here are doing a GREAT job putting together their events. I’m confident each one of them is going to rock! However, I think almost all of them could do a better job of supporting each other.

You Are an Ambassador of Your Community

I tend to focus on Phoenix tech a lot. Hopefully, people outside of Phoenix who read what I write take the principles and apply them to their own localities and industries.

Curious to see what someone would find if they searched for “phoenix tech community,” I ran the search through Google, Yahoo, and Bing. I think we in Phoenix make a lot of noise from time to time, and we have so much going on that word occasionally reaches people across the country and even around the world. I wondered what outsiders would see, but also what locals would find if they set out to find their city’s tech community.

Astonishingly, this blog was at the top of the results — first on Google and Yahoo, but on Bing, it was second to a blog post about one of my blog posts.

What, am I bragging? Hell no.

I realized that there is room for improvement on my part. My blog post, “The Phoenix Tech Community,” was a good article, in my opinion. However, it is NOT what I would consider a good landing page for the tech community.

When someone searches for “phoenix tech community,” I want them to discover that there is a ton of stuff going on in Phoenix. They should be exposed to Phoenix events and meet-ups, Phoenix blogs, and Phoenix co-working spaces, and more.

I’m taking too long to get back to the title of this post, and it’s getting to be about time to wrap it up.

The pages people will find when they’re looking for the phoenix tech community weren’t deliberately written to be someone’s first impression. I became, without knowing, an ambassador for the community. Also without knowing, I wasn’t doing a great job with this ambassadorship.

It’s one more thing to keep in mind with my (and your) blog posts. You can become an ambassador of your community, simply by mentioning it. Try to be a good one.

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