Dev8D: real achievements, fast

An iPhone app for conference schedules with augmented reality, a Firefox extension for browsing historic web pages, a widget to allow real time collaboration between VLE users, a mash-up of geo-located museum collection images: for a glimpse of how much a community of enthusiastic developers can achieve in just a few days, take a look at the list of projects produced in response to the challenges held at Dev8D. All these apps, widgets or websites were created by Dev8D developers in only three days. They are all tangible achievements: tools that can be used right now, or, in a more polished version, in the near future.

The majority of these new tools would not have existed without Dev8D, either because of a lack of time in developers’ pressurised day-to-day workflows or a knowledge or skills gap. Dev8D and the other developers at the event provided this space and filled those gaps. Some of the projects may remain as interesting proofs of concept and will be built on by others or used to spark off further ideas; many others will be developed into fully fledged applications for use in the higher and further education sector.

Take, for example, List8D, the winner of last year’s contest. This user-friendly reading list management system makes it easy for academic staff to create reading lists, for libraries to manage stock and make sure texts are available when needed, and for students to access the reading lists on a variety of devices. Following Dev8D, the project was picked up enthusiastically by the developer team’s university, Kent, was awarded extra grant money and is now in beta mode at Kent, with a full rollout planned for later this year.

“As a result of Dev8D we’re developing a system that’s hopefully going to massively improve the management of our reading lists. And without Dev8D that probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Ben Charlton, the project’s lead developer.

Splash URL is another success story of last year’s event. It’s a tool to create a short version of URL and display it in large type, so people can easily copy it from a projector to their laptop during lectures. Designed to solve the problem of getting an audience to quickly type in  long URLs during a live demo, it has proved itself in practice over the year to the extent that developers Chris Gutteridge and Tony Hirst have enhanced it with extra features.

Dev8D 2010 produced a host of new ideas. “A few developers, including myself, produced a set of web widgets to integrate with VLEs … People found new uses for existing public APIs. The Arduino workshops produced a storm of ideas for new electronic devices,” explains Mark Johnson, a young developer at the event.

Other projects on display included a low cost electronic whiteboard; an open source eco game; and RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer with potentially huge implications for small-scale manufacturing in developing countries.

“When I heard about RepRap for the first time it was partly responsible for renewing my faith in the potential of technology to help us get us out of the mess we’re in, rather than just making it worse. I was pleased to see it in the flesh, and meet one of those responsible, ask some lingering questions, and get some reassurance that fine minds are at work on the home plastic recycling plant that it really needs to be sustainable,” says Ben Wheeler.

What Dev8D demonstrates beyond doubt is the cost-effectiveness of gathering a large group of developers together in one place to share and collaborate in an informal setting.

Mark Johnson again: “We learned programming languages, we built applications, we designed algorithms, we gave talks… While I was at Dev8D I achieved more in a day than I sometimes achieve in a week in my office (where I’m the only full time developer).”

The cross-institutional collaboration work on projects devised at Dev8D continues long after the event itself is over and, of course, the impact of the achievements of Dev8D extends far beyond the participants and their institutions. On a small scale this can be seen in the interest in the event while it was taking place – analysis made possible by a tool that developer Dave Challis created while at the event showed that while dev8D was attended by 150 or so people per day, it was mentioned by around 500 different people on Twitter.

The impact of the many innovative, time- and money-saving projects initiated and inspired by Dev8D participants will be far wider still.