FrOSCon 2018

2018-08-29 16:34

A more general summary: of the conference written in German. Below a more detailed summary of the keynote by Lorena Jaume-Palasi.

In her keynote "Blessed by the algorithm - the computer says no!" Lorena detailed the intersection of ethics and technology when it comes to automated decision making systems. As much as humans with a technical training shy away from questions related to ethics, humans trained in ethics often shy away from topics that involve a technical layer. However as technology becomes more and more ingrained in everyday life we need people who understand both - tech and ethical questions.

Lorena started her talk detailing how one typical property of human decision making involves inconsistency, otherwise known as noise: Where machine made decisions can be either accurate and consistent or biased and consistent, human decisions are either inconsistent but more or less accurate or inconsistent and biased. Experiments that showed this level of inconsistency are plenty, ranging from time estimates for tasks being different depending on weather, mood, time of day, being hungry or not up to judges being influenced by similar factors in court.

One interesting aspect: While in order to measure bias, we need to be aware of the right answer, this is not necessary for measuring inconsistency. Here's where monitoring decisions can be helpful to palliate human inconsistencies.

In order to understand the impact of automated decision making on society one needs a framework to evaluate that - the field of ethics provides multiple such frameworks. Ethics comes in three flavours: Meta ethics dealing with what is good, what are ethical requests? Normative ethics deals with standards and principles. Applied ethics deals with applying ethics to concrete situations.

In western societies there are some common approaches to answering ethics related questions: Utilitarian ethics asks which outputs we want to achieve. Human rights based ethics asks which inputs are permissible - what obligations do we have, what things should never be done? Virtue ethics asks what kind of human being one wants to be, what does behaviour say about one's character? These approaches are being used by standardisation groups at e.g. DIN and ISO to answer ethical questions related to automation.

For tackling ethics and automation today there are a couple viewpoints, looking at questions like finding criteria within the context of designing and processing of data (think GDPR), algorithmic transparency, prohibiting the use of certain data points for decision making. The importance of those questions is amplified now because automated decision making makes it's way into medicine, information sharing, politics - often separating the point of decision making from the point of acting. One key assumption in ethics is that you should always be able to state why you took a certain action - except for actions taken by mentally ill people, so far this was generally true. Now there are many more players in the decision making process: People collecting data, coders, people preparing data, people generating data, users of the systems developed. For regulators this setup is confusing: If something goes wrong, who is to be held accountable? Often the problem isn't even in the implementation of the system but in how it's being used and deployed. This confusion leads to challenges for society: Democracy does not understand collectives, it understands individuals acting. Algorithms however do not understand individuals, but instead base decisions on comparing individuals to collectives and inferring how to move forward from there. This property does impact individuals as well as society.

For understanding which types of biases make it into algorithmic decision making systems that are built on top of human generated training data one needs to understand where bias can come from:

The uncertainty bias is born out of a lack of training data for specific groups amplifying outlier behaviour, as well as the risk for over-fitting. One-sided criteria can serve to reinforce a bias that is generated by society: Even ruling out gender, names and images from hiring decisions a focus on years of leadership experience gives an advantage to those more likely exposed to leadership roles - typically neither people of colour, nor people from poorer districts. One-sided hardware can make interaction harder - think face recognition systems having trouble identifying non-white humans, having trouble identifying non-male humans.

In the EU we focus on the precautionary principle where launching new technology means showing it's not harmful. This though proves more and more complex as technology becomes entrenched in everyday life.

What other biases do humans have? There's information biases, where humans tend to reason based on analogy, based on the illusion of control (overestimating oneself, downplaying risk, downplaying uncertainty), there's an escalation of committment (a tendency to stick to a decision even if it's the wrong one), there are single outcome calculations.

