Abstractions Reflections

by Bob Gradeck

August 24, 2016

Last week, we were fortunate to be invited to organize a “Distractions” workshop at the first-ever Abstractions Conference held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Downtown. Abstractions was a cross-disciplinary conference designed to bring together designers, software developers, engineers, and managers, all of whom have key roles in the software development process. Abstractions was organized by Code & Supply, an organization devoted to nurturing and building community among Pittsburgh’s growing tech community. If you haven’t been to a Code & Supply event, what are you waiting for?

For our hour-long distractions workshop, I challenged our developers David Walker and Steven Saylor to come up with something fun to occupy the conference participants in order for us to talk to them more about open data. I learned the hard way from a presentation I made to Computer Science students here at Pitt over the winter that the best way to engage an audience of software developers is to make open data fun, and provide a hands on activity that gives them the ability to experience open data.

How some communities approach open data...
How some communities approach open data…

Our session started with a brief five minute pitch presentation, where I provided a brief background in the project using Lego dioramas, and an introduction to our three activities.


Text Adventures in Dataland
Text Adventures in Dataland

Then, conference attendees had an hour to test drive David Walker’s retro text-adventure “Text Adventures in Dataland” game inspired by Infocom classics like “Zork” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”


Open Data Ad-Libs
Open Data Ad-Libs

Steven Saylor built an Open Data Ad-libs story generation tool that uses the Regional Data Center’s API to populate a mad-lib style story written by our participants. Let us know what stories you’re able to create.


Click that 'hood
Click that ‘hood

We also held a “Click that ‘hood” Pittsburgh-edition contest. In this game, participants were timed in how quickly they could click one of 20 City neighborhoods after their names appeared on the map. This tool was built by the City of Pittsburgh’s Laura Meixell while she was in Code for America’s Fellows Program. Note: The author can post a sub-50 second score if anyone wants to challenge him.

Laura for the Win

Laura wound up winning the game by edging-out Colin Dean. She took home a Star Wars Lego as a prize, and promised to troll Colin on Twitter using pictures of Legos over the coming weeks.

Now for our general reflections on the Abstractions event itself:

Steven Saylor

I think what I liked most about Abstractions was the variety of offerings. It was as advertised, a very cross-disciplinary conference. I attended some sessions that focused on technical, language-specific subject matter, others on different types of work/life-hacks and some were just about doing fun things with technology. While I learned a good amount, I also left with a newfound motivation to come up with new and creative things. One of my ideas involves developing a small online art piece built on the open data available at the Regional Data Center. It’s always good to have a fun project in the works to test my skills and provide me with a distraction. I hope to publish in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

David Walker

Jono Bacon’s book on building and maintaining communities (such as those that propel open-source projects) was reportedly a major influence on the founders of Code & Supply. Jono gave a presentation on this subject at Abstractions, and I think his ideas will be useful to us as we work to build a community around open data. Larry Wall gave a talk on the results of 15 years of redesigning the Perl programming language, and his exuberance and the obvious joy he took in creating new features were an inspiration to anyone who wants to make things. As Steve and I walked away from Richard Stallman’s talk on Saturday night, we reflected on how recent technological advances made it feel like Pittsburgh really was crossing a threshold into the future and how Abstractions had been a great way to introduce visitors from all over to the new Pittsburgh. We left the convention center glad that we had gotten to be a part of the conference.

Bob Gradeck

We’re fortunate to have Justin Reese on the advisory board for the Regional Data Center. It’s been fun to watch him and his team build an inclusive community among members of Pittsburgh’s software professionals. Code and Supply holds several events per week, and the content ranges from technical talks, to open work sessions, and fun activities. I’ve been to a few of their events, and have been impressed with the degree to which they’ve made new participants and those new to coding feel welcome and included. We can learn a lot of lessons from them. The thing that stood out to me in my time at Abstractions has been the number of people visiting from so many countries that were genuinely impressed to interact with the Pittsburgh software community first-hand. I was also blown-away by the activities Dave and Steve from our staff built for the event. It was nice to see them have so much fun building the text adventure game and ad-libs open data story generator.