The Arab Techies workshop was organized with the goal to bring together a varied group of Arab techies who are active in their communities to share experiences and knowledge, learn from each other and collaborate on solving common problems. The participants included techies engaged with digital activism and citizen media communities, techies running community hubs (media aggregators and social web portals), techies who provide support, training and documentation for activists, artists and social entrepreneurs, tech savvy activists, artists and media practitioners, software developers involved in innovative startups, graphic designers concerned with the presentation of the digital arabic content, researchers and community leaders in communities like EGLUG and the Arabic Wikipedia.
The 29 participants spanned different countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco Saudia Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
To reach this varied group and include new people who were not known to the organizers beforehand, the organizers came up with an initial list of attendees and started sending out invitations, participants who confirmed their attendance were then asked to recommend other techies who fit the same profile to be invited, and then those were asked to recommend more attendees themselves, etc.
The workshop agenda was created in a collaborative way, confirmed attendees were asked to choose from a set of themes and a set of technologies (or add to the list) to be discussed in the morning sessions and the afternoon period was left for free form mini sessions, for presenting projects and more discussions that were not planned and sprouted from the main sessions or from side discussions. Participants were also asked to lead a discussion on a topic they choose.
The highly voted themes were: Arabic content on the web, Citizen media, Free/Open Source Software and Digital activism. The highly voted technologies were: Mobile phones, Social networks and Aggregators. The afternoon of the final day was left for discussing the problems facing Arabic support, evaluating the workshop and discussing the next step.
The organizers used a closed wiki to draft letters and construct the participants list. A website was created for the participants to start introducing themselves and their projects, and add their suggestions to the workshop agenda.
The workshop had very intense discussions that ranged from behavioral analysis of Arabic communities on the web to highly technical discussions on the future of aggregators and mobile technology.
The Citizen media discussion was led by Waleed Al-Shobakky and Rachid Jankari. Al-Shobakky (Egypt) argued that citizen media is effective in developing countries because it is filling the space where traditional media is failing. Jankari (Morocco) presented his case study of training traditional journalists on using digital media. This opened the discussion on news agencies and their new media initiatives, and encouraged other participants to present their projects in the free-form sessions. It also sprouted a discussion on the presentation of Arabic content on the web and the lack of clean, readable Arabic web fonts. Al-Shobakky followed up on some of those themes with a discussion on the quality of the electronic Arabic newspapers in one of the free form sessions.
Ahmed Mekkawy (Egypt) gave a presentation on the Free/Open Source Software, focusing on the freedom of learning and decentralization of knowledge offered by the FOSS model. He also discussed some of the community building problems specific to the Arab world.
In the Digital activism session, Sami Ben Gharbia (Tunisia) presented various examples of digital activism in the Arab world, highlighting the use of videos and geo-mapping tools for promoting online campaigns particularly in Tunisia. A central theme in Gharbia's talk was how tech-savvy activists managed to outsmart censorship authorities. The participants were keen to learn how to use geo-mapping tools for activism but unfortunately we didn't have enough time for a hands-on session. On the other hand Helmi Noman (Yemen) talked about Internet as a catalyst for power shift and the capacity to regulate the flow of information and the state of censorship in the different Arab countries presenting the results of his research, participants commented on the accuracy of his analysis in their respective countries in comparison with reports coming from international bodies like the RSF.
The Arabic content on the web was the most highly voted topic and by far the longest session. It spanned different sub-topics. Anas Tawileh (Syria) started with analysing the status of Arabic content on the web and discussing digitized copy righted content, public domain content that needs to be digitized and the amount of existing content that is available in closed forums. The discussion was followed by a presentation on the state of the Arabic wikipedia by Bassem Jarkas (Syria), and then a discussion on Arabic content released under the Creative Commons license and the status of the localization of the Creative Commons license in some Arab countries by Ahmad Gharbeia (Egypt).
Mohammed Said Hjiouij (Morocco) gave a presentation on the history and future of Social networks, commenting on the lack of Arabic social networks, and pointing out that specialized social networks, blogs and decentralized networks are the future. His presentation opened a very long and interesting discussion on the limitations of the available social networks, which lead to Slim Amamou (Tunisia) facilitating a highly abstract discussion on authority, trust and history in social networks.
Alaa Abd El Fattah (Egypt) talked about the Aggregators and their importance for building a blogging community and as a platform for activism, and their role in exposing people to content and ideologies alien to them they would have never seeked it themselves. He facilitated a discussion on how to scale aggregators in response with the ever expanding blogospheres, which lead to a very interesting discussion on content selection, community selection mechanisms, meme tracking and more.
Waheed Barghouthi (Jordan) led a session on Mobile technologies focusing on mobile web applications, with Alaa Abd El Fatah giving a practical session on interacting with mobiles through your machine and Anas Tawileh presenting the potentials offered by the Asterisk application for development projects.
Through the free form sessions, most of the participants were able to present one or more of the projects they have been working on recently. And others had the opportunity to lead more interesting discussions. Before ending the workshop, Alaa Abd El Fattah facilitated a quick session to make an inventory of the existing problems facing Arabic support in software and on the web.
Participants were very committed to the workshop, arriving on time, staying in focus and participating in all the sessions of the long day (10 in the morning to 5:30 in the evening). Many commented on the uniqueness of this event, being an informal gathering were all attendees were given the space to present their work, the chance to shape the event's agenda and the time to participate in the discussions compared to events which are organized in a speaker - audience format, giving most of the time for the presentation and little time for actual discussion. Others commented on the workshop being the first Arabic event of its kind; which doesn't just translate to using a common language but it also means common concerns and similar struggles.
There were a lot of suggestions regarding the sessions planning, some of them conflicting in terms of the length of the workshop, the length of each session and the number of topics to be discussed. There were other suggestions concerning categorizing and grouping similar sessions, more hands on sessions, inviting experts for some sessions, and some raised the point that we couldnt have parallel sessions due to the limited space of the venue. They also suggested that live blogging coverage and documentation of the workshop should have been organized beforehand.
Participants commented on the lack of gender balance among the attendees and complained that not all the arab countries were represented. Some of the participants raised the point that the objective of the workshop and the participants' background was not very clear from the invitation email.
On the other hand, participants praised all the logistical aspects: hotel, location, workshop space, food and particularly the outings since they were open for more people, announced on Twitter, the LUG website and to few friends, so the participants had the chance to meet even more interesting people with the same concerns. The whole group agreed that the mix of hard core techies with artists and media practitioners enriched the discussions, and that the limited number of the participants allowed for equal interactions from all. Participants praised the variety of topics and information shared, the discussion facilitation and pointed out that the discussions were positive about what can be achieved, not just about challenges and obstacles.
Through feedback from the participants, all agreed that such an event should be repeated. Whether to repeat it exactly the way it was organized, repeat it with a more specific agenda, or repeat it with open invitations and more attendees; suggestions varied but had an Arab techies informal gathering in common.
All participants were committed to share any information and resources they have with the rest of the group, and to collaborate with each other on future projects. There is an obvious need to build a community out of the workshop participants who have so much in common, extending its membership to more Arab techies who fit the same profile, to share resources, and collaborate on common problems and missing tools.
In the last session, the grouped discussed having an appointed community coordinator to document activities, keep up with members' news and projects, delegate tasks and follow up on members' participation, and on tasks that were assigned to them, etc. The idea gained approval from all the attendees.