Recap: TEDxEdmonton 2011

More than 200 people attended the second TEDxEdmonton which took place on Saturday in the intimate Rice Theatre at The Citadel in downtown Edmonton. TEDxEdmonton is an “independently organized TED event” (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” It’s pretty likely that you’ve seen a TED talk at some point – more than 900 have been made freely available on the TED site. The idea behind TEDx is simple: stimulate dialogue at the local level by adopting the 18-minutes-or-less format and creating a TED-like experience.

The theme for this year’s event was “seeds of innovation”:

We’re in the midst of an exciting era. We’re living in an interconnected knowledge economy shaped by the creative industries, information technology, and globalization. And we’re seeing a new generation of connected artists, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs emerging who can transform seeds of new ideas into bold new works, companies and products. At TEDxEdmonton 2011, we’ll meet some of these remarkable people, some from abroad, others from right here in our hometown. We promise you another dizzying day of inspiration, wonder and curious delight, as we experience the stories, visions, and passions of these bold individuals through the art of live presentation.

After last year’s edition, I’d say the bar for TEDxEdmonton was set extremely high. The production quality, the excellent speakers, and the time built-in for discussions were just a few of the reasons that so many people thought last year’s event was superb. Matching or exceeding that success was a tall order for the organizing committee this year, but I think it’s safe to say they nailed it.

First impressions are everything, and TEDxEdmonton did not disappoint. Upon registering, attendees were given a lanyard with a nice big nametag that had space on it for a photo. The next step was to have a mini-Polaroid photo taken that could be taped onto the nametag. It’s kind of strange to have a photo of yourself on your nametag (I mean, you can see my face, can’t you?) but the nametags were indeed a great keepsake from the event. More importantly, it was an opportunity for people to have some fun and to get creative. And they did!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Last year’s stage was created by the University of Alberta’s Student Design Association and it was, in a word, remarkable. It was colorful and visually interesting, and was going to be difficult to top this year. Once again the SDA was tasked with creating the stage for TEDxEdmonton, and the design they came up with was just as impressive as last year’s. Less colorful but more vertical, the stage provided the perfect backdrop for the day’s presentations. It sounded complex too – they took inspiration from Edmonton itself and used light to plot points of interest from around the city on the design. You can see some work-in-progress photos of both stages at the SDA’s Flickr page. You can also follow them on Twitter!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

The day’s presentations were broken up into three sessions: Transformation, Unstoppable, and Provocative. There were ten presentations in all, plus three TEDTalks, one for each session. Local power-couple Ryan Jespersen and Kari Skelton were our hosts for the day, and they did a wonderful job of keeping things moving.

Ryan Jespersen & Kari Skelton

TEDxEdmonton 2011Vik Maraj, co-creator of Unstoppable Conversations, kicked things off with the first presentation. His talk centered around the idea that we need to be game-changing. He used the metaphor of a child learning to walk to make his point, saying that we need to “start trying to walk, and stop trying not to fall” if we want to be successful. His talk was full of great one-liners, like this one: “The future derives from creation, not from surviving it.” He was a great speaker, and was the right choice to lead off the day.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our second speaker was Jessie Radies, founder of Live Local Alberta and owner of The Blue Pear restaurant. She talked about the importance of the local economy, through of mix of statistics and personal anecdotes. Her talk touched on the challenges of being a farmer in Alberta, noting that the average farm has experienced a net loss for the last 20 years. She also talked about her belief that a rising tide would lift all boats and her dedication to sourcing things locally. She issued a sort of challenge to the audience, saying that “by shifting a portion of our spending we can significantly change what our community looks like.”

TEDxEdmonton 2011Todd Babiak of the Edmonton Journal was up next to talk about the importance of story. Without question his talk was my favorite of the day, a sentiment echoed by many in the audience. His talk was the right mix of serious, funny, and thought-provoking. He talked about his kids, noting that children instinctively understand what a story is. We unlearn that knowledge as we get older, without even realizing it. Todd stressed the importance of having a story: “If you haven’t built your story, the most you can hope to achieve is mediocrity.” He also poked fun at cliches and jargon as he touched on authenticity, a section of his presentation that made everyone laugh. “You have to find the higher spiritual truth of your story in order for it to be effective,” he said. Finally, he got everyone thinking about writing their story by reminding us that “the longer you wait to tell your story, the more difficult it becomes.”

Our first TEDTalk of the day came next. We watched Steven Johnson’s talk titled Where good ideas come from. It was filmed in July 2010, and introduced the intriguing concept of the “liquid networks” found in London’s coffee houses. The key idea was that connecting ideas is more important than protecting them, because “chance favors the connected mind.”

Colleen Brown closed out the first session with an awesome musical performance. She’s a fantastic singer/songwriter and more than a few people in the audience proudly proclaimed that they were new fans as a result! It was a great way to end the morning.

