My Journey to MozFest

Agricultural genetics and Internet health don't have a clear, obvious overlap (at least at first look). However, as I head home from my first MozFest, all I can think about is how to get to the next one. You got me, I'm hooked....

11 days ago

Latest Post My Journey to MozFest by Rob Schaefer

It's been a week since MozFest 2019 ended and I've had some time to reflect on the whole experience. MozFest is a a hard thing to describe. Which is maybe why it has taken me so long to finally attend one. Agricultural genetics and Internet health don't immediately have a clear and obvious overlap (at least at first look!). However, as I sit here writing this up, all I can think about is how to get to the next one. You got me, I'm hooked.

I wanted to structure this blog post as a brief description of what I experienced at MozFest. What sessions I chose to attend, the people I met, and the things I saw. However, I'd argue that my MozFest journey started much earlier. The festival is a celebration of a healthy and open internet -- a showcase of both tech as well as the community that fuels it. And I think this is partially why it's so hard to describe exactly what happens at MozFest. It'd be like starting a movie in the third act. Nobody does that! To fully understand Mozfest, you first have to appreciate the context, the journey.

Becoming a "Mozillian"

I've been a long time user of Firefox. And as someone who has benefited greatly from free and open source software, and the internet as a whole, I am a big supporter of Mozilla's mission. Sometime around 2013, I saw a fundraising campaign online where if you made a donation, you'd get a t-shirt in return. Fresh out of college, I had some discretionary income, and I felt like giving back. And even if I partially did it for the cool t-shirt, it was a step in the right direction. It was small step, but all first ones are.

A little faded, but still wearable.

As that shirt faded from wear, my involvement with other things at Mozilla grew. Now, well into Graduate School, I was leading a Mozilla Science Lab "Study Group" at the University of Minnesota, then hosting sites for the Mozilla Global Code Sprint, and then mentoring projects for the Mozilla Open Leaders program. Along with spreading the word about the benefits of working more open, through these programs, you end up building a virtual network of people scattered all over the world.

These same people you meet through Mozilla supported programs start popping up again and again. A tweet here, a video call there, you start forming identities around people based on the work they are sharing (and their profile pic!). And just like that, you're a Mozillian. No secret ceremony. It's just that first time you casually connect someone you know with someone you met through some random Mozilla program based on a shared interest. It's that off-handed suggestion to someone that you think they would benefit or enjoy a program that Mozilla supports.

OK, I lied. There is a ceremony. Or rather, maybe, a celebration? A Festival? Another thing Mozillians will constantly tell you about is MozFest. And you don't even have to associate as a "Mozillian" to attend, you can just buy a ticket 🙂.

MozFest – Day 1

The floors at MozFest are organized into 9 broad topic areas, or zones. So, when you schedule your day you find yourself bouncing between different levels of the festival, gliding in and out of various communities. For instance, the first session I attended was a panel discussion: "Tech of our own: 3 ways to grow a business and not sell out" in the Decentralization zone. The panel featured several different alternative business models aimed at protecting the mission of the organization. I found this of particular interest for LinkageIO as we try to balance sustaining a business while sticking to our core principles.

The next session I attended was a wonderful talk about "Experience Design for Transformative Justice" in the Digital Inclusion zone. This session was of particular interest because it was led by @MayaWagon, someone I worked with through Mozilla Open Leaders! Maya led us through how designing systems and how they interact with their users can impact different communities (especially underprivileged) and lead to undesired outcomes. This is especially important for systems that are supposed to serve society, such as public libraries or courts, where negative outcomes can lead to downward spirals.

The third session I attended was "Data Governance Solutions: what is politically feasible?" in the Innovation zone. Here, ex-political staffers talk about using data trusts as a governance solution and how decisions made by politicians can be shaped in different ways by different stakeholders.

My day ended with the Mozilla Open Leaders X Launch Party. And a party it was!

Here, 9 speakers gave pitches on their own community run Open Leaders programs that target different diverse topic areas – from art, to science, to AI, to hardware. Of course this was close to my heart, being mentored through the program myself (thanks @abbycabs!), then volunteering as a mentor and as a host with several Open Leader cohorts. If you are interested in getting involved with wonderful projects OR learning how to grow your own project and open it to outside contributors, check out one of the Open Leaders X cohorts and get in contact! (P.S., if you're a scientist or even just interested in science, I heard @yoyehudi is co-leading an awesome open life sciences program!)

