Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Think Digital Conference Manchester

Hey guys! Long time no see (obligatory excuse) but yano, college.

Anyway, last week I went to Manchester to attend Think Digital Conference, sponsored by the Emerging Talent Fund. It was an amazing experience -- definitely one of my favourite conferences ever, and my first time visiting the lovely city of Manchester. Let me share with you the three big things about the trip for me: getting to fly, discovering Manchester and the conference itself. Oh, also I got to meet my English internet friend in person for the first time.

(I didn't have a camera for this trip sadly, and in fact seeing all this gorgeous architecture without being able to capture it led me to buy a tablet from Ebay while lying in my AirBnB bed in Manchester. So most of the photos from this are other people's, and will be credited accordingly.)


As you may know, I absolutely bloody love travel and independence and adventure. So going abroad is one of my favourite things in the world. I love flying and exploring new cities and staying in AirBnBs/hotels/hostels. So this was a treat.

I got up at 4.30 am and hung out in the airport until my flight at 6.30 am. Interestingly enough, I saw several Professors from my college's nanoscience research standing at my gate (we didn't say hi to each other though). Presumably off to a conference.

It might sound silly, but honestly the liftoffs were definitely one of the highlights of this trip. I love the idea that I'm in a plane, miles off the ground - how amazing is it that humans designed this? I love watching the ground recede, and honestly I think seeing city lights at night from afar is a spiritual experience, or at least as close as I'm ever gonna get to one. 

(Aside from all the philosophizing, I was also pretty tired -- when I was walking through Manchester Airport on the Tuesday night, I saw something in the sky and genuinely wondered whether it was a helicopter or a bird or something before realising duh, it's a plane. You're in an airport.)

My AirBnB was pretty cool too. It was in a quiet residential area that was nevertheless near a shopping centre and 10 mins walk from the tram (Manchester has a brilliant tram system). The one fault was that the houseowner had really loud dogs, but hey, the bed was comfy and it only cost me €32 for the night even though I booked it only seven days before my trip.

Also, I took a taxi, which was nice (although I wasn't able to get it reimbursed because I forgot to get a receipt), and got a TON of trams. The trams are cool, although it was difficult to figure them out at first. 

Several English strangers were nice to me in small but charming ways, like that woman who gave me 2p in a shop to make up the total (I was trying to get rid of my change before leaving the country ... obviously was too effective at that). 


This was amazing, and honestly I wish I wrote this blog post last week so I could have clearer memories of it, but here are some of my thoughts on the conference. First of all, the venue was great. I much prefer venues with comfortable, theatrical seating with the audience darkened, so it has a showy kind of feel rather than a meeting.

There were workshops the day before the main event on various topics. I was too late to get the ones about VR and Design Sprints at the BBC unfortunately, but I did go to a workshop on paid social media marketing which was not what I was expecting. I learned quite a lot and the guy and his agency seemed very skilled ... but one of the groups had to design a marketing campaign for Bet365 and they came up with a Facebook thing that would target people about to turn 18 with ads about gambling and then send them a message on their 18th birthday inviting them to use Bet365 with a voucher or something. I found that highly immoral, getting people into gambling as soon as possible.

Now, my thoughts on some of the speakers:

Amber Case - Cybernetic Anthropologist

I'm mainly putting her here for her cool job title. She talked about calm technology and reforming technology so it's less disruptive to our lives while still being powerful. I should go watch her TED talk and you probably should too.

Clara Gaggero Westaway - Cofounder of Special Projects

Clara was amazing. She's a designer of, well, all sorts of things, from Lego office calendars to a phone manual so well-designed it's in the Museum of Modern Art. These presentations are very hard to distill down into a concise description (#youhadtobethere) but oh man, the things she could do with design! Also, she was beautiful and had an awesome accent. 