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Lunch was next on the schedule and as with the rest of TEDxEdmonton it was anything but ordinary. Instead of individual lunches, groups of five or six people were given a wooden box filled with sandwiches, salads, drinks, and treats and were encouraged to eat together. Most groups ended up outside where the sun was shining and the streets were packed for the Edmonton Pride Parade. It was great to see discussions happening all over the place. Kudos to Elm Café and Duchess Bake Shop for the delicious food and the creative presentation!

TEDxEdmonton 2011 TEDxEdmonton 2011

The second session of the day began with another TEDTalk, Adora Svitak’s presentation rom February 2010 titled What adults can learn from kids. Her message is a powerful one, and I think everyone really enjoyed the talk. It’s definitely worth watching!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our fifth speaker was Laura McIlveen, a chemical engineer at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. She started out with a provocative statement – “You probably think that engineers aren’t sexy” – then proceeded to explain why engineers are in fact, sexy. Laura encouraged everyone to “think about the possibilities that don’t seem possible, because that’s what engineers do.” She outlined four key steps: ask questions, dream big, build a team, and make it happen. To help illustrate her point, Laura talked about natural fibers like straw and said “we can spin straw into almost anything!” She then showed of a longboard, made of hemp!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Veer Gidwaney, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of DailyFeats.com, was our next speaker. He said “we need to change how we live” and talked about some of the major challenges we face, such as “Mr. Couch and Mrs. Potato Chip”. Veer’s key message was that small acts make a movement, and he encouraged the audience to “go do good”. He also shared a big idea: “What if we as a nation were to commit ourselves in ten years to match our national debt in positive actions done?” Veer was a really strong speaker, clear and powerful.

After another “conversation and refreshment” break, we were back for session three. Anthony Atala’s TEDTalk titled Printing a human kidney kicked things off. It was filmed just a few months ago, and documents some of the incredible advancements that have been made in bio-engineering. Truly fascinating.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our next speaker was Sheetal Mehta Walsh, a champion of microfinance and founder of Kuuja.com. She talked about entrepreneurship through the lens of her experiences in the slums of India. For her, entrepreneurship has become a way of life, and she had some very intriguing ideas. One of them was that she wants to be known simply as an “entrepreneur” rather than a “social entrepreneur”. She explained, “we should all be socially conscious.” Sheetal also talked about the importance of networking, saying “I often call my network my intellectual property.” She also had one of the unintentionally funny moments of the day, when she asked if everyone in the audience starts their day with Tim Horton’s coffee and no hands went up. I guess we were a Credo/Transcend/Starbucks crowd!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Meagan Kelly, a journalist and filmmaker, was our eighth speaker of the day. She gave an abbreviated talk on her debut film, a documentary that examines a young girl’s struggle to escape poverty on a garbage dump in the Philippines. The sights and sounds she shared were striking. One memorable moment was when Grace, the young girl featured in the film, started singing Justin Bieber’s hit “Baby”.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our next speaker was Aaryn Flynn, the Studio General Manager of local game developer BioWare. He used the opportunity to discuss BioWare’s approach to innovation. “Innovation relies on diversity,” he said as he talked about the cultural diversity at the company. Another key tactic utilized by BioWare is to “decide at the last responsible moment.” The most memorable mantra from Aaryn’s talk was definitely “no play, no say”. Basically if you don’t play the game, you don’t get a say in its development. It’s easy to see how this might be applied to elsewhere too. Aaryn finished with a brief demo of Kinect support in the upcoming game Mass Effect 3, noting that it opens the door to a wide range gameplay and accessibility possibilities.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Last but not least, Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania) was the final speaker of the day. His talk was titled “The Cure for Death by Small-Talk”, the same name as his upcoming book. He was a great speaker to end on, as he got the crowd laughing, thinking, and probably doing some serious self-reflection all at the same time. Instead of asking “what do you do for a living” at a party, Minister Faust suggests asking “what do you do for fun?” He touched on the etymology of “conversation”, explaining that is all about “living together” and the way you treat people. He told the audience to “ask people questions that will connect you for life.” Minister Faust’s talk ran slightly over time, and after he left the stage our hosts had to skip through another thirty slides or so that he didn’t get to – he could have talked all afternoon!

TEDxEdmonton

While some of the day’s presentations were definitely better than others, all succeeded at inspiring and sparking a dialogue. The entire day was streamed online for free, and while some technical glitches made it difficult to watch during session one, many people tuned in for the rest of the day. Twitter was active all day long using the hashtag #TEDxEdmonton and the discussions are still ongoing!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Before the day was finished, Ken Bautista took the stage to make some announcements:

  • TEDxEdmonton 2012 will take place next spring. The larger Maclab Theatre, which seats 500-600 people, has already been booked as the venue. Tickets will go on sale for 2011 attendees in the next few weeks.
  • The TEDxEdmonton Salon Series will be launching in 2012, a series of smaller scale TED-like events.
  • A new event is being planned for fall 2012 – TEDxEdmonton Education, focused on building and inspiring a learning revolution.

