Monthly Archives: August 2011

Mosquitto and Facebook…and OggCamp

Roger Light (@ralight) has just posted on his blog that Facebook are using MQTT for their new messaging system and, specifically, they seem to be using some part of Roger’s Mosquitto project in it.

So why is this a big deal to me?

Last weekend was the third OggCamp conference, OggCamp 11, at the Farnham Maltings in Surrey. Two years ago, at the first OggCamp (a one-day event at the Connaught Hotel in Wolverhampton), we invited Andy Stanford-Clark (@andysc) to be our opening keynote speaker. Andy co-invented the MQTT messaging protocol about 10 years earlier and, while there was a server implementation of MQTT (Really Small Message Broker; RSMB) that you could download for free from IBM’s website, it was proprietary and there was no open source implementation available.

Andy wrote a new presentation, especially for OggCamp, describing the geeky innards of his Twittering house (as seen earlier that year on the BBC). The presentation was a fantastic kickstart to the day and (somewhat predictably for a conference with its foundations firmly in the open source world) Andy was questioned about what bits of his home automation system were built on open source software and open standards. The one significant part of the system that was proprietary was RSMB (the core part that enabled all the parts of his house to communicate).

Then OggCamp started, we had a good time, and we went home exhausted but happy.

And then, just two weeks later, Roger announced that he’d registered a new project called Mosquitto (as in MosQuiTTo) on Launchpad. He’d been inspired by Andy’s talk at OggCamp to write an open source alternative to RSMB. Within what seemed like days he had a working bit of code which was taken up and tested by others in the open source community and hardware-hacking communities like Homecamp.

I cannot claim any credit at all for all the hard work that Roger and others put in developing and testing Mosquitto. I’ve always been proud, though, that Mosquitto was born at OggCamp – we played our small part in helping connect the previously mostly corporate/business MQTT with the open source communities.

That Facebook announced they were adopting MQTT for their new messaging system the day before OggCamp 11 meant we could vicariously revel in Roger’s glory while we tried to find out just whether Facebook had adopted his code or their own implementation. The answer seems to be somewhere between the two.

And while I’m proud for OggCamp (of course), I’m also excited for Roger in his own right that his name is now in the licence agreement of apps from the mighty Facebook – that kind of recognition for your hard work must be such an amazing feeling!

1 week till OggCamp 11!!!

It’s just one short week until OggCamp 11! Each year we’ve done this event, it’s grown. This year has a really special feeling about it.

It’s brilliant that there are people who have taken the event name literally and are camping for the weekend. Hopefully the weather will favour them! The Farnham Maltings venue has a really nice feel to it and is ideally located for the park and pubs. The attendees at OggCamp really make the event what it is and the best bit (well, one of them) as an organiser is seeing everyone arriving at the venue on Saturday morning!

We’ve got three stages, two of which are being run as an unconference. That means that the wonderful OggCampers volunteer talks and others vote for the ones they’d like to see most! We’ve had some really great talks submitted this way in the past. It sounds a bit chaotic and it is, but it works! We’ll be using CampFire Manager by Jon Spriggs to schedule these talks for the first time this year so you’ll be able to propose and vote for talks by txt msg and see the schedule up on the digital displays around the venue.

Our main stage schedule is basically complete. The Ubuntu Podcast team will be joining forces with the Linux Outlaws for the traditional live podcast recording. There will be a panel discussion and a raffle (of course) too! Our wonderful main stage speakers include:

We’ve got some exhibitors, including

We’ve also got some surprises planned for the weekend which you’ll only find out about by being there. If you want to come along and join in some or all of the weekend’s activities, you can. It’s free. That’s right, it doesn’t cost a penny. There are a few tickets left and you can get your hands on them here: http://oggcamp11.eventbrite.com

It’s free thanks to our lovely sponsors:

This week is always the quickest of the whole process. Before we know it we’ll be standing in the William Cobbett pub sharing a drink or two with the lovely OggCampers on Friday night and won’t touch the ground until after the Sunday night drinks! The plan for the weekend (and lots more information) is available on the OggCamp website.

One of the best parts of the weekend is meeting people who listen to the show, so please say hello! See you there!

Promoting research ideas with social media: A nice example

So you’re a researcher and you want to get your cool new idea out there. You want other researchers to adopt it and promote it further for you. What do you do? (Hint: if you’re as cool as your idea, you probably mention The Web, Facebook (or Google+, if you prefer), and Twitter at this point, even if you secretly wonder what they are and what the point of them is.)

In the past…

Traditionally, you would probably publish papers about your idea in peer-reviewed academic journals so that people interested in that area would read about it and think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”. Similarly, you might present about it at conferences where your audience of like-minded people would listen and think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”. If you had teaching responsibilities, you likely also taught your students about your new approach, explaining the weaknesses of the old approach and why this new approach is better so that when they come to doing their own research projects they think “that’s a cool idea; I must adopt that approach too”.