Ian Forrester, Senior Producer/Firestarter @ BBC

This guy was amazing. He told us about the innovative stuff the BBC is doing, and holy crap. I normally avoid using the innovative word because I'm so sick of it, but I had no idea the BBC even had a significant R&D department and it turns out they're awesome. Also, I just noticed he's uploaded his slides GO WATCH THEM.

They have an app that gives you a detailed survey about your preferences and then shows you a certain movie which has now been edited (soundtrack, lighting, focus on certain characters you're likely to relate to) to suit you. They had so many cool things like that, including VR stuff and a system that lets you edit stuff digitally on paper using a digital pen. So cool.

Sam Aaron, Sonic Pi

Yet more mindblow. Clara, Ian and Sam made up the Shapers session and wow I don't think I've experienced more wonder in one session ever. Sam designed Sonic Pi, which makes programming music easy. He's a live coder and does performances - he did one for us, creating this incredible music with the code up on the screen. It was actually incredible -- impressive and genuinely enjoyable music too. He started out by saying something like "play 95" which would make a note at that pitch, and then he added breaks and samples of other instruments and looped stuff and added drums and oh man. Highly recommended. This is a video from a previous Think Digital conference; the music starts at about 13 minutes in and builds up and up towards the end.

Ed Barton, VR Educator

Ed uses VR to teach things like anatomy and marine biology (like getting up close and personal with a shark). I liked his focus on curiosity (his company is called Curioscope), and he mentioned the theme of my TEDx i.e. the opportunities curiosity brings.

Jennifer Arcuri, Ethical Hacking

Jennifer had probably the best stage presence I have ever seen (so much energy!). She was also smart as hell. She runs Hacker House, which finds young hackers who are talented but likely to go down the wrong path, and takes them in to teach them how to hack for good. As a cybersecurity firm, they also help people find flaws in their security and teach them how to fix them. Honestly, while the topic was really interesting, what I loved the most was how Jennifer presented it. She was never boring for a second, and most of the time she was both funny and informative. Kudos.

Amy Zima, Product Manager @ Tweetdeck

Amy was pretty awesome. She talked about product design at scale - something I found particularly interesting was how little changes can be a huge deal when you have millions of users. For example, it took them months to change their login system because they had to get so many people used to the new way, and people often don't like change to their favourite websites.

Then there was a guy who talked about coffee and pseudoscience via Skype for a really long time.

And then, last but definitely not least....

James Veitch, Nerdcore Comic

I'd seen James' hilarious TED talk about replying to scammers (the Nigerian prince kind), so I was excited for this. This talk was similar, though it used different examples. It was very funny and James came across really well. Also, I went up to him afterwards and he was really nice, which is a plus. Here's his TED talk.

Think Digital Manchester was an incredible experience. It's definitely not an in-depth industry conference; instead, what it does is give you a brief but enormously compelling insight into a wide range of unexpected tech subfields with deeply refreshing originality. Lots of fun.


Finally got to meet up with my internet friend Jackson, who I started talking to like a year ago. That was cool. We got lost a lot but y'know.


Manchester, it turns out, is gorgeous. Also very easy to navigate after a day! The architecture was stunning - unfortunately I have neither a camera nor a knowledge of architecture with which to express it to you, but there was a lot of stone and arches and intricacy and man it was beautiful. I definitely recommend going to Central Library if you're ever in Manchester, even just for the architecture alone. The whole city centre is really nicely designed. 

It was almost annoyingly so, actually - I was trying to find the theater the conference was on in and was looking out for a fancy building... but all of them were fancy. It's a mix between futuristic-looking glass buildings and Victorian(?) stone and, surprisingly, it works.

Here's the library (this photo is from dsphotographic.com)

And here's one of the futuristic ones:

Such a lovely place - I wish I could do it justice! 

In summary: last Monday and Tuesday, I got to go to a galvanising conference, meet an English friend, discover a new and beautiful city and take my favourite forms of transport, planes and trams. Oh, and I got my lab report mostly done on the plane, which was a plus and also a reminder of how weird life can be.

Much love.

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