Postcard: Rolling along a Riga river


Jamaican flags seem fitting in a joint called the Sunset Café, draping over the top shelf of the bar as easily as the Reggae music flows from the DJ booth.

But since the saloon overlooks the River Daugava rather than the Caribbean, though, it turns out that the florescent lights of the bar radiate more warmth than the sunsets. But on the chilly evening of 8 February, most of Café Sunset’s patrons are more accustomed to the artificial glow of the computer screen than the warmth of the Greater Antilles anyhow.
Just as the meet-and-greet gets going this evening, alternative media playboy Arturs Mednis (editor and publisher of Jaffa Magazine) takes a moment to officially open BarCamp Baltics 2008 with a welcoming speech – in Russian – while about 75 bloggers from around the world sample flutes of complimentary champagne.

The only other interruption of the evening comes halfway through the evening, when a group of cheerful Azerbaijanis take the mic and raffle off homemade pastries to anyone who could answer trivia (again, in Russian) about their South Caucasus country.

The distinctly multi-cultural evening seems the ideal way to ring in the first edition of BarCamp Baltics, a three-day unconference boasting about 500 participants from more than 35 countries.

“For many of our participants attending BarCamp Baltics was the first time they ever saw what young people from other ex-Soviet countries look like,” writes organizer Evgeny Morozov, a Belarusian who studies the social implications of new media. “Think Ukrainians meeting Latvians, or the Kazakhs meeting Lithuanians, or the Azeris meeting Belarusians — it is thanks to BarCamps that many of them finally heard about the problems of each other for the first time.”

The foremost goal of the unconference – a term coined in the mid-90s, and, according to Wikipedia, “primarily used in the geek community” – was, indeed, networking. The entire unconference was loosely organized, so as to facilitate as many connections as possible: Friday was a laid-back “Day Zero”, full of optional, guided, museum trips and the opening party. Saturday’s schedule saw a slew of 20-minute presentations. That evening provided discounted bar-hopping for all Barcamp participants. Sunday’s activities – before rides and flights home – included an innovation incubator and a big-group session of lightning-round presentations called Pecha Kucha – a term of Japanese origin indicating five-minute professional presentations (roughly, 20 slides, .20 seconds for each).

The most distinct part of the gathering, though, was the “incubation innovator.”

Any willing participant could set up shop in a large conference room of the Reval Hotel Riga, the site of the unconference, and explain a project or business venture to anyone willing to listen. And thanks to a big stack of blank business cards emblazoned with “BarCamp Baltics 2008” for anyone to personalise (and the wireless Internet connection in the 26-story building), exchanging contact details was easy.

The audience at the “incubator” consisted, of course, of other BarCamp participants – more networking and development of ideas – but also a handful of investors with some cash to spend circulated looking for promising projects.

“I think this was one of the most productive sessions at BarCamp Baltics — those who didn’t get funding got TONS of feedback, both from investors and other participants,” Morozov wrote. “We have definitely created more good with these 3 hours than we could ever have with 3 hours of presentations.

But this is not to say that the more traditional, 20-minutes each presentations of Saturday were uninteresting. There was a topic for everyone: from programming to the semantics of mobile web tools, in Russian or English.

Andrus Raudsalu, a managing director at Delfi, a user-generated content community in the Baltics which says it gets about 20,000 comments per day, spoke about the legal issues arising from user-created content.

Raudsalu works in Estonia, where Delfi has come under legal fire because of objection to comments posted on its site.

“Our main aim is to avoid the precedent where owner of the environment (as we are in case of comments) is made responsible for content posted by end users. And this is precisely what our Minister of Justice aims to achieve,” he wrote in an e-mail after the event. “Reasoning is easy - from the state’s point of view it is easier to prosecute a small number of operators rather than go against large number of end users. And our Minister of Justice would also like to limit anonymous public discussion of any topics to a minimum.”

Raudsalu said he came to the BarCamp as part of an effort to spread awareness about this issue and thus create positive momentum toward reasonable regulation of user-created content issues in the European Union.

Matthias Henze of, a web platform supplying chic, easy-to-manipulate templates (not to mention the fun moniker: “Pages to the People), gave an equally worthwhile presentation about the business side of Web 2.0 services.

Jimdo – which began as a team of three guys working out of one of their mother’s homes - was reviewed early on by Techcrunch, and had 10,000 users 10 weeks after its launch (more detailed statistics are not available to the public).

There are now more than 15 people working for Jimdo.

Henze, who himself seemed to be somewhere around 21 years old, said he and the founders always try to hire employees who are smarter than them.

“It is extremely important to find people that fit into the team, who are experts in their respective fields, who enjoy working in a start-up atmosphere and who also like to be responsibility for what they’re doing.”

Henze said that while setting financial goals say, five years out, is a bit of a time-waster, knowing one’s product and what it has to offer is extremely important – as is knowing the target audience and relevant marketing techniques.


Henze’s discussion seemed particularly relevant given how young and idealistic a large sector of the audience at BarCamp was: one developer was looking to fund an online social network for young people interested in volunteering to visit orphans in rural areas of Latvia. Another wanted to start an entirely free university system.

But Barcamps are an ideal setting for refining and learning from various ideas and early efforts.

“It’s important to remember that most of the people who applied for Innovation Incubator were very young and completely in the dark about their funding options: many of them have no access to either commercial or non-commercial donors,” Morozov wrote after the event. “We helped to bridge that gap and I am positive that many new things will come out of this meeting.”

My colleague Bernd Kapeller– who edited the videos you see here about the event – and I found one of the most engaging projects we learned about was Meredith Patterson’s Osogato, which is presently in private beta. While Bernd, with his engineering background, understood far more of the inner workings of this Patterson’s project, I took an (intrigued) consumer’s perspective.

In a Saturday presentation mainly geared to programmers (support vector machines, anyone?), Patterson explained the inner workings of her Osogato, a software programme which allows users to easily compile playlists of their already-stored music located based on a number of sound qualities. For example, it is possible to create an upbeat playlist (or also a low-key relaxing mix, whichever you like) for jogging, by telling the programme to make a playlist of songs which sound similar to “A and B” but not like “C and D”.

While Bernd and I attended these presentations, our director Wilfried Ruetten found three projects –from Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan – which the European Journalism Centre will help fund in the coming months.

You can watch our video interviews with two of the project managers. In the coming weeks you can visit to find out more and read about their developments.

The EJC will invite representatives from each of the three projects to Amsterdam in September for it’s European Blogger’s (Un)Conference, held in conjunction with Picnic, a behemoth cross-media week.

There the famous canals will supplant the Daugava, the temperature will be above freezing and the music, ideas and camaraderie will continue to flow…