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During CASCON this year, I participated in a Hackathon that was organized for IBMers. The hackathon brought in a couple of charitable organizations (Scott Mission, World Vision Canada, aboutkidshealth, and Sick Kids Hospital) who described some social media related problems they were having and we tried to solve some of their problems.

I worked on a problem that Sick Kids’ was having where they were having filtering out noise and false positives from the Twitter search queries (e.g., searching for “sick kids” returned tweets like “My kids are sick at home”). I thought it would be interesting to play with the location data that was embedded in tweets; so for example, we could filter out tweets that were located around the Toronto area.

While making this we ran into a couple of problems. The first problem is that most tweets don’t have location data! It seems like there is a big push to tag status updates with location data (I’ve seen them on Facebook as well), so I thought that there would be more data tagged with location. In fact there weren’t, and I had to use a backup of checking the user’s profile location (which is unreliable).

Second, we ran into rate limit issues. We wanted to calculate a “reach” for each tweet, which is basically the number of Twitter users a tweet reached (either from the original update, or by retweets). Calculation of this reach on our search results quickly ran us into the 150 requests per hour limit and we had to stop working on it for awhile. In the end we made the reach calculation done at the user’s request, updating the page via Ajax using the Dojo library (which we are supposed to use in IBM).

I also ran into a rate limit trying to geocode locations (both from the search and from Twitter users’ profile). Google Maps API has a rate limit of 2500 per day. This ended up being problematic because I hit the threshold once we had completed the prototype and were ready to demo! There was some mad researching before I found out that the Yahoo PlaceFinder API does the same thing and has a rate limit of 50,000/day. I switched to that and had no further issue.

CASCON happened this week, from November 1st to the 4th. This year, I had an exhibit in the technology showcase.

It’s been a couple of years since I participated in CASCON as a presenter. Things haven’t changed much though, it’s an ACM recognized conference, but there isn’t a lot of foot traffic or interest in the technology showcase. It’s only the papers that matter.

Last week was CASCON, IBM Centre for Advanced Studies’ annual conference. I haven’t participated (i.e., presented) anything in a few years but still go to see what people are doing. Actually most people at the lab make it a habit to go because you get free lunch! I guess this is one of the perks at working at IBM </sarcasm>. One thing that was notably different was that instead of a CD with the proceedings, we got a USB key!

It’s only 512mb which is less than a CD, but I was surprised that it only contained less than 50mb of content! I guess there were no AlphaWorks this year. But if it’s so small, they should make the proceedings available solely on the web rather than spending money on giving employees attendees free memory sticks (I mean we get free lunch already).

Thursday was the last day of CASCON and it was actually pretty lax. I showed up in time for the Technology Showcase at lunch. I only ended up doing 2 demos, both for stakeholders of the project. The good thing is that it went pretty much flawless.

After lunch, I attended a Hands On workshop on Enterprise Search. This ended up being really boring as they just covered the basics of search and then went through the features of IBM’s enterprise search product. So, I jumped ship and headed off to a Web 2.0 workshop and listened to the panel discussion there instead.

Afterwards, I went up to the Technology Showcase to pick up my stuff. The tear down of the showcase started at 2:30, but by the time I showed up at 5, everything was torn down already. I was supposed to take my signage but I guess it went into the garbage, or someone else took it. At least I was able to find my coat!

On Wednesday, I was invited to a breakfast with Dr Duane Szafron at 8AM. I showed up right on time but had difficulty finding the proper room. Eventually I ended up at what seemed to be the proper place, but it turns out that I was attending the Jerry Cuomo breakfast instead. Actually it worked out OK, because my speaker didn’t actually show up for the conference!

Afterwards, I attended the keynote. The speaker talked about power consumption in chips and where the future is going. Overall informative and interesting. I skipped the paper presentations that came afterwards and hung around my exhibit at the Technology Showcase. I again grabbed some lunch when the Showcase opened and showed my demo a couple of more times. Everyday’s lunch had a certain theme: Monday was supposedly mediterranean, Tuesday’s was Chinese and today was supposedly “seafood”.

