Last year I went to DuraznoConf. This is my conference report :) I loved loved loved it, and I wanted to share my thoughts on it broadly, because I think we need more conferences like this one.

What is it, and why is it so special?

DuraznoConf is a conference about technology, and it has great speakers. But it’s also more than that. It takes place in a small city, a very unlikely setting for a very unlikely event.

The first person you want to meet in order to begin understanding the conference is Álvaro (its organizer), read his origin story (trust me, it’s way better than anything you can read on my blog) and his write up about the first edition of DuraznoConf. Álvaro is the mastermind behind A Computer of One’s Own.

He put together the conference after somebody dared him on twitter, living in Switzerland (11.000 kms from Uruguay) with speakers from all over the world. In a city that’s far from the capital and where most people don’t know anybody working in technology. And with a diverse panel of speakers. And a diverse crowd (you could see people in their 20s and people in their 50s).

From Álvaro’s post:

The goal was not to create just another tech conference. We wanted a conference that would get people together, and that would help form a community in far away places.

Also we wanted to promote tech and programming, for people that might not have had the chance to take part in it yet.

Sounds cool! what about the talks?

The talks were not like the ones you’d hear at any major conference. Here are a few that were particularly interesting for me:

5 decades of Computer Science at Universidad de la República

María Urquhart - Video (in Spanish)

María is a professor of Computer Science at Universidad de la República. She has directed more than 40 thesis (PhDs, MsC and grad projects). She’s also a researcher level 4 of PEDECIBA.

On this talk María went through the history of the computing pioneers in Uruguay, how they traveled to Argentina with their perforated cards to run their programs and returned to Montevideo to debug them. Or how on 1968 the first computer (an IBM System/360 Model 44) arrived in Uruguay and they bragged about being able to put it in a truck and install it in an hour! (it includes a picture of Ida Holz with the computer).

In 1985 all the teachers resigned. So what happened? Students took over! those students are the ones that laid the foundation for the courses I took (and I was lucky to attend some courses they taught). And in 1988, folks sent the first email from Uruguay… from my alma mater :)

This talk was particularly cool for me… it’s about a part of my identity I didn’t know. I loved it, and I loved having the chance to talk about it with María.

An Entrepreneur’s Experience Report

Bob Ippolito - Video (in English)

Bob gives a very personal recount of his experiences in technology. He’s a self-taught programmer, entrepreneur, angel investor and philanthropist at Mission Bit that was very lucky.

I loved how he went through all his privilege. His parent and grandfather both worked at IBM (they made the 360 María talked about earlier). His other grandfather worked on contracts for NASA and the NSA. He shows how he at 12 years old was showing other kids what a computer could do. He learned how to read using a computer.

He told super interesting stories that I can’t do justice by writing them here (make sure to check out the recording), about how the 9/11 affected him and a project he was working on. How a CEO wanted to sell their company and they ended up staging a coup to prevent the sale and how they ended up selling it to another buyer (after that CEO resigned) at 4x the original offer. It includes the great phrase “It was really stressful, at the time, to try and sell your company and also have cancer”.

He today works on Mission Bit helping folks learn how to program. From 0 to an internship. I loved his example of using his privilege for good.

Tengo mucha data ¿y ahora?

Pablo Horacio Paladino - Video (in Spanish)

On this talk, Pablo talked about the open data initiatives from different countries. The governments share raw data, but having that data tell a story is a lot of work.

He showcased different tools (like Data USA or Data Chile) they built to make it actually usable. You can build reports using different sources and then from each graph or profile, you can download the raw data. Sounds really cool.

Then he talked a bit about general data visualization ideas. Thinking about who we’re building the visualization for, what story we want to tell.

Going to use a pie chart? Think twice (or look the video). Check other options. I really liked the idea of using a treemap for showing a bunch of categories when you want to show their proportions.

Great mention of WTFViz for visualizations gone wrong.

Evolution of Emoji 🖼 🔤 ✨

Mariko Kosaka - Video (in English)

On this talk Mariko went over the history of emojis. They were created in Japan and carrier-specific. It was a something carriers featured as a reason to switch.

Originally, the only way to sending the image was as a GIF, over a separate connection. But that was more expensive (and there was a patent dispute going over GIFs at that time). Then they decided to use a mapping and the emoji (the original emoji map is on display at the MoMA).

Rock Paper Scissors is on the original map! and on the talk there are a bunch of interesting tidbits of emoji story, like Apple shipping emojis to Japan only first because without it, they wouldn’t be able to compete.

