It’s not uncommon for Toronto’s residents to complain about the public transit system, but one blogger really caught the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) attention when he called its Web site an embarrassment.
The TTC responded by asking for some of the blog’s readers to make suggestions for improvements to the decade-old Web site. Other bloggers from around the city quickly jumped on board, as did Jay Goldman, president of Radial Core Inc.
The co-founder of a unique collaborative approach – named by the Harvard Business Review in their breakthrough ideas issue – didn’t want to settle on a simple e-mail response.
“We looked at the request and we thought we could do a better job than just submitting some comments,” Goldman says. “We had been doing these Demo Camps and we wanted to take that and do a Transit Camp to get a bunch of people together in one room, talking about the Web site.”
Though forgetfully scheduled on on Superbowl Sunday – Feb. 4 – Transit Camp enjoyed a good turnout, including the TTC chairman.
In between listening to a DJ spin tunes that had been sampled from the city’s transit system and “speed dreaming” sessions that had illustrators drawing up streetcar designs, many recommendations came out of the day.
The TTC scrapped their old RFP for a Web site and came out with a much different one that took into account the suggestions from Transit Camp. The beta test for the site is now live.
“Every station on the new site has a page with a whole bunch of information on it,” Goldman says. “We also hope to see them open up the data on their Web site for other developers to build applications on.”
This successful collaboration is just one example of a popular new meeting format being embraced by tech communities internationally.
Conceived in Toronto at the end of 2005, Demo Camps are now held various other Canadian cities, and in locations ranging from Dubai to Dallas.
A gathering of Web start-ups with venture capitalists and enthusiastic technology geeks, the format aims at a casual idea exchange over a drink.
All presentations at the meetings are no longer than five minutes, explains co-founder David Crow, a senior UX evangelist at Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada. The software demos must show the actual software – no slides allowed.
The “ignite” presentations are meant to inspire the audience. These presenters must use 20 slides, and speak to each one for 15 seconds. The speaker doesn’t even have control over the progression of the slideshow.
“If we can crank through six talks in half an hour, then if one of them isn’t of interest to you, then that five minutes doesn’t really matter,” Crow says. “It’s to get people to talk about things they are passionate about.”
The concept is a spin-off of Bar Camp, a participant driven concept where the schedule is not set by conference organizers, but by the attendees. Crunched down into three hours instead of a few days, the point of Demo Camp is to unite people who share goals.
“We’re looking at ways we can help build better connections between folks,” Crow says. “It’s sort of like how Google’s page rank works – the more connections you make, the better off you are.”
Demo Camp ambassadors reach out to new attendees and introduce them to others before the meeting takes place. The attendance at Toronto-area meetings is now above 400.
The next stop for Crow was to start making connection between Demo Camp attendees and the information that came out of the session. To do this, they relied on an open source Wiki product from San Diego-based Mindtouch Inc.
Mindtouch’s Deki Wiki is built on a Web oriented architecture. Users can connect teams with enterprise-specific programs, Web services and a text-based Wiki under the governance of the enterprise’s IT department.
The Toronto Transit Camp session produced such a Wiki, Goldman says.
“People can go back and use the information that was there very easily,” Goldman says. “It also allows people to go back and modify and update content. It’s a living document.”
Transit Camp first used Sticky Pad, a piece of software that allowed users to share content, but not to change it later. The switch was made to the Mindtouch system to give conference attendees better access to the information, Crow says.
“Wikis are really good at being user editable,” he adds. “The interesting part here is that it wasn’t just the Wikis that were editable.”
Mindtouch’s program stands apart from other open source Wiki products because it looks to integrate IT assets, says Aaron Fulkerson, the company’s chief executive officer. Too many Wiki programs restrict collaboration within a silo and don’t bring in data from outside sources.
“You can take all your existing IT assets and pull data from them,” he says. “End users can just point and click to add services that come pre-packaged or have been added by the IT admins.”
The software has become popular enough in the enterprise space to garner about 1,000 downloads a day at SourceForge, Fulkerson says. That’s only about half of the total distribution for the product.
Mindtouch also has 400 customers who’ve contracted out support for the software, and is expecting growth.
“It’s a great example of redefining what we consider Web Content Management,” says Tim Hickernell, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info Tech Research Group. “It used to be a rigid market where you bought this software at a very high price.”
Now the tools are being transformed and offering good services at considerably lower prices, he adds.
To make full use of the Wiki borne out of the Transit Camp project, all attendees agreed to allow their intellectual property to be used with a creative commons license, Goldman says.
Now the initiative is serving as a model for cities such as Vancouver and San Francisco, providing them with ideas on improving their transit Web sites.
“We’ve created a knowledge base on how to make transit better, and they are going to take it and use it,” he says.
Many of the changes coming to the TTC Web site are similar to what users experienced on the Wiki system. Mindtouch’s product offers a WYSIWYG editor approach to bringing many different data sets together on one page.
The new TTC will also offer users the ability to personalize and contextualize the Web site, by customizing a trip planner starting location, for instance.
While the TTC beta Web site is user evaluated, Crow and Goldman’s collaborative sessions will continue. The next Demo Camp Toronto session is coming up on July 15, and the founders continue to hatch new ways to make the events interesting.
Like “PowerPoint Karaoke” for example
“You don’t see the slides until they go up on the screen in front of you, and then you have to make up a presentation on the spot,” Crow says.