Stay tuned to the TEDxEdmonton website and Twitter for updates.

I think it’s safe to say that TEDxEdmonton 2011 was a big success. The organizing committee deserves a ton of credit for making such a world-class event happen here in Edmonton. Well done everyone!

TEDxEdmonton 2011 TEDxEdmonton 2011 Organizing Committee

You can see the rest of my photos from TEDxEdmonton here. Watch for video and other updates to be posted on the TEDxEdmonton website over the next few weeks.

St. Albert Transit launches real-time GPS information with NextBus

Today St. Albert Transit officially launched its NextBus service, giving transit riders the ability to find out exactly when a bus is arriving. All 55 StAT buses have been outfitted with Automatic Vehicle Locators, the hardware that uses GPS to provide information about a bus’s actual location. St. Albert is the second municipality in Alberta to launch the service. Banff, Guelph, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Laval all offer a similar service.

From the press release:

“No one likes to wait for the bus more than they have to so people using StAT transit will find NextBus will save them time,” says Bob McDonald, Transit Director at the City of St. Albert. “We are pleased to be among the first municipalities in Canada to offer such a service.”

Transit riders can use the NextBus website to get arrival times. It’s not pretty, but it works! You can either enter your stop number, or pick a route, direction, and stop name to find out when the next bus is arriving. The page will tell you in large type when the next bus is arriving, and also provides links to a Google Map and a Live Map. You can see the system-wide maps here: Google Map, Live NextBus Map. You can also sign up for myNextBus, a service that can send you an alert when your bus is about to arrive. In addition to the main website, NextBus has a mobile-ready website as well. In the US they also offer SMS functionality, but unfortunately it doesn’t work in Canada.

What about an API? The documentation is pretty much non-existent, but there appears to be a NextBus API available. You can read about it on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) site. I tried to use the appropriate parameters for St. Albert, but found that it doesn’t work. I contacted StAT to find out more. It turns out that the API is extra functionality that NextBus charges extra for. Dawn Fedorvich, Coordinator of Customer Service for StAT, tells me that they’re looking into it. In the meantime, contact StAT to let them know that you think having access to the API is important! Earlier today David Eaves wrote about the “arrivals board” that the University of Alberta Students’ Union has created using the City of Edmonton’s GTFS data. That’s just scheduled information, however. Imagine that board being real-time – that’s the kind of thing the API would enable!

StAT has been testing the NextBus service since April 1. A total of 340 testers used the service 4500 times during the beta period. They started exploring the service in 2008, and have spent $170,000 since that time to make the service a reality for StAT riders. I think it’s a very positive thing for all transit riders in the Capital Region. I know AVL/GPS technology is on the roadmap for ETS as well, so let’s hope this news puts a bit more pressure on them to get it done. Congrats to StAT for leading the way!

Check out the new service here!

@AlbertaTheatre – Social Media and the Artist/Patron Relationship

Late last year, Wil Knoll and I were asked if we’d like to share some thoughts on the evolution of artist-audience interaction for All Stages, a magazine published three times a year by Theatre Alberta. We both agreed, and early this year set about writing it. We ended up having a conversation through email, which Wil turned into the final piece (I think he did a great job of editing it).

No texting during the show!

We discussed why and how we started using social media in connection with the arts, looked at the current situation in our respective cities, and touched on where things are going.

Here’s an excerpt from Wil:

Wil: The resistance seems to be fading away. In Calgary the major theatre companies and all of the top independent theatre companies have joined up on Twitter. How well they use that opportunity varies. Alberta Theatre Projects won a blogging award last year for their efforts to invite people into the process and behind the scenes. It’s hard to find a theatre company that is not taking a stab at social media in Calgary today.

And here’s my closing statement:

Mack: Gone are the days of the passive theatregoer, who takes in a show, perhaps reads a review in the local paper, and moves on. The tools we have now allow for the theatre patron to be engaged at all stages of a production. Gathering feedback, promoting upcoming events, reaching a demographic not normally tuned into theatre, all of this is possible with the tools. Today arts organizations still have the opportunity to lead the way with using these tools—they are relatively new and continually evolving. In the not too distant future however, patrons will demand it, and organizations will have no choice to but to engage.

That more or less sums up how I feel about the topic! What do you think?

You can read the article on page 4 of the Spring 2011 issue (PDF).

Recap: TEC VenturePrize 2011

The annual TEC VenturePrize awards luncheon was held at the Westin Edmonton today, and I was fortunate enough to attend as a guest of TEC Edmonton. The Alberta-wide business plan competition is one of the ways that TEC Edmonton helps entrepreneurs access mentorship, networking, and exposure opportunities in our province. Some of the recent success stories from VenturePrize include Yardstick Software and Seek Your Own Proof.

