4 min read
Wed 30 Oct 2019 Writing

Notes from MozFest 2019

Reflecting on how to break big tech open, build a feminist Internet and collectively model threats to open projects.

We spent the weekend at Mozilla Festival, hosted by Ravensbourne University. This year is the 10th anniversary (and the last one in London) so the mood was even more celebratory than usual.

We are big fans of MozFest’s format as it’s intentionally community-led and non-hierarchical. While there are keynote lectures throughout the day, the main focus is the interactive sessions.

Each level of the Escher-like building has a certain focus, covering topics like Web Literacy, Digital Inclusion and Openness. It’s also the most diverse tech event that we’ve attended, which adds to the excitement and changes the conversation.

Let’s break big tech open

There are always too many sessions to choose from at a given time. We began Saturday with a session with Ira Bolychevsky from Redecentralize .

Ira introduced the idea of interoperability in a very accessible way — it always helps to have real world examples like the postal service and email protocols.

Facebook’s key to success is that they have all your friends. Alternative platforms exist, but there’s no point going there if you don’t have anyone to interact with. Ira goes into more detail on the topic in this post , which we highly recommend.

The group had an engaging discussion afterwards about what interoperability would look like in practice — basically, how can we get there? The main challenge being, of course, that these companies aren’t going to give up their business model so easily.

It was interesting to observe throughout the weekend how, compared to last year’s event, the conversation around decentralisation has become more nuanced and shifted towards interoperability and openness.

Design in government

The next session we went to was a series of lightning talks run by the Government Digital Service, which provides guidance, standards and tools like the GOV.UK Design System to help teams create better services. We were interested in this as a case study for creating functional and accessible digital products at a very large scale.

Carol Pizatto described their user-first and iterative methodology for policy development, which follows a continuous cycle of research, testing and review.

Alaric King spoke about the GOV.UK Design System, and how having a framework like this ensures that you are designing for users rather than stakeholders, and frees up the time and space for wider and more difficult discussions.

The Government Digital Service publishes a lot of interesting thinking about their approach. We particularly like this article on why you should publish in HTML rather than PDF.

Feminist Principles of the Internet

We began Sunday at a session facilitated by Maja Kraljic from the Association of Progressive Communications on the Feminist Principles of the Internet .

The idea behind the principles is to empower women and queers to enjoy their digital rights and dismantle the patriarchy. Sounds good to us!

After walking through each principle with Maja, we split into groups and used the the principles as a framework for analysing an existing website.

We’d like to see this framework used more widely as an analytical tool — these are the kind of discussions that designers and developers need to be having, right from the start of any project.

Let’s optimise for interoperability, not decentralisation

The next session we attended was facilitated by Oliver Sauter of World Brain . We were interested in attending this after going to Ira’s session the previous day, as this workshop was about addressing interoperability in a practical way.

Oliver posed the question: how can we enable systems in which you, your data and your social graph are not locked in to one platform? We split into four groups to discuss how this question could be addressed from different angles — legal, technical, financial and social.

Looking at the social side of the puzzle, we discussed how you can communicate the idea to a broad audience. With the larger group, we discussed what “minimum viable interoperability” might look like, recognising that change at such a systemic level could only be achieved in an emergent and gradual way.

On a side note, Oliver’s memex project looks very interesting — we love anything that references As We May Think , one of the most visionary and insightful precursors to the Internet.

Remixing UX patterns for distributed systems

Next up was a session run by Eileen Wagner from Simply Secure . Eileen explained how the same issues come up again and again when working on decentralisation projects. She collected all these issues and existing solutions, and then abstracted them into general principles—a design pattern library for decentralised systems.

A number of participants introduced their own decentralisation projects. We worked together with them to apply patterns from the library or come up with new patterns that could be useful to them. It was great to directly test out the library, with Eileen adding new patterns on the fly as she listened to our discussions.

Modelling the threats to your open project

The final session was with Danielle Robinson of Code for Science and Society . This turned into a really interesting roundtable discussion and knowledge-sharing session, where we collectively analysed and compared the practical, political and social threats that we had experienced in our own projects.

We spoke about how to deal with free labour and community contributions, finding money, establishing legal frameworks and governance models, data handling and avoiding burnout.

Perhaps this seems like “the boring side” of a project to some but, in our view, it’s just as important to look at how you do something as well as what you do.

We agreed towards the end of the session to collectively publish these threats online, so that others could access and contribute to this as well. Danielle’s slides are available here and we will be collecting relevant links in the README.

Thank you to all of the organisers, facilitators and participants for another great event. It is such an energising ecosystem to be a part of and we’re looking forward to next year.