Fake o no fake

Ana Laura Perez - Video (in Spanish)

Ana Laura is a journalist, and on this talk about fake news (and their very real consequences) she makes a case for caring about them and for people in technology for building tools that help fight fake news.

She went back to Theodor Fontane (the father of fake news) to show that they’re not a new thing. What’s new is that they’re invading us (and making it really hard for us to recognize them).

She mentioned the work of Guarav Oberoi who explored what’s possible with “DeepFakes” and he was able to make John Oliver dance as if he was Jimmy Fallon. These tools can easily be used to generate videos (like fake porn) that regular people have a hard time figuring out they’re fake. When this happens on open platforms (twitter, facebook, instagram), they can be debunked by journalists.

But… we have a problem with Whatsapp… whatever happens on Whatsapp stays in Whatsapp, and people can’t intercept fake news. When you receive something, you don’t know how many people are talking about it. In India a video (that was originally put together as an awareness campaign in Pakistan) was modified and distributed as a way to denounce gangs kidnapping kids… and that caused people being lynched.

Si te gusta Durazno bancate la pelusa: historias con datos

Martín Sarsale - Video (in Spanish)

This is an unconventional story. Martín has a site about real estate (Properati) and their goal was to make explicit data that’s usually implicit.

They launched the site and everything was working great. They had investors, opened offices, nice listings with lots of data but… traditional media outlets were their main competitor (since newspapers in South America are the place to advertise your house for rent or sale) and they wouldn’t promote their website at all.

They even had articles published on big newspapers but those articles disappeared within hours. So what did they do? they set out to build great content. Content that it was so great that newspapers would be compelled to talk about them.

They did traditional things like comparing the supply and demand of different types of apartments… but they also tested novel ideas. For example:

  • They checked the words that people used to describe the properties based on the neighborhood. They found really funny things that talk a lot about the personalities of those who live there.
  • They checked how the neighborhood lines blurred… some neighborhoods invade others, defying the geography limits. Is it people trying to sell their properties better? probably. But it also shows how we think about a city.
  • In Buenos Aires they have plane trees. And those trees in spring have a really annoying fluff. So they used the open data about trees the government publishes to show, for any location, their “plane tree fluff index”. With this article, they made it to all the big news outlets.
  • They mixed the data about the elections with the square foot prices in different areas. Another article that hits all the big news outlets.

This was a really fun talk, and I loved how they solved a real problem with some creative thinking.

El camino del emprendimiento

Magdalena Rodriguez - Video (in Spanish)

Magdalena has a great story. She’s a Uruguayan Entrepreneur that at some point wanted to start a project. Her wife is an Engineer, and what started as a long shot ended up with them being super into the idea. It’s refreshing to hear a Uruguayan Entrepreneur share a success story.

They made it into an incubator and started their company, they develop websites and applications for companies outside Uruguay. It’s nice to see that there’s an tight-knit entrepreneurship community helping each other.

They got angel funds, they earned lots of prizes (like the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards). She did a great work at outlining the options for other Uruguayan people that want to follow her path. She talked a bit about the difficulties of being women, and how they used those difficulties to their advantage. Is there a fund for women entrepreneurs? great, I’m going to apply to all of them and get at least something.

At some point, she felt like they were too focused on their company (projects, money, funds). They weren’t happy, so they started a project with social impact by launching Gps Gay, which is a social network where the gay community have a safe space to talk about health, sexuality and identity.

They have 1M+ users, they received lots of recognition and it’s super nice to hear stories about tech people doing good stuff for the world.

This talk is the one I show to folks that tell me that starting a project in Uruguay is impossible.

Workshops

The next day, there were workshops where attendants had the opportunity to try stuff. My wife and I did one where we got to do music programming. It was really nice to have lots of time to play with something new (thanks Iris and Guido!).

Diversity

The diversity of the speakers line up is unlike any technical conference in Uruguay. That’s not by coincidence, it’s the result of Álvaro’s hard work. The code of conduct is clear and it was mentioned on the conference opening.

Conference organizers: it is possible.

Conference organizers: it is important.

Conference organizers: we, attendants, notice.

And that was it!

It was our second year attending DuraznoConf and we sure hope we can make it in 2019 as well. This is exactly the kind of conference that I want to attend: where I can meet extraordinary people with really different backgrounds.

And of course, where you can have some nice conversations with fun folks. Because for some reason, I want to meet more people that care about the human side of technology.

DuraznoConf, I <3 you.

Gervasio Marchand

g3rv4 g3rv4


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