The competition is broken into two categories: fast growth, and student. Finalists in the fast growth category compete for over $150,000 in cash and in-kind services, while finalists in the student competition compete for $10,000 cash.

Ryan Jespersen once again hosted the festivities, and I thought he did a really great job of incorporating tweets into the program. Lots of people in the audience were tweeting about the event and their favorite companies using the #ventureprize hashtag. Part of that online interest might have been due to the fact that the awards luncheon was streamed online for the first time this year.

2011 TEC VenturePrize Awards Luncheon

Ryan kicked things off with a sit-down interview on stage with the three finalists in the student category:

  • GizmoBooks.com (Gezim Hoxha, University of Lethbridge)
    Website offering students an easy way to buy and sell textbooks and save money.
  • Nougat Software Entertainment (Tyrel Schick, University of Lethbridge) (archive)
    Video game development company designing/creating innovative, full scale games for a wide range of platforms.
  • AltaCap Energy Solutions (Trina Salvisberg & team, University of Alberta) (archive)
    Focused on the development, production, and marketing of ultracapacitors that feature cutting edge electrode technology.

I don’t think the interview approach has ever been done before, and I thought it worked well. It was great to feature the students more prominently in the program.

Next we had introductory remarks from TEC Edmonton CEO Chris Lumb and Mayor Stephen Mandel, and then it was time to meet the finalists in the fast growth category. Each finalist had the opportunity to deliver a one minute elevator pitch, followed by a three minute video describing their product and/or business.

CAD Crowd helps firms hire CAD staff globally enabling the effective sourcing of CAD work through their relationships with quality-certified partners and an enterprise project management software tailored specifically to manage and facilitate CAD projects.

  • lightPower (Edmonton)

lightPower builds flexible plastic solar panels with long-term stability which can be integrated in consumer electronic products or used as stand-alone battery chargers. Flexible plastic solar panels are fabricated through roll-to-roll printing techniques, enabling high throughout, low-cost manufacturing.

VibeDX is a patent-pending medical device for diagnosis of injuries, pathologies and fitness of the back and spine. With a 99+% accuracy in diagnosing disc damage that holds promise to improve long term outcomes and quality of life for millions of back pain sufferers.

Rant: You’ll note that CAD Crowd and GizmoBooks are the only two with links to actual company websites. If the others have websites, I can’t find them. You would think that in 2011 this wouldn’t be an issue, but it is. If I can’t type your name into Google and find you, you’re doing something wrong, I don’t care what industry you’re in. And yes, I recognize that these entrepreneurs are focusing on product development, but seriously, not even a simple landing page?! Come on.

After all the pitches were complete, Ryan quickly described how the judging process works, and the judges made a show of leaving the room for their final deliberations. I was surprised to see them return just a few minutes later – usually it takes longer, so I figured they must really have had a favorite! Judges in the fast growth category included Warren Bergen from Webbco International Inc., Rod Charko from Alberta Enterprise Fund, Roy Homyshin from TSX Venture Exchange, Mike Scarth from Alberta WaterSMART, and Shawn Abbott from iNovia Capital. Judges in the student category included Colin Christensen from Signa Venture Development, Troy Deck from Meyers Norris Penny, Don Riep from Yardstick Software Inc., and Jim Spiers from Right Field Marketing. In addition to the judges there were twelve screeners, whose job it was to select the finalists from the many resume submissions. This year, the Screeners’ Award of Merit went to Inspectacar, for their business focused on delivering “nothing but accurate vehicle inspections”.

2011 TEC VenturePrize Awards Luncheon

Our keynote speaker was up next – Evan Chrapko, an entrepreneur currently focused on Highmark Renewables. Evan shared a few stories from his experiences as an entrepreneur, and hammered home the theme of “persistence pays”. I wrote about Evan’s transition into Highmark back in 2007, and he’s still at it, so he obviously practices what he preaches. Evan left the audience with five pieces of advice:

  1. Know thyself, and know your timespan (how much time you can actually devote).
  2. Know thy business partner (consider legal advice up front, even if it seems costly).
  3. Trust your instincts.
  4. Network with others (he encouraged everyone to leave with ten other business cards).
  5. Persistence pays.

Finally, it was time for the announcement of the winners. Annette Trimbee from Alberta Advanced Education & Technology presented the awards for the student category, with Trina’s team at AltaCap taking the top prize!

2011 TEC VenturePrize Awards Luncheon

Chris Lumb presented the awards for the fast growth competition, with the win going to VibeDX!

2011 TEC VenturePrize Awards Luncheon

It definitely seemed like VibeDX was the favorite. I have to admit that I really love the concept behind their technology – taking an approach used in other industries (such as stress-testing an airplane wing) and applying it to the human body. Their video was also quite impressive, as it had at least five doctors offering either testimonials or rosy predictions for the technology. Here’s a video describing how VibeDX works:

Congrats to all of the participants and finalists this year, and of course to the winners! You can see more photos from today’s event here.

