SxSW wrap up

Yes I know I’ve been back for nearly a week, which means you’ll be totally fed up with SxSW posts, so this one might just be for my benefit. So… was it any good? Abso-bloody-lutely. The important thing was meeting up with so many of the friends I made last year and also getting to meet a whole bunch more folks who I missed last time around (Greg Storey, Mr & Mrs Josh Williams, Dan Rubin, Dustin Diaz and Cameron Adams to name but a handful). Bizarrely I also got to meet some of the Brit Pack properly for the first time – James Brothercake Edwards and Mark Boulton in particular, and as with last year, I shared drunken conversations with the Internet’s Kevin Smith. As usual all the cool kids stayed in the Hampton – we lucked out on that front last year, but this year we booked the hotel even before the conference tickets and flights. Well we wouldn’t want to miss out on the free breakfast, free wifi, free beer and the blogroll breakfast. And of course there are photos.

But what of the conference itself? It was definitely bigger – much bigger – sensible estimates ranged from one third more to twice as many delegates as last year. It seemed the majority of the additional attendees were women – which was a welcome change, and in no small part thanks to efforts by BlogHer. The increased attendance also gave a different feel to the panels and talks: I felt the panels suffered a little, losing some of the intimate conversational feel provided a by a small room of people, however the talks and presentations worked well in front of a larger audience.

Overall I didn’t feel quite as excited by the panels as last year, however there was some really good discussion throughout and to be fair some panels really were inspiring, fun and/or fascinating. You can find excellent liveblogs from Cindy Li, Stuart Colville and Ian Lloyd. Meanwhile I jotted down the odd brief note through some of the panels, which I’ve regurgitated here:

Traditional Design and New Technology

Mark Boulton waxed lyrical about Phil Baines wonderful book Penguin by Design.

Book Digitization and the Revenge of the Librarians

Really fascinating panel on a subject about which I know little. Did you know that Microsoft are digitising books in a similar manner to Google Books. The interesting thing here is that both companies view digitising books as an expensive (10 cents per page) philanthropical exercise with a wider commercial application, that of supplying the interface through which to search and view book text. As you can imagine there is a cacophony of copyright and access issues involved.

How to Make the Most of Maps

Well I had to attend this didn’t I, and it probably the most inspirational panel for me (once a mapper always a mapper). I love it when enthusiastic people show off the stuff they’ve put together. Most of all this panel gave me a list of URLs which I hadn’t come across before. Based around the Google Maps API, there are Community Walk and Wayfaring both of which allow enable users to show stuff (points and routes) on maps. Particularly good examples on Wayfaring are the Jacktracker which track’s Jack Bauer’s movements on the current series of 24, and especially for Jon, the Cheese map which shows the origins of fine cheese in France (there really needs to be a British extension to this).

Rev Dan Catt, formerly of Geobloggers and now of Flickr, introduced us to MeHere Greasemonkey scripts which hook in your GPS location with a website such as Placeopedia.

Web 2.1: Making Web 2.0 Accessible

Not as much practical advise here as I’d hope, but it was great to hear Shawn Henry, the WAI (pronounced ‘way’) outreach coordinator, give us W3C’s make on the progress and applicability of WCAG 2.0. She specifically told the audience not to blog her saying ‘Don’t read WCAG 2.0’ followed by ‘Don’t even read ‘Understanding WCAG 2.0’. To clarify, WCAG 2.0 is hard to read and understand because it generalises web content across delivery formats (HTML, Flash, PDF, etc) and attempts to make each guideline testable. The afore mentioned Understanding WCAG 2.0 tries to tell developers and content producers what they practically need to do in order to follow the guidelines. But above all, Shawn said to just talk to your users and test, test, test. Which is easier said then done to be frank, but good advice none-the-less. And here’s nice phrase I picked up on: ‘Incorporating accessibility in user-centred design’. We might use that one.

It was also good to hear ATAG mentioned, particularly when so many authoring tools are web based nowadays: Flickr, Blogger, wikis, CMSs, comments, etc.

