Geek Speak: Scott Nelson, chief technology officer for PeaceGeeks

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      Scott Nelson doesn’t believe in being a “gatekeeper”. He says he strives to empower people to use technology.

      Nelson is the 46-year-old chief technology officer for PeaceGeeks, a Vancouver-based organization that aims to “connect nonprofits working in conflict-affected areas of the world with technology volunteers locally”. From November 30 to December 2, PeaceGeeks will host the first Random Hacks of Kindness Vancouver hackathon at GrowLab (300-128 West Hastings Street).

      Born in Kelowna, Nelson calls himself a “technology steward”. Nelson cofounded Free Geek Vancouver and has sat on the boards of the Vancouver Community Network and the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation. He founded Vancouver Indymedia, which shut down in 2004. In the early 1990s, Nelson started Communicopia, one of the first web development companies in Canada, which he later sold. His interests include open source and open standards.

      The Georgia Straight reached Nelson by phone at his home in Railtown.

      What made you want to get involved with PeaceGeeks?

      I guess I saw an opportunity to play a steward role around the adoption of technology and training of technology in a much larger context than just my own consulting practice.

      What do you see as PeaceGeeks’ most significant achievement so far?

      I would say the most significant achievement so far has been helping the local technology scene be more aware of international projects that need the kinds of skills that we are cultivating so successfully locally here.

      What do you hope the Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon in Vancouver will achieve?

      Obviously, I would really like to see some interesting technology come out of it that helps the organizations that have asked us for help over this process. It’s always really nice if some of the people who show up come out of it feeling as though they’ve learned some new skills, and it’s deliberately structured that way. A person may be a great Python programmer, but now they’d like to try their hand at some Ruby. This is an opportunity to do that—just place themselves on one of those teams where they can learn and pick up and be part of a project over a very short, condensed time period, working on something that’s got actual importance, and it’s not a huge commitment on their part. They can just sort of taste it over those few days. So I think that’s an important thing.

      Any time you can bring together members of the local tech community, such that they get an opportunity to establish trust and to have some social interaction with each other, I think that makes us stronger overall. So it’s a very good stepping point. Especially for PeaceGeeks to be part of this, we’ll have a much better lay of the land as to who’s out there, what their skills are, and what their particular interests are. That’s one of the reasons for us wanting to organize it.

      What’s one good example of hacking helping to change the world?

      Well, there are the perennial favourite projects of hacking. There’s the ones that are centred around enhancing your online privacy. Things like Tor are, I think, great hacker projects. I’m really keen in the transition to mobile. Mobile is such a going concern these days, for good reason. I think some of the interesting hacks happening there are taking the Android open-source project code and then enhancing it in certain ways and then releasing that as a separate ROM that you can install on your phone, if you want to. I’m quite into that scene. I think things like Twitter are pretty great hacks as well. It’s a relatively simple idea. It has really played out in some important ways.…WordPress is a similar thing. Drupal, which is the main tool that I develop in, is also a great hack project.

      Looking back at Vancouver’s Indymedia site, how would you assess the impact it had locally?

      It’s really hard for me to look at that objectively, because I was quite close to that site. Really, at this point, it’s great for me to hear that you thought it was an important site, given what you do. Absolutely, the site was not without its problems, for sure....

      There was week-long NAFTA hearing here at B.C. Supreme Court, and I applied to bring cameras in on behalf of Indymedia and cover this trial [The United Mexican States v. Metalclad Corporation] on behalf of Indymedia. It was quite an important thing in terms of the globalization movement. Definitely, the Council of Canadians and various groups were very interested in what was going on here. So I applied to the court as an intervenor and was granted approval to bring cameras into the courtroom, which actually got a lot of attention in the mainstream media....

      That kind of exemplified for me some of the values that I thought were important. Part of the reason for me being so involved in Indymedia was transparency. These things should not be held in secret.

      Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.