If you’re interested in participating in next year’s VenturePrize, check the website this fall for registration details. You can also follow @TECVenturePrize on Twitter.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 14

Tonight was Edmonton’s fourteenth DemoCamp, held at the Telus Centre on the University of Alberta campus. We’re still going strong, with another excellent turnout tonight to see what local developers have been up to. And of course, the after party at Original Joes Varsity was absolutely packed. The general consensus tonight seemed to be that all of the demos were good, though a few definitely stood out.

DemoCamp Edmonton 14DemoCamp Edmonton 14

We had five demos:

  • The first demo was from David Ackerman, who showed us a Mac app he has been working on for writers. You can think of the app as a word processor on steroids. The idea is that as you type, relevant photos, Wikipedia articles, and other information appear alongside your text. In the demo, David typed “Developers, Developers, Developers!” and up popped an image of Steve Ballmer. It had the ability to adjust the amount of “stuff” that was surfaced as well.
  • Our second demo of the evening was iRecipeBook.net. Darcy Sabatino showed us the app he has been working on that lets you store and categorize your recipes via a simple, easy-to-use web interface. He noted that the interface looks great on an iPad, so it’s ready for you to use in the kitchen. Darcy had a bunch of ideas for future improvements too, such as sharing recipes with other users.
  • Ryan Ramage was up next to show us Ecko-It, a liferecording platform and audio wiki with the tagline “keep what you hear”. I think it is probably safe to say that Ecko-It was the most talked about demo of the evening. Ryan got off to a bit of a slow start, with lots of explanation, but the stuff he demoed was pretty impressive. Basically you use a Liferecorder, which is a little audio recording device, to capture an audio stream of your life. At the end of the day, you’d sync that audio with the Ecko-It software for tagging and categorization. Let’s say you tagged something “DemoCamp” – you could then with a single click see all of the other audio tagged DemoCamp. I can definitely see potential in the app, but personally I think there would be too much effort required for management of the audio. All of the software, including the hardware firmware, is open source.
  • Liang Shi, Tait Lawton, and Kevin Loney were up next, to show us Sizmio. Born at Startup Weekend back in February, Sizmio allows you to listen to the sounds of the world. Basically it’s an audio layer that sits on top of Google Maps or Google Earth. As you navigate around the map, you can hear different sounds. If you have an iPhone, you can record and upload sounds from your phone while you’re on the go. Very cool stuff, though most people seemed to think it could use some focus – perhaps audio tours or something like that.
  • Our final demo of the evening was also the first ever Windows Phone 7 demo at DemoCamp! Pieter Parker, Jeremey Burns, and Stephen Baden demoed their Windows Phone 7 game called Super Punch. They were one of 100 teams to compete in a 48-hour programming competition called the Great Canadian Appathon, and they won! They took their $25,000 in winnings and have since started a game studio called Bit Shift Games. As for the game, Super Punch looks like a lot of fun. The idea is to punch Dr. Competent as far as you can, with all kinds of power ups and environmental interactions to keep it interesting. I was pretty impressed with the game, especially considering they built it in just two days! As for when it’ll be available – the team said to stay tuned.

Sometimes a video helps to make sense of something. Here’s a quick video of Sizmio:

And here’s a quick video of Super Punch:

Though Ecko-It was the demo that most people seemed to talk about, my favorite was probably Super Punch. I could definitely see myself playing the game! I really love the concept behind Sizmio, and was pleasantly surprised by the progress the team has made since Startup Weekend. I think they could really have something. There’s a lot of intriguing technology behind Ecko-It, so it’ll be interesting to see where that product goes.

DemoCamp Edmonton 14DemoCamp Edmonton 14

We had a few announcements this evening:

  • Save the date for Startup Factory, a new conference and speaker series that focuses on the nuts and bolts of product and customer development for startups. It is scheduled to take place on Friday, June 10, with more information to follow.
  • TEC Edmonton’s annual VenturePrize Awards Luncheon is coming up on April 27th. You can get your tickets here. Vibe DX, lightPower, and CAD Crowd are the finalists that will compete for the top prize.
  • C100, the group behind 4 Days in the Valley, has another event coming up on July 13 called AccelerateAB. The idea is to connect Alberta entrepreneurs with speakers and other mentors. This year’s edition takes place in Calgary, but they are planning to bus a bunch of Edmontonians down for the event. Stay tuned for more information.
  • Be sure to sign up for the Startup Edmonton mailing list to learn more about these events and many others!

Thanks to everyone who came out tonight. See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 15!

You can see the rest of my photos from the evening here.

More than just email: Google Apps goes live at the University of Alberta

Today officials at the University of Alberta will flip the proverbial switch and 40,000 students will get access to the university’s deployment of Google Apps for Education, a significant milestone for a journey that began back in November 2008. The U of A’s move to Gmail has been talked about for quite some time, but the switch is about more than just email. This is an important step toward building the IT campus of the future – a mobile, connected community of staff, students, faculty, and alumni.