My afternoon workshop was about Social Computing Best Practices. There were a variety of speakers, one of which included Joey deVilla, the guy behind the well known Toronto blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century. He said a variety of interesting things such as how he gets 4-5k hits per day, and has enough AdSense income to buy a new MacBook each year. Another interesting talk was about “Writing on the Web”. Listening to this talk, I realized that there is a world of blogging (such as niche blogging) where SEO and writing matter, and then there are blogs like orangefever where those ideas are thrown out the window.

The night activity was a CAS alumni dinner at the Estates of Sunnybrook. Keeping with the CASCON theme of “meeting of minds”, a mixed selection of people (i.e. alumni, profs, students, etc) were seated at each table and we were given a quiz to complete. The hope was that we would collaborate within our table and pay attention to a repeating slideshow in order to answer the questions. Being resourceful, we successfully stole the laptop running the slide deck in order to search for answers (and to prevent others from finding answers). Of course we were quickly discovered and had to hand the Thinkpad back.

Later, someone (who I realized later was one of the judges) came to our table and said they would answer one question from the quiz free of charge. So we asked him to answer the question as to who’s retired from CAS: Is the first person retired? No. Is the second retired? No. Are you sure? Yes. Oh wait, you’re Jacob…

In the end, we won the most competitive table award, due to our aforementioned laptop-stealing and our quiz stealing from an adjacent table. We unfortunately didn’t even have the most correct answers! Also, at some point during dinner; someone brought out some sort of weird contraption that did the following:

Tuesday was the first real day of CASCON. I was feeling lazy so I skipped the keynote and showed up at 10ish. I went to the Technology Showcase where my exhibit was and ran through my demo a couple of times to make sure 1) things still worked, and 2) I remembered how to do my demo. Both points seemed to be in working order.

The actual showcase didn’t start until 11:30 so I wandered around a bit and chatted with some peers. I did my first real demo for a peer and of course, something (new) broke! So i spent a few frantic minutes trying various things to get my demo working properly, and eventually it did.

The Technology Showcase was to run between 11:30 and 7 today, but I only had to be there between 11:30 and 1 since everyone was excused for an afternoon workshop. The thing about that period of time however, was that it was lunch, so I and most of the people at the conference just sat around for half the time and ate, before performing our duties (me presenting and them listening). I ended up only going through 3 or 4 demos!

In the afternoon, I went to a workshop that had a horrendously long name which I won’t mention since it would double the size of this blog. It was mildly informative but I probably wouldn’t pick it again. Afterwards, there was a Frontier of Software Practice talk which I skipped and then it was yet another reception at the Technology Showcase. So for the last hour, I ate some more wine & cheese type snacks and gave another 3 or 4 demos.

The night activities started at 7PM and involved a free dinner, so I of course attended. It was the inaugural Hackcamp at CASCON. Basically we were to gather together for the night and hack away at doing mashups or what not. And by all night, I mean until 11PM since they had to reset all the stuff we were working on for the next day.

As a bonus for showing up, Sacha (one of the organizers), printed out custom t-shirts for the event for everyone. Well that was the plan at least, because they had some technical difficulties for most of the camp. The customization was that you could print out your own tag cloud based on your own data. So I now have a t-shirt of my blog tag cloud, which I must say is pretty cool geeky. I hope that all of you are looking forward to seeing me in my tag cloud t-shirt at our next geeky get together.

I didn’t have any cool ideas for Hackcamp so I just went with the flow. We were introduced to various web 2.0 technologies that I already knew about, and then started playing around with Ruby on Rails. I had heard hype about how easy RoR was, and it’s going to take over the web etc. Well my first impression is that it is NOT easy to use. It has an assumed MVC pattern for everything, which I didn’t want to follow to create my stuff, so it was actually more inefficient for me. I’ll stick to PHP thank you very much.

The project that another fellow Hackcamper and I decided to work on was to plot anonymous contributions to Wikipedia on a Google Map. We did fairly well in that we were able to parse out IP addresses from a Wikipedia history page, and then geo-locate them with longitude and latitude, but by then I was too tired to plot it on a Google Map (although I have done this stuff before and it’s not too bad).

I bailed around 10:30PM, which was much better than staying there all night; plus I had a long day the day after, but more on that tomorrow.