For cognitive biases are related to framing, criteria selection (we tend to value quantitative criteria over qualitative criteria), rationality. There's risk biases (uncertainties about positive outcomes typically aren't seen as risks, risk tends to be evaluated by magnitude rather than by a combination of magnitude and probability). There's attitude based biases: In experiments senior managers considered risk taking as part of their job. The level of risk taken depended on the amount of positive performance feedback given to a certain person: The better people believe they are, the more risk they are willing to take. Uncertainty biases relate to the difference between the information I believe I need vs. the information available - in experiments humans made worse decisions the more data and information was available to them.

General advise: Beware of your biases...

On geeks growing up

2013-12-12 05:49
I'm a regular visitor of the Chemnitzer Linuxtage in March - at first going to talks learning lots of interesting stuff I didn't know about like aspect oriented programming, strace, squeak, which open source licenses are best for different strategies. As of late I had been there mostly to help out with the FSFE booth.

For context: The conference itself is hosted by the technical university in Chemnitz, it takes place on a weekend, they charge the tiny amount of 5 Euros for admission. In turn visitors get two full days of mostly well prepared, diverse talks and workshops. Speakers and exhibitors get access to the backstage catering area including free food and drinks all day and an after show dinner on Saturday evening. In general organisation is highly professional - WiFi just works, no super-long queues for meals (that for attendees are available for purchase during the breaks), equipment in the rooms usually just works.

One thing I found particular about the Linuxtage in Chemnitz was always how family friendly they are: Standing at the FSFE booth I've had it more often than not that parents who are not into IT at all would take their young kids who are "into computers" to the event. However also quite a few geeks tend to bring their off-spring: It all started with a toy corner years ago. By now the offer has been extended to be a separate quite room stuffed with lots of toys, visited not only by parents and kids but also engaged clowns and magicians for entertainment.

Ever since it seems like other conferences have followed the example:

Froscon isn't only offering a nursing room and play area - there's a jumping castle in the backyard for smaller children. For little hackers there is a special track stuffed with coding topics suitable for children - often even taught by younger ones.

EuRuCamp went another step further: Not only do they sell children tickets that are a lot cheaper than those offered for adults. For the very young ones the ticket includes babysitting services - organised in collaboration with a local Berlin babysitting service.

I been there for a while but last time I visited also Chaos Communication Congress and Camp drew several small hackers - in general there were tinkering workshops well suitable for slightly older little people.

Even FOSDEM that to my knowledge doesn't yet offer any special tracks or separate rooms for smaller ones was still able to draw a few families - most likely due in part to the "we are one big family" nature of the event (despite attendee numbers as high as 5k each year).

At least for Berlin it seems this trend has been acknowledged - as tech conferences you can get makey-makey packages for free from a local IT foundation.

On a more personal note: In contrast to all of the above the conference I'm involved in personally - Berlin Buzzwords - is pretty much business driven and profit oriented. However for good reason it has the reputation of still being very community oriented. For several editions I have tried finding ways to turn the event into something that is slightly more family friendly:

  • There once was an offer to bring your non-tech spouse or relatives with us organising a city tour for them. In an initial trial run this was tried on speakers - there was some response, but overall too few people made use of the offer to run it again.
  • There usually were play areas featuring foosball tables, table tennis and the like - but those mostly catered the geeks themselves really.
  • We ran at least one blog post asking for people in need for child care to get in touch with us - though there is the occasional request on twitter, nothing substantial came out of these initiatives.
  • I asked parents who I knew were visiting the conference themselves what would make them bring their children - the ones I asked mostly came back with a need for child care for very little people or a conference date during school holidays to bring older kids.
This year the approach we try is slightly different: We again host the event in Kulturbrauerei - a venue that is itself very well suited to experimenting with different formats: Several rooms from large to small, a nice back yard, a cinema and a few shops, well located in Prenzlauer Berg which itself is known for being almost too family friendly. We got in touch with the organisers of EuRuCamp to learn how they got baby sitting services sponsored - Dajana, thanks a ton for your input. In addition we put the invitation to bring kids and the baby sitting offering up online where every attendee inevitably will see it: There is a special ticket for kids (with limited availability though as this is the first trial run) that includes catering and day care you can book.