Our goal is to create the most mobile, connected academic community in Canada: anyone, anywhere, any time.

You can learn more about the broader vision here in PDF.

When Academic Information & Communication Technologies (AICT) was given the task of examining the University of Alberta’s email systems, they didn’t realize just how unwieldy email on campus had become over the years. With more than 80 mail servers spread across campus supporting nearly 150,000 accounts, it was definitely becoming difficult to audit, manage, and support. Six months after they began looking into the issue, AICT started exploring Gmail. In September 2009 the University of Alberta began legal discussions with Google, and over the next year negotiated the various contracts. There were lots of very valid concerns about privacy and security, and the university tackled those head on. There is no data mining, and there are no ads under the agreements that were finally signed in December 2010 (PDF).

Jason Cobb, Issues & Communication Manager to the VPs at the University of Alberta, explained some of the driving forces behind the migration to Google Apps. Improving the quality of the experience was really important, as was improving security. The shift will enable the university to reduce infrastructure costs, which should lead to some broader cost savings (he noted that no positions would be lost) and some productivity gains, as the mundane task of managing email can now be removed. “Most importantly, we’re trying to be transformational, not just transitional,” Jason told me. That means enabling collaboration in ways that just weren’t possible without a system like Google Apps. That’s why the U of A is adopting the full suite of apps, rather than just Gmail.

Other universities around the world have adopted Google Apps for Education of course, but the U of A is definitely one of the biggest to take on a project of this scope. Many other Canadian universities are now understandably interested in following the U of A’s lead (and Google is no doubt keen to see that happen as well). You can bet they’ll be paying close attention to the rollout.

The 80 mail servers that AICT identified are generally broken up by subdomain. Central Mail refers to the default @ualberta.ca account that all students receive, while many faculties and departments have managed their own email on separate servers, with addresses such as @cs.ualberta.ca (for the Computing Sciences department). The switch today starts with Central Mail. Students will follow a simple three-step process to convert their email to Gmail.

The first step is to understand and agree to the terms and conditions. The second step is to activate the Google Apps account, which will cause all new email sent to the student’s email account to appear in Gmail rather than in Central Mail. And the third step is to migrate any old emails into the new system (a process which can take a few hours). Students retain the exact same @ualberta.ca email address, and automatically get access to the other pieces of Google Apps such as Calendar, Documents, Chat, Groups, and more. They have the choice of switching for now – in October, Central Mail is scheduled to become read-only and students will have to switch at that point.

After completing the switch and logging in, students will be presented with the “launch pad” that will serve as the entry-point to Gmail and the other apps. When Simon Collier, Network Administrator with AICT, demoed the system for me last week, he wasn’t quite sure what to show! It really is just Gmail. The only differences are the University of Alberta logo and the lack of ads (it looks like there are one-line ads above the inbox, but those are actually RSS feeds…AICT chose to leave them enabled so that students have the option of turning the feature on or off).

The U of A has done some interesting things to make this happen. They’ve implemented single sign on, which has been rolled out for BearTracks as well. This means that Google never actually gets the user’s password, they just get a one-way hash. Security remains entirely within the University of Alberta. AICT has also done some work to make the migration process possible. Initially, they tested a migration tool hosted by Google and calculated that it would take two and a half years to migrate everything! That was unacceptable obviously, so they found another way. Now the university hosts the migration tool, and they estimate it would take just two to three weeks to migrate everything. How much data are we talking? As of mid-February, Central Mail was home to more than 228 million messages, taking up approximately 30 terabytes of space!

The next phase of the project is to migrate the other mail servers. It’s a more difficult task, because there is more business process involved. The migration will start right away with a staggered list based on failing hardware, age of hardware, business needs, and other factors. The goal is to have the vast majority of users migrated to Google Apps within a year, and to have everything completely migrated within 18 months.

The new system supports collaboration in a variety of ways. One of the simplest features is auto-complete on the “to” line when composing an email. Start typing a name and you’ll see matches from the entire campus directory! Likewise, you can now pull up anyone’s free/busy status in the calendar, which Jason emphasized will make scheduling meetings much simpler than in the past. The ability to share and edit documents using Google Docs is another big win for collaboration, especially given the new discussion features that Google recently introduced.

It’s not hard to see how this can be expanded in the future. Closer integration with BearTracks is something AICT is working on, so you can imagine registering for your courses and having your calendar get updated automatically. Perhaps students could be added to automatically created Groups for each of their courses. There’s a lot of opportunity to build atop the platform, and work is already underway to examine the possibilities.

The move to Gmail and Google Apps is a big deal, but it really is just the beginning. This is an initial step to better position the University of Alberta for the future:

We can’t be evolutionary in the changes that need to happen to our core IT infrastructure; we must be revolutionary. We must position ourselves to support the mobile, connected IT campus of the not-so-distant future, else we run the risk of being regarded as increasingly irrelevant to the needs of our students, staff and faculty.