MozFest – Day 2

MozFest day two was just as jam packed as the first. Fueled by caffeine, I jumped from session to session starting in the decentralization zone with: "Community resilience tech: What does ML/AI mean to users?" where technologists from Ushahidi spoke on leveraging technology to help people in crisis, humanitarian needs, and elections.

Next was "Publishing your first decentralized website with Dat" where session-goers learned about a new decentralized web protocol called Dat that allows for distributed data synchronization. I was particularly interested in the dat protocol, as it could be a great use case for some of the computational tools we are developing, such as Minus80, that allow scientist to better manage and share their datasets.

Up next was: "Grant for the web – improving monetization with open standards". The session introduced a $100M grant focused on boosting open and inclusive web monetization standards. Instead of selling ads, users can set up funds that are distributed to websites based on traffic, meaning that the time you spend reading an article or playing a game can yield income for content creators. This also by-passes selling data to third parties or incentivizing tracking personal information making it a big win for internet privacy!  

My decentralization kick continued as I attended a session, "Remixing UX patterns for distributed systems". This was a hands on session where session-goers formed groups where we all provided feedback on the User Experiences on several projects, and how experiences may differ due to the way decentralized systems operate. For instance, how you can show users that information has not yet been distributed through the network, or that they may be operating on older versions of data.

And just like that, MozFest ended as fast as it started. There were some closing remarks, people to thank, and glasses to clink. But for the most part, people were packing up, checking in for their flights and celebrating the final moments of the 10th Mozilla Festival.

The point of this post wasn't to list off all the sessions I just happened to decide to attend. I think that for anyone else, their MozFest schedule would have been completely different. I think that if I had a redo of the weekend, my own schedule may have looked completely different. However, MozFest isn't just an opportunity to get a snapshot of what is going on at Mozilla. It's a snapshot of the people who are working for a more open and free internet.

So, what is MozFest?

By day, I am a scientist. I study plant and animal genetics. For the most part I'm surrounded by other people in my field where we mainly talk about domain specific problems. However, for two days I had the amazing opportunity to be surrounded by such a diverse crowd of people, who are solving problems in business, in social justice, in government, in leadership – all powered by the web. People who are the boots on the ground, deploying technology in the centers of crisis, people who are shuttling the newest and greatest web protocols that will empower the next generation of web users, people who are structuring their entire business around the fact that together we are better, and being open matters.

Yes, the internet allows us all to do our jobs. But more importantly, it allows us all to connect over things we care about. MozFest is a manifestation of that. People coming together from all corners of the web, and connecting for two days, in person, about things that drive them. Sharing and educating. Debating and deciding. Coming and going. The people at MozFest bring all of those ideas to life.

So, while I leave MozFest with tons of new information, I also leave with great memories, experiences, and blurry selfies of amazing people I met on the internet. The topics discussed year to year at MozFest may change and evolve over time, along with the festival itself, but I get the sense that the experience you get spending time with great people is something that stays constant. MozFest is definitely a celebration of that.

Is it over?

I happened to pack that faded Firefox t-shirt I bought back in 2013 to MozFest. I wore it post-MozFest on my trip back home to Denver. And as I sat down into my seat on the plane, I was greeted with a voice beside me, "Oh, Firefox? Were you at MozFest?". I had a great chat with a young, college student from the Denver area who led a session at the Youth Zone at Mozfest. He was interested in open hardware, robotics, and what the future held in terms of who controlled technology and the consequences of a world controlled by closed entities. We chatted about our MozFest experience and had a laugh about how, even after the festival ends, it doesn't – the journey continues.

Of all the people I met with and talked to at MozFest, there were orders of magnitude more who I missed the opportunity speaking with. I'm looking forward to further breaking down and digesting all of the things I saw and learned during my time in London, and I am looking forward to learning more at future festivals. But most of all, I am excited to see the amazing things all of my friends, both old and new, accomplish in keeping the web both weird and wonderful.

Rob Schaefer

Published 11 days ago