How to Roll Your Own Web Conference

In true capitalist style Jason Fried says to charge what the market can bear, in his case $895 for the Getting Real workshop. Jeffrey and Eric looked upon things slightly differently for An Event Apart and we’ll look upon things even more magnanimously for d.Construct 2006 (I had to get that plug in – thanks to SxSW we’ve got some great speakers lined up).

Jason also mentioned that the Gleacher Centre is Chicago is a fine venue (crap website though). I also saw someone using Webstractor which looks to be a fascinating and potentially very useful piece of software – but I’m not quite sure what it does yet.

Web Standards and Search Engines: Searching for Common Ground

An entertaining panel, especially for watching Molly masterfully moderate and try to wean SEO information out of Yahoo!’s Tim Mayer. In fact thanks to this attention, Mayer probably had the most to contribute to the audience.

Mayer talked about what Yahoo! looks for in a website – he used a great phrase: signals of quality which essentially boils down to a webpage getting across what it is about. Mayer intimated that validation could be (but isn’t) used as a signal of quality. To do so, Yahoo! would have to be convinced that the websites with ‘quality’ content also validate, which unfortunately isn’t the case at the moment. It could be said that, at the moment, websites which do validate are likely to have good content, however the proportion of websites which fit this criteria is too small to warrant positive discrimination – it’s not Yahoo!’s job to promote web standards by giving higher ranking rankings to valid pages, especially as they are far more interested in semantically rich documents than validation per se.

Mayer also intimated that accessibility could be an signal of quality, and the sort of service the Yahoo! could provide is an accessibility filter (‘only show accessible sites’). Of course this would have to be an automated process, which many web developers would agree is not currently possible – Bobby passes for example are not an accurate indication of the presence or lack of accessibility.

Mayer introduced many of the audience (including me) to Site Explorer a Yahoo! service (with APIs) which enables authors to find out the which of their pages are indexed, which have links in and out and the quality of those pages (although I’m not sure that’s enabled yet).

On the subject of rel="no-follow", Mayer said it was a misnomer and that the choice should be left up to the search engine whether to follow and/or credit the link. Mayer also said that, of complaints to Yahoo! about page rank, about half the people who thought their site was being penalised were actually just doing poor SEO.

Microformats: Evolving the Web

Another engaging panel, especially as I didn’t go to this panel last year. Made me want to put together a microformat for recipes (turns out the work has already started on this) so that independent foodie sites such as Cuzza and Principia Gastronomica could easier share content.

I also got introduced to Tails, a Greasemonkey script for detecting and displaying microformats. Chris Messina showed the Flock version and said that the sort of thing Flock might do in the future is aggregate hcards found on websites, so that you could automatically build up information about a contact has the browser came across it.

Peter Morville Presentation: Ambient Findability

A few choice quotes:

  • A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.
  • Don’t push at customers, pull them in.
  • On tags: the old way creates a tree, the new way rakes leaves together.

And Peter Morville is not Peter Merholz. Similar names, similar fields of expertise and similar looking. I fucked up royally and thanked Peter Merholz for his fascinating presentation on Findability. I still cringe now, but PeterMe was very good about it (I think it may have happened before).

Design Eye for the List Guy

Definitely the most entertaining session I attended. This year the guys redesigned craigslist, no mean feat considering part of the charm is its undesignedness. I think they did a really good job with a tight grid and sympathetic treatment of the original – they limited themselves to only one graphic. A really great touch is the use of serif font for all the classified-related content, and sans-serif for the rest – subtle but clever.

Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps

Some fascinating stuff from Stamen Design including Cabspotting, an app which maps the speed and position of taxicabs over time. Evan Williams from Odeo talked about the ‘architecture of participation’ in which user feedback is built into the development cycle.

So that’s the wrap

The aftershocks will rumble on, though. There’s some accessibility aspects to discuss in the near future (a really promising piece of software I’m too excited to talk about just yet), a potential project involving Mark Boulton and myself, and maybe Clagnut beta. I’m moving hosts to enable the latter so expect some disruption over the next week.