Barcamp Yangon 2017: Technology, Community and the Largest Unconference in the World.
Barcamps are strange and wonderful events. If you’ve never been, they’re “unconference” events— anyone who shows up is allowed to speak on any topic (within time and space constraints). Typically you show up in the morning and post your topic on a wall that’s been turned into a grid of times and rooms... and people show up, or don’t! The topics are all over the place — many are technology related, but others I’ve seen are art, farming, photography, economics, politics, beer brewing… anything!
In Asia, this type of conference is quite popular due to free admission and also the open format. I’ve been to Barcamps in Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand, Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Ventiane in Laos. My first attempt to attend Barcamp Yangon in 2011 failed because the Myanmar consulate in Bangkok stopped giving out visas in reprisal for a negative story in the Thai press (so I heard). But things in Myanmar are far different now than five years ago — visas are available online and approved within a couple of days, so last weekend I was able to finally able attend Barcamp Yangon!
Barcamp Yangon is not a typical barcamp, even compared to other Barcamps in the region. The organizers estimated 2800 people attended on the first day. For scale, the last Barcamp in Portland Oregon that I attended was about 300 people. Barcamp Yangon, now in its sixth year, is the largest annual tech event in Myanmar. In order to handle the number of attendees, anyone wanting to speak must submit their topic to the organizers, who then choose which topics are selected and then post them on the wall.
As you can see in the photo above, the talks at Barcamp Yangon were a mix of practical tech instruction and politics, startup/entrepreneur and journalism topics.
Because of the prominence of the event, some government ministers are the keynote speakers. This year the speakers were Nay Phone Latt, a government minister who is also a blogger and digital rights proponent, and Phyo Min Thein, the minister of Yangon (kind of like the mayor). Both talks filled the main hall completely, with the outside hallway filled as well.
On Sunday I gave a talk about using Mozilla’s A-Frame library to build 3D, virtual reality and augmented reality content for the web. My spot was up on a landing overlooking the lobby… where the organizers were using megaphones to communicate! I had to get LOUD to compete. Luckily they came up with a microphone just as I’d started speaking, so I was able to beatbox a little and get the crowd ready. I gave some WebVR background, did a few demos on the laptop, walked through example code, and then passed around a portable viewer so people could try it out. Nearly zero people in the crowd had ever tried VR of any kind before, so there was a ton of interest.
At the event organizers’ request, I gave the talk again outside later in the afternoon to an even larger group of people. Again, nobody had really tried VR at all, so even a mobile demo of a 360 degree panorama navigable via the phone orientation was fun for everyone to see.
Using the web for things like VR here is important, because much of Myanmar’s population is not online — you can read more in the GSMA’s 2015 report Mobile Phones, Internet and Gender in Myanmar (PDF link). The users that are online are almost entirely mobile-only. Facebook and Viber are the major messaging applications. While Android has complete dominance of the smartphone market, according to this post by Sneha Kataria, up to 90% of internet usage in Myanmar is web-based, and not from native apps. The opportunity to use the web to decrease friction in on-boarding users to internet services is real here in Myanmar, where instant content without app install is a feature that might make or break access to important information and services. Being able to deploy low-fi 3D and AR/VR content through mobile devices could be a powerful way to bring more people online, and to deliver interesting and relevant content in an accessible way given the constraints of this market.
A huge surprise was finding The White Room at the event! I first saw The White Room in Berlin as part of the Nervous Systems exhibit at the Haus der Kulturen der Velt. It’s a twisted version of the Apple Genius Bar, built by the Tactical Technology Collective, but with a focus on digital privacy and security issues. Mozilla and the TTC collaborated a couple of months ago to build The Glass Room in New York City, an expanded version of The White Room created in a shop space in SoHo in Manhattan, was very effective in bringing these issues into the mainstream press in the United States.
For this exhibit, Myanmarido worked with the TTC to have a bunch of Data Detox Kits available, translated into Burmese, and a Data Detox Bar with classes running throughout the weekend on everything from Facebook, iOS and Android security training to social media safety to data politics.
I got to meet Htaike Htaike Aung from Myanmarido. She and team did a fantastic job with the exhibit setup, the trainings and speakers. I also got to meet Christo and Bobby from TTC, who helped set up and run the exhibit. TTC is doing a series of privacy camps in Asia this year and need translation help for the Data Detox Kit. If you’re in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia or Nepal and are interested in helping translate the kit, email me!
One interesting talk was by a representative of a digital therapy project called Senacti. Apparently in Myanmar, a country of over 55 million people, there are only FIVE practicing psychologists. Mental illness typically goes untreated, and depression and suicide are growing problems. Senacti is a group of psychologists, psychotherapists and programmers putting together a set of web services for mental health online, that scales to meet the needs and cultural constraints of people in Asia, starting with Myanmar.
It was great to be back in Myanmar and actually get to join Barcamp this time.
- Thanks to Chit, Agga and Htaike Htaike and the rest of the organizers for putting on an excellently run event.
- It was fun to re-meet Mike Amy and John Berns, some Barcamps-in-Asia regulars that I’d met at Barcamp Chiang Mai and Barcamp Bangkok about half a decade ago when we were living in Thailand.
- I got a Hong Kong and China techno-braindump from Ben Crox (another Barcamps-in-Asia fixture), and had great conversation with his friends Edmond (who’s got a cool “visual novel” style storytelling startup called Oice) and Roger (an HK native who is a US history teacher!?!).
- Dany Sum from Cambodia gave a Facebook security presentation, walking us through a bunch of security options on the website, and showing how to set up two-factor authentication, for example. As I’ve only recently gotten back on Facebook after five years off, it was scary to see how poorly the iOS app was implemented — both regular features and security and privacy preferences were broken in a number of ways.
- Laurent Savaete of Zigway gave me the lowdown on social microfinance, how payments work (or not) in Myanmar, and also told me about how the Zapya file-sharing app for Android is used instead of Google’s Play Store for app distribution and sharing here.
- Phandeeyar’s team did a bunch of talks on various topics from straight tech stuff to civic entrepreneurship. Phandeeyar is a super interesting organization: A startup accelerator, innovation lab and coworking space — all emerging from a series of hackathons in 2014. I’ll be speaking at Phandeeyar this Thursday about the role of the web in our increasingly physical computing world.
In very sad news, U Ko Ni, a lawyer and advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, was shot and killed at Yangon airport in the evening after Barcamp Yangon ended on Sunday. He had defended ethnic and religious minorities and been critical of the military’s control of parts of the government, and helped draft a hate-speech law. His loss is a blow to human rights and democracy in Myanmar, and thousands of mourners joined his funeral this week.
Events like Barcamp are a bright spot in a quickly-changing nation, where the young people can freely gather and learn together and, as this year’s theme proclaimed, have More Experiences!