In addition there's also a catering only ticket that is way cheaper than the full conference access pass - so in case the conference pass is too expensive for you to pay privately however you'd still like to be at the event during your lunch break or in the evening this is the ideal option for you.

I have to admit I'm highly curious how this will play out. For me Berlin Buzzwords always was a great excuse to hand to friends in order to get them to visit the city at the best time of the year. As a result it meant that I could go to the conference by bicycle and have everyone else I would love to meet in town. It would be great if these two changes enable more people to be with us. It would be even better if these two changes did actually support the community flavour that I have been told Buzzwords has. Looking forward to seeing you in June!

Some thoughts on a conf taxonomy

2012-09-16 12:53
One common way for open source developers to meet face-to-face is to attend conferences relevant to their subject of interest. A common way to have one near you if there ain't none yet is to go and organise one yourself. The most obvious stuff to resolve for that task:

  • Most likely there will be some financial transactions involved - sponsors wanting to support you, attendees paying for their tickets, you paying for the venue and for food.
  • Someone will have to choose which speakers to invite.
  • How to scale if there are more speakers and attendees than you can reasonably welcome yourself.

So far I've come across a multitude of ways to deal with these two issues alone. Some encountered at events with >200 attendees are listed below. Feel free to add your context.

Name Content selection For profit Tickets Food Scaling model
FOSDEM/ Brussels open CfP, decision by organisers Nope - it's hosted by a university, organised by a couple of students and an incredible multitude of volunteers. Access is completely free though attendees are being asked to support the conference with a donation. Food is on sale through the organisers In addition to two main tracks there's a multitude of independently but affiliated and co-located so-called dev rooms that are completely community organised e.g. for Debian, Java, Embedded, KDE and others
Froscon open CfP, decision by organisers Nope - again hosted by a university, organised by a couple of students and volunteers Tickets are cheap - in the 5 Euro range Food is on-sale at the event. There are workshops and related events that are community organised. Those are starting to get more visible in the main program as well.
Linux Tage Chemnitz open CfP, decision by organisers + committee. Nope - hosted by TU Chemnitz with huge local support. Cheap - in the 5 Euro range. On sale at the event (soup and related stuff). Stable number of attendees so far.
Chaos Communication Congress open CfP, decision by organisers + committee yes for four days slightly less than 100,- Euro on sale in the venue as well as around move to different location
Chaos Camp open CfP, decision by organisers + committee yes 100 < prize < 500,- range for whole week including camping ground on sale at the location not needed so far
Berlin Buzzwords open CfP, decision by volunteers yes more than 300,- Euros in early bird included in the price affiliated workshops
ApacheCon open CfP, decision by volunteers yes in EU >200,-, in US usually >1k$ included in price affiliated meetups
Lucene Revolution open CfP, decision by organisers more or less, mainly PR for organiser >500,- included in price not needed so far
GoTo Con invitation only yes >500,- range included in price turn the "one location" only conference into a series that moves across Europe with the help of some locals that are interested in having the event
Strata open CfP, decision made by committee - final decision by organisers yes in the >500 Euro range included in price split in different locations, organisers remain the same still

From the above table to me it seems that most conferences differ in whether they are fully non profit solely for the sake of education. In contrast to that there are events that are for profit (as in support the organisers financially), or some kind of self-marketing where profit is indirect in terms of more contracts signed. They also differ in whether submissions are open or invited talks only. In addition there are those that have paid talks (usually clearly marked as such) or accept talks through the submission form only. In terms of cost one model is to go extremely low-cost with no money paid for venue or food vs. those that include catering in the ticket price.

Me personally I have a strong preference to events that feature an open CfP - mainly because talks tend to be more diverse and - given a strong program committee - also of decent quality as only the best make it through. In addition the events tend to be less formal when fully community organised - over time regulars among speakers, attendees and exhibition participants tend to know each other generating a rather friendly athmosphere.