Mozfest (short for the Mozilla Festival) is an “unconference” which is run every year in London by Mozilla. This year many of us went along and ran sessions on a range of topics from processing environment data with Jade to our relationship with algorithms.

We always find the conference useful for engaging with the open science community and meeting with partners from around the world. However the conference offers much more than just science. This year we took a couple of interns with us and instructed them to experience everything the conference has to offer and share it with those of us who are busy running sessions and meeting with partners.

Todd Burlington

Day one

After leaving Exeter at 7:54am (way too early to be moving on Saturday), I arrived into London and promptly took the tube to North Greenwich. This was the first surprise of the day, as I emerged from the underground to basically be on top of the O2 arena! Pretty cool. Then, after consulting google maps, I stumbled upon the main building for Ravensbourne College (the location of MozFest), which itself is very eye catching. After registering and collecting my free stuff (yay!), I set about finding something to do.

This was not hard to do at all at MozFest! There are literally hundreds of things going on. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but after consulting the impossibly large schedule I made a plan. It is definitely not a normal conference and maybe the best way to describe it is 9 floors of organised chaos.

The first talk I went to was call ‘Let’s Encrypt’. This was a basic overview of encryption on the web. It served mostly for me as a gentle introduction into MozFest. After this I went to ‘Dialogues & Debates’ which was part of a series of more formal talks across the weekend, and a first for the festival. I personally found this very engaging and the topics discussed very interesting. The speakers included Katherine Maher, Chris Soghoian, and Ashe Dryden. They covered some very relevant and very controversial topics in tech such as white privilege, gender equality, and online surveillance.

One of the most engaging topics of the weekend was covered by Chris Soghoian of the ACLU. He discussed how economic background can have an impact on your right to privacy. The idea that families from a lower income background have less access to technology that provides them with increased privacy was something I had never thought about before, but something that is of course incredibly important. This disadvantage leaves them vulnerable to increased surveillance by the state, increasing an already higher chance of punishment or other punitive measure. It is a topic I hope you will also find interesting and perhaps explore further.

For the rest of the day I explored the whole building, taking in each of the 9 floors. Most of them had some cool demonstrations to play with so I spent some time doing that. Each floor had a different theme so taking the time to explore each one allowed me to prepare better for tomorrow!

Day two

Sunday the 30th of October. Having now been to one day of MozFest I was infinitely more prepared than yesterday. I went in with a plan and an understanding of just how busy it is.

‘5 big topics for Hacks and Hackers’ was the name of the first event I attended and was by far the most hands on I got all weekend. It was a very useful discussion around how technology impacts journalism. I discussed how social media platforms are now also journalism platforms and, being a young person, found my views differed greatly from others in the group. Having this contrast made for an excellent debate and I was getting into the swing of MozFest I think. This topic has since surfaced in mainstream news with the rise of the fake news stories!

‘Nature, in Code’ and ‘Demystifying AI’ were the two talks in which some coding was covered! ‘Nature, in Code’ appealed to me as a scientist as it was a workshop on using JavaScript to model the natural world. It is actually now a free course which you can take so it is worth looking that up I’d say.

As you can see day two was less busy for me than day one, mostly due the fact I knew what I was getting myself in for!

Overall experience

All in all this was a really fun trip and definitely one I won’t be forgetting soon. Being my first time at MozFest it really was a unique experience! Taking some time to get used to it made me realise that maybe this is the right way to do things. Letting people choose from a wide range of always interesting talks seems like a good way to please everyone. I would definitely recommend it to anyone and I will certainly be attending again in the future I am sure.

Mike Priestley

The first session I attended was in many ways the perfect introduction to MozFest, combining ethics, technology, sociability and performance. “Town Hall 2020: Should an AI run your council services?”, part of the Dilemmas In Connected Spaces theme, was a discussion and role play session exploring issues around how artificial intelligence is becoming an increasingly more pervasive technology used in real world decision making. I had no idea how much this kind of technology is already being used and the vast suite of problems that need addressing even whilst it’s being rolled out across services right now.

I imagined spending most of my time in the Open Science space, learning about technology with the idea of putting my new knowledge to use. I saw some great sessions; “Nature, in Code”, using JavaScript to teach biology to university students; and “Drawing for maps: creating GEOmetries on the web”, again using JavaScript for web based map making. But ultimately, forcing myself to watch sessions out of “duty to science” (I do science I should watch science right?) rather than pure interest was a bad move. Good job I recognised this early on, ditched the duty, and went off-piste to explore the many other themes of the festival.

Absolute highlight within the Digital Arts and Culture space was Stewart Brookes’ “Getting Medieval, Getting Manuscripts”. Explaining Palaeography as the study of historical handwriting, Brookes’ fascinating discussion on the issues of dating texts and biases of authority within his niche field really highlighted the need for open software.

In the Journalism space I thought the Mozilla Fellowship Lightning talks were informal, diverse and funny. Some talks focused on scientific research like diseases of the brain and bioinformatics, others explored code breaking at Bletchley Park, but hands down the best, was an infectiously enthusiastic 5 minute talk on using excel spread sheets to make lists to organise your life better. Honestly the paradox of the whole situation has left me baffled, but I can’t deny what I saw, it was brilliantly entertaining whilst really rather sensible. Any future talk I give must try and capture this enthusiasm.

The lightning talks were a perfect representation of the open movement as a whole, really showing off the culture, respect and inclusivity those involved have for each other and for their work. A big thanks to the Met Office and Informatics Lab for inviting me to take part in this great event!