Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Foo Camp

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Foo Camp, a technology camp in Warkworth. I talked about it today on Radio New Zealand National – read on for my speaking notes.

Q: Colin Jackson of IT.GEN.NZ joins us now. Colin – just back from Kiwi Foo Camp, I hear _ I’m sure you want to tell us about that! What does the name mean?

A: Theoretically it’s short for Friends of O’Reilly. He’s a technical publisher in the States who started the format a few years ago. Nathan Torkington, the organiser of this camp, worked for O’Reilly for a while. But actually the non-word foo is older than that. It’s been used among computer geeks since time out of mind. It crops up in the 1970s text based computer game called Adventure, for instance. So it’s a bit of an in joke for programmers.

And there’s a similar notion to a Foo Camp called a Bar Camp – that’s even more self-organising than a Foo. It’s generally thought that foo and bar come from an old military slang term, fubar, which stands for messed up beyond all recognition.

Q: So what’s difference between a Foo Camp and Bar Camp?

A: The Foos are organised by an individual or group, generally with a connection to Tim O’Reilly. They are invitation-only. The Bars are self organised by larger groups, open to anyone and generally you have be prepared to give a presentation. Although that’s generally expected at Foo as well.

Q: What’s the format of these things?

A: The Kiwi Foo is held in a college. People arrive on the Friday afternoon, get welcomed on to the school marae, and then everybody writes down the name of a talk they’d like to give. Then, it just happens. There are about 6 meeting rooms set up and there are maybe twelve presentations given in each room over the weekend. Mostly these are really informal and interactive, not to say downright rowdy for some of the later night ones.

The whole things is desperately informal. Shorts and jandals are worn by pretty much everyone there. There is no hierarchy – ministers of the crown get treated just the same as internationally famous geniuses, and just the same as young new graduates with smart ideas. And everyone seems to love that, it’s part of the charm of the event. There are no keynotes – there aren’t any pre-arranged presentations – there are no lecterns, no little bowls of mints every third seat – and people are so engaged in the subject matter rather than in the trapping of a conference. Foo bills itself as an “unconference” and that’s quite a good term for it.

Then there’s the social side – which is part of the point, really. There’s a 150 people in this place, mostly technology people, creative people and a few lawyers, a politician or two, a couple of venture capitalists, some entrepreneurs. I wasn’t the only one of your contributors – Rod Oram was there as well. Some people came from a long way to get there – Europe, the US, but it was mostly New Zealanders. And people make contacts, stitch deals together, bend the government’s ear, try to arrange free cooperative networks, anything they are interested in. There’s a lot of that goes on.

Q: So there are genuine outcomes from the meeting?

A: Yes, definitely. Lots of people hook up – in the business sense of the term, anyway!

Q: I suppose all the attendees are men!

A: Certainly not all. A majority, but I would guess that at least a quarter of the attendees were women. Kim Hill, for example – she broadcast her programme live from the camp.

Q: How did that work?

A: She was in a small side room off the school staff room, which was what we were using for the social area of the camp. There were a couple of radio engineers in there helping her, and some of the Foo Campers were asked to go in and be interviewed. There was a speaker in the main area so the rest of us could hear what was going on, as well.

Q: Where did people stay?

A: Some stayed in the local motel, some camped on the school sports field, and some slept on the floor of the marae. But there were too many for the wharenui, and some people ended up sleeping under the stars or in classrooms.

Q: So that was you?

A: Ah, no. I was in the motel.

Q: I’m interested in what difference this makes – I’m sure it’s all great fun, but does it actually change anything?

A: It certainly does. At one level, it’s people just striking ideas off each other. At another, you have the people who design cutting edge websites talking to the people who make the Firefox web browser. That’s got to be good – the designers hear what’s coming up, and the browser folk hear what designers actually want. It’s another thing that makes Firefox so much better. There are now five Firefox developers in New Zealand – this is where the browser is being developed! And that was another thing I took out of the camp. The web and Internet business is hot, hot, hot in New Zealand now. There’s a real buzz. Startups everywhere doing amazing things. I met so many people who borrowed all they could, taken a year without pay and worked like trojans to try to get their ideas off the ground. Some of them don’t make it, of course, but there are quite a few who do – Wellington in particular has got many, many young high tech businesses, from Weta Digital downwards.

Q: Why Wellington?

A: I could be flip and say it’s because this is such a cool place, but really I think we go back to the Info City strategy the Council had in the early 90s.

Q: As long ago as that? What did it do?

A: The city made a real effort to make itself attractive to high-tech businesses. There was free dial-up Internet run by the Council in the early 90s, and then the Citylink fibre ring which was put together by Richard Naylor, who worked for the Council at the time. That has gone on to be something of an Internet jewel.

Q: I understand that fibre’s good, but why is Wellington’s special?

A: Citylink had a number of things going for it. First of all it was independently owned; it was set uyp as an Internet company before most people knew what the Internet was, so its wasn’t a telephone company. In those days, telephone companies either ignored the Internet of felt threatened by it. Citylink’s model was – we’ll just haul fibre into your basement and you can use it for whatever you like, as fast as you like, for a fixed monthly fee. That kind of thing is anathema to the big telcos who would rather sell you a complicated service that they can meter and charge for by the megabyte. Citylink got started by hanging its fibre off the trolleybus wires. Its still there if you know where to look. So, not only are Wellington’s trolleybuses good for the environment, they gave rise to the fibre which has attracted all this innovation here.

Q: And were these companies at Foo?

A: several of them were. Rod Drury was there talking about his latest venture – the online accounting system Xero – in fact, they were one of the sponsors. Bbut something like Foo brings together really smart people who are trying with people who have managed it. There were so many bright New Zealanders there, and we’ll cover more of the interesting things they are doing in the next few months.

Another way in which the camp is influential – government takes it seriously and both participates and listens. Last year, we had the Minister for IT David Cunliffe who was left in no doubt about what the IT people thought he needed to fix.

Q: Which was?

A: Sort out our broadband – which he was well aware of had started to do by then, and fix peering, which I’m not sure was on his radar before he got to Foo.

Q: And this year?

A: Judith Tizard was there – she’s in charge of a Copyright Bill – the infamous one that you’ve heard me talk about before – that’s wending its way through the House. She spent some time explaining what they’d changed in response to the howls from people at the last Foo Camp, and some time on what they didn’t change.

Q: What didn’t they change?

A: Anything Hollywood wanted stayed, basically. Perhaps I’m being a bit hard, because the message about iPods still being illegal appears to have been received – Judith was quite open about using one herself, for instance – but I still think there is a lot say about digital copyright, and I’ve no doubt we’ll get to that in another programme.

Another thing I was impressed by – and I never fail to be impressed by – was the government people who showed up. Can we just put to bed, for once and for all, this notion that public servants are wastrels in walk shorts? Government departments are full of really bright committed people, and the people who work in technology are doubly so.

My head’s still buzzing with all the ideas I got at Foo and I’ve no doubt I’ll be talking about some of those ideas in the weeks and months to come.


As always, discuss this at

An article about the cable getting cut in the Middle East, and a link back to my previous programme on this.

The “word” that Foo’s name comes from

Wikipedia on Foo Camps and the Kiwi Foo

Richard Naylor, the founder of Citylink, Wellington’s innovative and influential fibre ring.

posted by colin at 10:55 am  

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