It’s exciting to see the University of Alberta moving so boldly to make this vision a reality!

UPDATE: Here’s the official U of A post on the switch.

UPDATE2: Here’s the official Google Enterprise post on the adoption of Google Apps.

First look at Canada’s new Open Data portal: data.gc.ca

Yesterday the Government of Canada launched its open data portal at data.gc.ca. Open Data is one of three Open Government Initiatives, the other two being Open Information and Open Dialogue. Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, issued a statement today on the launch:

“Today, I am pleased to announce the next step in our government’s commitment to enhancing transparency and accountability to Canadians. The expansion of open government will give Canadians the opportunity to access public information in more useful and readable formats, enable greater insight into the inner workings of the Government and empower citizens to participate more directly in the decision-making process.”

He goes on in the statement to say that Canada has historically led the way in providing information to citizens. Lately though, we’ve definitely fallen behind. I’m glad to see us moving forward once again. This development is no doubt the result of lots of work by many passionate Canadians, such as David Eaves. Here’s what he posted yesterday:

The launch of data.gc.ca is an important first step. It gives those of us interested in open data and open government a vehicle by which to get more data open and improve the accountability, transparency as well as business and social innovation.

David does a good job in that post of highlighting some of the issues the site currently faces, such as some problematic wording in the licensing, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I figured I’d do what I always do when I get new datasets to play with – make some charts!

The open data portal says there are 261,077 datasets currently available. Just 781 of those are “general” datasets, the rest are geospatial. That’s an impressive number of geospatial datasets, but they are somewhat less accessible (and perhaps less interesting) to the average Canadian than the general datasets. It looks like you need to be able to work with an ESRI Shape File to use most of them.

There are lots of general datasets you might find interesting, however. For example, here’s the Consumer Price Index by city:

Here’s another dataset I thought was interesting – the number of foreign workers that have entered Canada, by region:

Have you ever wondered how much of each type of milk Albertans consume? You can find that out:

There’s actually a fairly broad range of datasets available, such as weather, agriculture, economics, and much more. As David said, it’s a good first step.

I’m excited to see more ministries get involved, and I hope to see the number of datasets available increase over time. I’d also love to see the licensing change, perhaps by adopting the UK Open Government License as David suggested. Exciting times ahead!

Still Trending Down: Computing-related graduates in Alberta

If we’re serious about shifting the Alberta Advantage, I think we need to focus on technology. If we really want to be in the sweet spot of adding lots of value, participating in the economy of the future, and being globally competitive, we need smart people who can be creative and innovative in the appropriate sectors and industries. Technology is absolutely going to be at the heart of any sector or industry that will enable us to be world-class and trendsetting, there’s just no question about it.

That’s why this graph absolutely shocked me:

The data comes from the University of Alberta, but I think it is representative of the province as a whole.

The number of students graduating in the fields of Computing Science and Computer Engineering in Alberta is trending downward, with no correction in sight. How can we build the economy of the future when the picture looks like this?

Here’s a bit more detail – with the number of graduates broken out by degree/program:

I haven’t looked, but I suspect enrollment numbers would be similar (that is, I don’t think an incredible number of students register in computing-related programs and then switch out).

Bill Gates has been talking about the need for more students to take up computer science for years now. There’s more demand than supply, even when you factor in immigration. The need for us to stay competitive in this regard is well-documented. It looks like we’re falling further behind.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we get more students interested in computer-related degrees. But I do think it is important to consider this data when we talk about the success of our provincial technology sectors, and indeed when we consider shifting the Alberta Advantage.

Recap: Startup Weekend Edmonton 2

Edmonton’s second Startup Weekend was held this past weekend at the Computing Sciences Centre on the University of Alberta campus. It was a fantastic event that saw seven teams create some really interesting things in just 54 hours. Around 50 people participated – lots of programmers, some designers, some writers, and many others. Here’s how the weekend played out.

Friday night was pitch night. Fifteen people got up and made an elevator pitch for one or more ideas, which we stuck up giant post it pages on the walls all around the room. Everyone then had a few minutes to walk around and chat with the idea people, to determine which team they wanted to work on. In the end, seven teams were formed, with sizes ranging from two people to more than a dozen. Teams did a little bit of brainstorming and preparation that night, but I don’t think any code was written.

Startup Weekend Edmonton 2

Saturday was a work day, with teams arriving and getting started around 9am. The atmosphere was exciting if a little relaxed. People lingered at lunch and dinner, taking advantage of the opportunities to chat with others. Some people stayed working past 11pm that night, while others went home to relax or out to party after a long day of hard work.

