Barcamp Manchester 2016: A report

Timeliness is perhaps not an attribute I can add to this post, but I self-guilted myself into finally writing about the simply amazing experience I had at Barcamp Manchester 2016.

My ticket was booked mostly on a spur of the moment, I had a rare opportunity for a few days away from Daddy Duty and I have family in the vicinity of Manchester that I see infrequently.  Efficiency with rocks and avians.

The venue, Citylabs 1.0, is superb.  Modern, bright, clean, great facilities, nearby coffee (Starbucks, 10% discount for attendees, lovely staff), ropey wifi (does any venue actually have good wifi?) and plenty of breakout space for the hallway track.

I was slightly at a loss for what to do, not because there was a lack of things to do but because I’ve almost never been to any tech event where I wasn’t part of the organising team.  It was genuinely odd not to have already been at a venue for hours before it started.

The conference was kicked with an introductory talk from Claire Dodd who did a great job of introducing the unconference concept – what people should expect and how they could participate – all stuff I was aware of, except she threw in a curve-ball.  Well, for me at least: you must give a talk.

This might be a surprise to my readers who know me personally, but I’m not actually terribly comfortable with standing up in front of a group of people and talking on any subject, not even one I know well, but I started to ponder something I could talk about that might be of interest to a techie crowd.

I sat and watched The Wall being filled in and a little idea dinged in my head.  I had brought one of my drones with me, the weather wasn’t too bad, maybe I could take some people to do a little flying.

I found a friendly local and, with the aid of Google maps, I found a bit of scrubland not too far away from the venue that might suffice and so I put up a notice entitled “Let’s go fly a kite drone!” and sat back for takers.  I got four.

A couple of hours later, Amelia, Andrea, Tom, Jack and I drove off to Stretford Meadows.  A possibly enthusiastic name for an overgrown piece of scrubland criss-crossed with rough paths that were a challenge for the wheel-chair user of our group.  However we persevered and found a passable takeoff and landing site.

The weather was cool and clear but there was a heck of a wind blowing and I was honestly slightly nervous about putting people who had literally never handled a drone before in charge of my rather expensive aerial photography rig.  I wanted the group to be as hands on as possible, so members of the group unpacked and assembled the drone and controller ready for use.

Three full batteries gave everyone a good chance to play.  There was some nervousness from some members of the group but the stability of the drone – it even impressed me with station-keeping in such winds – meant that an initially nervous pilot, quick to give up the controls, made sure she had another more lengthy go later on.  One were we all pleased to have her take.

The group were so positively responsive to tips and techniques for managing the drone that I even crossed an initial mental red line of doing all the takeoffs and landings myself.   Even an automatic takeoff and landing in high winds can be treacherous, my students who tried handled the situation well.

Battery life is finite, so after about an hour we had to go.  I had members of the group disassemble and pack the drone away and back to Citylabs we went.

It was the first time I’ve ever attempted to present drone flying at a tech event and I think it went quite well.  I was certainly blessed with intelligent and sensible participants who helped enormously.  Jack was kind enough to take all the raw footage from the day and produce a short film which you can view here.

The second day at Barcamp was mostly recovery for me.  It had taken over 7 hours to drive up, I’d had a very full day with the drone school and then taking a rare opportunity to go to a nightclub and I was definitely low on energy and facing a long drive home.

Instead of potentially falling asleep on presenters, I spent Sunday on the hallway track and had the pleasure of spending time talking to co-organisers of the event Rick Threlfall and Sophie Ashcroft.

Rick and I share an interest in aviation, he has logged a few more hours that me in light aircraft.  Sophie is a rising star in the open source community not least in terms of event management and I was pleased to put her in touch with a jaded old ratbag who might help her with sponsor curation.

Barcamp Manchester will return for 2017, dates not yet officially announced.  I hope to attend again, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  An extraordinary event organised by an extraordinary team.