Brian Shaler

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Ignite Phoenix 8

Ignite Phoenix 8 was last week, October 15, 2010 at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. The volunteer-organized event has grown from a 2-person team putting on an event in a 100-person capacity office/classroom to being a committee of passionate volunteers orchestrating an 800-person theatrical experience with a professional stage crew.

The content hasn’t changed, though. It’s still 5-minute lightning talks by regular people who want to share what they’re passionate about. There are still talks by people I know, shedding light on aspects of their lives I was unaware of (to people who don’t know them, they’re just fascinating talks). There are still talks that give you chills. There are still talks that cause an uproar of laughter. There are even still talks that break the rules (in a boo-hiss way).

At this Ignite, there were several stellar talks. I have two favorites.

“Surprise! Your child has autism. Now what?” I’d met Jim St. Leger and his son, the subject of Jim’s Ignite talk. They came to Gangplank and participated in hardware/circuitry meet-ups, where Jim’s son amazed everyone with his knowledge of electrical components. Jim gave an amazing talk about discovering his son had autism and the impact it had on his family. The word “impact” coming after “autism” sounds scary and negative. Autism isn’t necessarily a handicap. Sure, it comes with challenges, but it also comes with strengths. Don’t fear being different. Embrace it. Autism and Aspergers can be assets for certain lines of work.

“The Year of Music.” Brandon Franklin is a friend of mine, and he talked about changes in his life that I was lucky enough to witness. Brandon was inspired by an Ignite presentation about Taiko (Japanese drum). Brandon had abandoned one of his passions, music, in order to pursue work in technology. Not long after that Ignite, and hearing Brandon say, “That’s it, I’m going to take a Taiko class,” I saw him change his Facebook profile picture to one of him in class, striking a Taiko drum. He wasn’t just saying it. He also went on to co-found Desert Bloom Phoenix, a music & art event that has already been put on 3 times. Brandon also formed a band with Nicholas DiBiase, called Rocketship. Music is back in Brandon’s life in a big way, and the Ignite audience got to hear a 5 minute version of his year of change.

Not all the talks were so deep. There were some excellent, fun, and entertaining talks about stuff like beer, donuts, and building a desert compound impenetrable by the federal government. You know, the usual.

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 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.

Code And Beats: Music Powered Twitter Wall

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to Code And Beats. I could’ve worked on work work. I could’ve worked on non-work work. But I didn’t do either. Instead, I experimented with some visual effects in Flash — combining video, audio input, and tweets.

By 2am, here’s what I had come up with! (I’ll post the code soon eventually)

Code & Beats: Music Powered Twitter Wall from Brian Shaler on Vimeo.

Fun stuff! I’m interested in seeing this event come to Phoenix. We just need to get the organizer (+developer +designer +DJ) Avi to fly out and then round up a few local DJs with some good electro material. Un tiss un tiss un tiss…

Also, here’s a separate pic I snapped of the Twitter wall:

Code And Beats: Music Powered Twitter Wall

Code And Beats: Music Powered Twitter Wall

I should’ve put together a video showing more of the background dancing clips. Some of them were pretty excellent!

Code and Beats

I found out yesterday that there’s going to be a rad event called “Code & Beats.” If it turns out to be as fun as it sounds, I’ll probably lobby to bring it to Phoenix.

Here’s the basic premise:

A party celebrating the art of programming through performance. A handful of hardcore coders from the city’s hottest startups will work in the center of a pounding dance floor to a musical journey of electro beats.

Some additional details: it sounds like the “hardcore coders” will be facing the dance floor, with external monitors mirroring their laptops and facing the dance floor. There may also be one or more projectors involved.

I’m going to experiment with some new visual Flash-based stuff, and will try to include the room’s music, a webcam, and/or tweets as inputs!

It should be exciting! Also, I’m probably going to open-source everything I write at the event and post it somewhere like GitHub.

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