Retreat for geeks is more than just talk

Justin Spratt

[By Justin Spratt] About 50 geeks descended on Stanford Valley, 20 minutes from Hermanus in the Western Cape, at the weekend for the second annual GeekRetreat.

Participants had trepidations at first, with a few sceptics among the people chosen to attend. By the end of the weekend, though, these sceptics had become the loudest evangelists. The energy was electric, with some people saying they had goose bumps they felt so inspired.

The theme this year was education, which, in my opinion, is the key macroeconomic indicator of a country’s future success. It started with a panel, chaired by erudite journalist Ivo Vegter, on the state of education in the country and how technology can be used to solve its problems.

Opinions were mixed — with solutions that revolve around the teacher, to a focus on students.

There was heated discussion about how much technology can help reduce the cost of education. Some participants even suggested replacing teachers in some instances with online and mobile education software.

Geek Retreat

Steve Vosloo, education fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, told participants that SA invests more in education than any other developing nation as a percentage of GDP. This is incongruent with the results the system is producing.

The retreat then moved on to a “talking heads” format, where the geeks were broken up into small group to discuss ideas related to education. Many great ideas were put forward and these turned into deeper discussions at the lunch and dinner sessions.

Quirk eMarketing CEO Rob Stokes led a heated discussion about Silicon Cape, an initiative to build a technology start-up culture in the Western Cape, and how GeekRetreat and Silicon Cape could work together. A great deal of concern was voiced about the lack of women and black people involved in both projects. There was also concern that Silicon Cape excluded the rest of SA.

There were some incredible presentations, too many to mention here. However, one that bears mentioning was the presentation from the Kayton brothers — Barry and Patrick — and their upcoming release of their “iTunes for ideas” software called Cognician. This is exciting software that could prove to be a powerful tool in accelerated learning.

I am wary of conferences in general and when the GeekRetreat’s Heather Ford first approached me to help build the concept, she was adamant that this would not be, to quote Stokes, “another circle-jerk”. After the second event, I am convinced that the GeekRetreat movement is creating something special that can make a difference to SA’s development.

The next retreat will focus on attracting young geek talent and reaching out to underprivileged communities.

  • Spratt is co-founder of ISLabs

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  • http://www.paulscott.za.net Paul Scott

    Strange that of all the delegates at the geekretreat, not one was associated with:

    1. The largest Free and Open Source project on the continent (AVOIR and Chisimba)

    2. Free and Open Resources for Education and the UWC freecourseware initiative did not feature as far as I can tell (freecourseware.uwc.ac.za) UWC has had a free and open resource (FORE or OER) policy in place since 2005.

    3. The largest eLearning and learning related software project was never mentioned as far as I can tell.

    With a deep focus on learning and building capacity in learning, there seems to be very little African focus as far as I can tell.

    Did anyone mention the fact that the AVOIR project has trained interns (and continues to do so on a daily basis) all over Africa and in South Africa in best practice software engineering and collaboration?

    Did anyone mention visionaries and pioneers like Prof. Derek Keats in this space?

    Seems the deep focus on learning was somewhat shallow from what I can see/read.

    Please do prove me wrong, I would love to be!

  • http://www.mrowe.co.za/blog Michael Rowe

    Hey Justin.

    Nicely balanced post. @wesleylynch as been in touch with the LEAP science and maths school (http://www.leapschool.org.za/) to start thinking about scholars for next year’s retreat. The kids already have a science / maths / critical thinking background and would be well-suited to attend.

    Thanks for your part in a fantastic event.

  • http://oneafrikan.com gareth

    Great to hear it went well ;-)

  • Paul Furber

    @Paul Scott: Fifty people were invited, many thousands were obviously not. This has no bearing on the value of the work done by those who weren’t invited.

    There was no African focus at all – the theme was how to make the Internet better in _South Africa_. We also didn’t discuss education challenges in Mali or Kenya strangely enough.

    Geekretreat is a way for a _particular_ group of entrepreneurs, Internet business people, educators and journos to work together to do some good. You’re also doing good work? Great – keep it up.

  • http://www.sandboxsavant.com justinspratt

    @paul scott: dude – we would have made a plan for you and charl – I help organise and the nominations were open on twitter and virally… I am bummed you didnt come. I dont need to tell you how much of a fan I am on your AVOIR and OSS stuff

  • http://www.brandseye.com Tim

    Thanks again for organising the weekend Justin.

    While I do agree with Paul Scott that there are others who could have been I think it’s really a case of what is practical. On the one hand you want a small focused group of industry experts but on the other we need the volumes to bring a different point of view to find unique solutions to the problems we are facing. Not an easy mix to find.

    Personally I think the group was great and we got the best of the focus and diverse experiences and loads of projects, with committed teams, have kicked off as a consequence.

    Looking forward to the next one,

    @timshier

  • http://guy.cognasium.com Guy Taylor

    I’m watching eagerly to see what comes out of it, I think a lot was spoken about, and I think the projects are the right size, what comes next is the evidence of whether it was a success or not.

    I do choose to believe it will be, I think the right people are matched with the right projects, and frankly my feeling is if people think they can do better, then they should try to. The point of the retreat was to make South African Internet better for all, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on doing, all of us that can.

  • Justin Stanford

    Watch this space — The community appointed steering committee for the Silicon Cape Initiative is set to have their first meeting in a few weeks and take handover from the founders and interim steering committee. From there the initiative will be able to establish it’s own new agenda, goals and strategy going forward!

  • http://www.gottaquirk.com Kat Scholtz

    I see the weekend as having been a kickstart rather than something aimed at defining the education/internet possiblities in SA. Hopefully commentary on Geek Retreat will continue to highlight projects that are related and deserve attention as well.

    Great report back and well done to the organisers, hopefully conversation around the weekend will continue and result in a wider pool of people being aware of the retreat next year, and offering their relevant expertise to the problem of attracting young geek talent.

  • http://www.locallist.co.za Jason Adriaan

    Really great weekend with smart people addressing issues openly and honestly. Loved it.

  • http://www.obami.com Barbara Mallinson

    Nice post Justin…

    There’s an ongoing debate regarding the intentions of GeekRetreat and the ability for attendees to go away and actually meet the goals and objectives we so enthusiastically set out while there. Let’s not kid ourselves, we need time to tell whether GR can deliver on those, but the fact that this event brought together so many bright minds and passionate people (and converted those who had arrived with far less optimism) is testament to our willingness to do great things for our country, and specifically education. It all has to start somewhere, and I believe that GR is, and can carry on being, one of those places where people start talking, and small projects start rolling, slowly snowballing until one day we can see social change taking place in SA.

    Anyway, a great event, that I feel honoured to have attended – I am hugely excited by the project I will be getting involved in going forward.

  • Craig

    Having attended both retreats I can honestly say that there was massive growth from the first to the second, both in value in attending and potential for positive outcomes. There are a few projects that have a high chance of success, and the owners of those projects will be letting everyone know how they’re going.

    From a personal perspective, I enjoy spending time with smart people in the tech space and my jaw dropped a few times this past weekend when I saw what some of the guys were achieving.

    To those who feel the need to put down the GR, it’s good to know that people are waiting for us to fail because it inspires and drives us more. And if we try and fail, well at least we tried.

    My name is down to help on the project where I felt I could add the most value and I’m excited to play my part.

    It was also a great networking opportunity for me from a business perspective and hopefully all the amazing tech start-ups we saw on display will soon earn enough money to hire me as their PR. For now though, I’ll be helping where I can and contributing the the project I’m most interested in.

    Giving of your time to a project and receiving a business benefit can go hand in hand.

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