Activate London 2012

Data visualisation has progressed over the years

Data visualisation, radio and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, ‘computation for everyone’, 3D printing… If nothing else, the Guardian’s Activate summit – which took place yesterday in London – provided an eclectic mix of speakers and topics. Activate is designed to bring together innovators that use the internet and related technologies to change the world. It was something of a surprise, therefore, that the day started off with a picture of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the designer of London’s sewer network. It begins to make more sense, however, if you consider Bazalgette not as a Victorian engineer, but as one of the foremost innovators of his age who revolutionised the world beneath our feet.

It quickly became apparent that innovation would be a key theme of the day. It was equally clear that innovation in technology can take multiple forms – from the wholesale re-design of the UK Government’s digital services and the sleek product releases from Skype to the computational knowledge engine, WolframAlpha, a product that’s so innovative I’m not entirely sure I fully understand it.

Live programming with Conrad Wolfram

If computational knowledge engines can be difficult to understand, infographics and data visualisations are anything but. A fascinating panel looked at how social media and data were influencing storytelling and journalism. In recent years, there’s been something of an explosion in data-driven journalism and an upsurge in data itself. Data visualisations have provided us with a simple, quick and occasionally beautiful way of visualising raw data. The Guardian’s own Data Store is a fascinating example of this. Increasingly, though, citizens can bypass traditional media producers to create their own visualisations via tools such as tableau public and visual.ly. If data can be key to the way that media works, it’s equally important for many NGOs. The Open Knowledge Foundation, for example, exists to promote open knowledge and open data, so that organisations and individuals operate transparently and fairly, and not under a cloak of secrecy. Democratic transparency organisations such as the Polish Sejmometr or the UK’s mySociety have built upon this to create tools and sites that allow people to access information on their elected representatives. It was really exciting to hear that mySociety – an Indigo grantee – had been awarded a grant of $2.9m over the next three years by the Omidyar Network.

A particular highlight of the day was the discussion with Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress. Since its inception a few years ago, WordPress has been used to create more than 75 million individual blogs, with approximately 100,000 more being added each day. WordPress – and other such similar sites – have drastically reduced the barriers to becoming a creator of internet content. The platform allows those with no experience of website design or programming languages to create their own websites in a matter of minutes (this site is but one example). In a matter of years it has allowed people to change from passive consumers to active creators of content. Now, anyone can share their thoughts, knowledge, feelings – or simply pictures of their cats – with a minimum of fuss and effort. While this democratisation of the web can, at times, be confusing and a little messy, it’s also giving a voice to organisations and individuals right around the world.

Occasionally, listening to people talking about technology and innovation can seem a little self congratulatory. Activate, however, succeeded in pulling together a genuinely impressive line-up of speakers from small, grassroots organisations to corporations with multi-million dollar turnovers and thousands of staff. Looking forward to Activate 2013 now.