Startup Weekend Edmonton 2

Most people arrived again Sunday morning around 9:30am, focused on completing as much work as possible before demo time. It was interesting to see the shift in atmosphere from Saturday to Sunday – no time was wasted on food or breaks on Sunday. People called out tasks and things like “it’s checked in!” as they worked furiously. Getting everyone to leave the building for Original Joe’s as 6pm approached was challenging!

Startup Weekend Edmonton 2
Team Victory working right down to the wire at Original Joe’s.

There was a great turnout for the demos. Here’s what was built:

  • A flash-based gamed called Flatlander, a 2D game similar to minecraft.
  • Eartonic, an iPhone app that helps train people to learn music by ear.
  • Google Earth Sounds, a really interesting tool that enables people to add sounds to Google Earth. It’s such a great idea – with StreetView you can see what a street looks like, so why not find out what it sounds like too?
  • Swift, an attempt to make the experience of sending and finding invoices easier.
  • Another game, called Rubber Chicken Assassin. You take a photo of your friend with your iPhone, then beat them with a rubber chicken. It could then share a fun obituary on Facebook!
  • Helping Manual, a crowdsourced website to answer questions like “how do I get a social insurance number”. It’s targeted at communities such as the homeless or immigrants & newcomers, as well as the people who work with those communities. Another really great idea.
  • Team Victory, the team I was on, built LaunchWith.me. It’s part project directory and part people finder. We focused on a single question – would you work with someone again? LaunchWith.me is a way to answer that for colleagues you’ve worked with at companies, on projects, and in groups. You can check out a screencast here.

The weekend was a great opportunity to meet new people, to work with someone you might not otherwise had have the chance to, and to use and learn new technologies. I did all of those things, and also felt the sense of accomplishment that comes from working together to go from idea to working product in such a short period of time. It sounds so cliché, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you focus and work hard! Check out Rachelle’s recap for more.

I would like to see more even team sizes at our next Startup Weekend, tentatively scheduled for the fall, but part of the magic of the weekend is that the outcome is entirely up to attendees. Everyone had a role to play this weekend, even on the large teams, so if you have hesitated about attending because you’re not a programmer, keep that in mind for the next event!

Thanks to everyone who participated this weekend, and to everyone who came out to see the demos! You can see the rest of my photos here.

Startup Weekend returns to Edmonton

Startup Weekend Edmonton is back! The weekend of February 11-13 is your opportunity to do something about that idea you’ve been thinking about – and that’s just one of the many good reasons to attend. Startup Weekend is a great opportunity to network with other people in the community, to learn something new, to gain valuable team building experience, and maybe even just to feel that sense of accomplishment we all love. Not to mention the rush of going from concept to working demo in just 54 hours!

Edmonton’s first Startup Weekend took place last June. About 30 local developers, designers, and other creative people got together and formed six teams that built some really interesting projects. You can read my recap of our last event to get a sense of how the weekend went, but here in a nutshell is the process:

  • Friday Night: Everyone shows up, we have some brief introductions, and if you have an idea you pitch it. It’s messy and fun but we then form teams out of all the ideas, and each team begins to plan and prepare for the rest of the weekend.
  • Saturday: Teams dive into building their project. Breaking it up into tasks and time management are key. Throughout the day there are lunch and dinner breaks with speakers talking about startup-related topics.
  • Sunday: It’s crunch time! Teams finish up their projects so that they can demo it in the evening. Around 6pm, all the work stops and the wider community gets to see what each team accomplished over the weekend.

Cam is going to cover all of that in more detail on the Friday evening as well. It’s a short amount of time, which is part of why it is so exciting!

One of the questions that people ask a lot is if Startup Weekend is only for programmers. The answer is no! In fact, teams need individuals with all kinds of skills to be successful. Anyone can have an idea and help flesh that out into a project. Artists and designers can help with the look and feel. Business people can help with the pitch or maybe even work on a business plan. Storytellers can help make the project compelling to customers. Of course someone needs to test the project out. I’m sure you can think of dozens of others skills that could be brought to the table. The most successful companies need more than just programmers!

There are Startup Weekend events happening all over the world. In fact, there are going to be 150 this year alone! If you’re unsure about the event, check out the Startup Weekend blog and read through some of the stories from other places. It’s really amazing what has been created, not to mention all of the relationships and other great things that have been formed as a result. Innovative ideas like Planely, which aims to make it possible to use the “lost” time we spend on airplanes to network and make friends. Also be sure to check out My Edmonton which was created at Edmonton’s first Startup Weekend has since grown and evolved into a really useful app!

Edmonton’s second Startup Weekend is taking place at the Computing Sciences Centre on the University of Alberta campus. Tickets are $99, but if you purchase yours today or tomorrow, it’s just $65. That includes food for the weekend and a Startup Weekend t-shirt. It’s a heck of a deal. You can see the event listing and other information on ShareEdmonton.

Stay tuned to Startup Edmonton (and on Twitter) for updates. We’ll be using the hashtag #SWEdmonton if you’d like to follow along on Twitter.

I hope to see you there!