Except (I’m guessing here) it probably doesn’t always work like that. Especially if your cool new research idea is a statistical method. Especially if your new statistical method requires its users to sit down with a calculator and manually work through an equation instead of just opening a data file and pressing some buttons in SPSS, the statistics package popular with psychologists, marketing people, and others.

Calculator
I work in usability and user experience in my non-student life. But it doesn’t take a usability expert to work out that if your audience is made up of people who most likely have just GCSE-level (high school) Maths (like me) and often (I’ve noticed) The Fear of all things mathematical, you’re not going to get far in convincing them to use your new statistical method, even if it’s what they really need to use and they would actually quite like to use it. I don’t really have The Fear myself but I do glaze over when presented with less-than-simple equations and strange clusters of weird characters because I just don’t know how to read them.

The unfortunate upshot is that your cool new statistical approach just doesn’t really get off the ground, no one else writes about using it (so you don’t get the all-important citations in other people’s publications), and it just slides quietly away into the ether.

In the 21st C…

If you are as cool as your cool new research idea, you might also embrace the wonders of the world of social media and online communications. Obviously, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, presenting at conferences, and teaching your students are all good and necessary things to do. But they’re probably not enough in some cases–and I’d guess that statistical methods is probably one of those cases.

I don’t know whether Hayes & Preacher (or Preacher & Hayes) went through that exact thought process when thinking about how to promote their cool new statistical methods to psychologists and other social scientists, but it seems that usability was one of their aims (for example, Andrew Hayes suggests that people have tended to stick with the older methods, rather than adopt the newer and better methods, because the old ones are “simple and widely understood”; Hayes, 2009, p 411).

Facebook Discussion list of topics
So Hayes & Preacher have done two things:

  • Written macros to extend SPSS
    Users can use the macros to (fairly) easily run the tests using SPSS, an environment they’re already familiar with. Macros are a bit fiddly to work with so, for one of their tests, they’ve even written a custom dialog that you can install in SPSS which adds a new entry to the Analyze menu so that you can just open a standard-looking dialog box to select the appropriate variables names and run the test. All this is available for free download from their website.
  • Created a Facebook group to answer questions
    You can start a new topic (thread) to ask a question or describe a problem, or you can browse the existing 1636 (and rapidly rising) topics (at least, I’ve been able to before but today it seems the back/forward links have gone walkabout). You can also use Google to search for specific topics. Both Preacher and Hayes typically respond to questions and problems within a day. When I was having some technical problems, they asked for a my data file and ran the test on their own machines to check whether it was just my installation of SPSS that was the problem (it was).

Benefits for users

As a student trying to understand the statistical procedures by reading and re-reading their journal papers multiple times, it was invaluable to be able to ask the authors themselves (via Facebook no less) to clarify specific details as they applied to my particular experimental design. Browsing the 1000+ topics of discussion was also very educational as I came across answers to questions that I hadn’t even thought to ask yet.

Benefits for them

The benefits for them are surely great too. Obviously they have to spend time writing, testing, and supporting their macros etc, and they also have to spend time responding to help requests on Facebook. In return, though, they vastly improve the ease of using their statistical procedures, while also giving you (the user) a warm and fuzzy feeling about the procedures (the power of positive affect) and that there are many other people out there trying to use the procedure too (the power of social norms), all in all making you (I would guess) more likely to keep trying and to talk about the procedures to others. Those are the intangible and difficult-to-measure benefits of a good user experience.

In addition, they’re getting loads and loads of feedback from their users on where their procedures or explanations are difficult to understand, or where users commonly have problems, so that when they write a book on it, they’ve got valuable material to respond to and include which should make the book incredibly useful to users. We’ll see if that’s true when their book, and accompanying new macro, comes out next year. And there’s another thing, while they’ve got you in a discussion on Facebook, it’s practical (but also good promotion) for them to refer you to one or other of their papers, or to mention the book coming out next year. And there’s a list of up-coming events at which they’ll be conducting workshops on these statistical procedures. It all helps to boost citations.

Everyone wins

I think it’s brilliant. Not just because they helped me by answering a question within a day and diagnosing the problems I was having running their macros. But because they’re tapping into resources that are free and much of their target audience already use. And by doing this, they’re making their cool ideas as accessible as possible, which can only really be a good thing for everyone concerned.


References

Hayes, A. (2009). Beyond Baron and Kenny: Statistical Mediation Analysis in the New Millennium. Communication Monographs, 76(4), 408-420. doi:10.1080/03637750903310360

Disclosure

I work for IBM, who own SPSS.