BarCamp Yangon

Submitted by tomo on February 26, 2014 - 12:12pm

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Summary

Size matters. Size doesn't matter.

Yangon, Myanmar holds the largest BarCamp in the world. Or so they say, but who's counting? I can confirm that it's a two day affair, like BarCamp Phnom Penh (where a few of my compatriots were from) and of similar size to Cambodia's main and largest BarCamp. Even our homely one-day BarCamp Saigon is roughly the same in crowd size according to my eyeball count. The number of sessions, at around 160 over two days, is also about the same per day as are the popularity and attendance in the classrooms in which they are held. There were even many sparsely attended talks (such as my own!) But size isn't everything.

Opening session of BarCamp Yangon 2014 sponsored by Squar and others

Burmese is called Myanmar language

I'd heard and read so much about BarCamp Yangon from foreigners that I didn't think about this: almost all talks were in Myanmar language (Burmese). Although many did have English on their slides, most talks were in Myanmar language even if the session title was written in English - I suggested marking English talks as such so that people could easily tell and plan their schedules accordingly and I did mark mine as ENGLISH, which may have hurt me in marketing but at least didn't mislead any non-English speakers.

Lesson 1 to Foreigners: don't come to BarCamp Yangon for the presentations - come for the networking and to share your own knowledge!

Some speakers were kind enough to paraphrase what they said in English between slides if they saw enough foreigners in the audience. White people made up approximately less than 0.5% of the attendees, if we assume there were over 4000 or even 5000 people. Most of the foreigners were not permanently based in Yangon, although most were expats living in other Southeast Asian countries or were traveling through the region. A large number of them actually came from Vietnam - as the staff of a company targeting the Burmese online market while developing the product from here in Saigon. Just from surveying a few hot spots around the city I'd say there are far fewer expats living in Yangon than in Saigon and Phnom Penh, but that this is about the change as the country rapidly develops with Yangon as its economic hub and international headquarter base for the country.

BarCamp Yangon sessions are scheduled on a physical board

As usual, there were a number of technical topics covering internet technologies (web, software, programming languages, security, social media, mobile, etc.), and a bunch of inspirational talks about community building. Notably, startup fever doesn't seem to have hit Myanmar as big as Vietnam. More of the population is grasping at access to technology like smartphones and the internet and perhaps haven't been exposed to TechCrunch as much as Vietnamese dudes. Vietnam probably has many times as many developers (while only a fraction of the number in India) and they will have had more and deeper experience, but will also cost more. Of course, starting and growing a large software outsourcing shop in a country with extremely slow and unreliable internet (and supposedly electricity) would be challenging, to say the least.

Android vs. iOS? The real battle is between Chinese and Korean smartphone brands

Unlike Vietnam, with over 100% mobile "penetration" (meaning there's more than one phone number subscribed per citizen), most people in Myanmar don't have mobile phones or home telephones. But I did see a lot of people with phones at BarCamp, mostly smartphones, but mostly phones that were not iPhones. When I looked at the brands though, they weren't all Samsung or LG phones - the big handset brand was the Chinese budget Android phone maker Huawei. Considering they were covering taxis with advertisements and that Telenoor, the Norwegian telecom which just got a license to be a mobile operator in Myanmar, was a sponsor of BarCamp Yangon - I was surprised that Huawei wasn't. Only later would I find out that mobile phone adoption was extremely low in Myanmar - or at least phones which had access to the phone network. You see, until recently it cost up to $2000 USD to buy a SIM card on the black market. So there could be a lot of people who have smartphones and only ever use them to play games (but no Flappy Birds as far as I could hear) and connect to wifi - which isn't exactly ubiquitous to the extent that I'm used to in Vietnam with the highest cafe density in the world (I may be making this up but I haven't seen anywhere else come close) - and every cafe in Vietnam offers complementary wifi (except for Starbucks). There are only a handful of cafes in Myanmar's biggest city and I'm not exaggerating. I guess Myanmar is more of a tea-drinking nation. I love green tea as well - but the Burmese not only drink the stuff, they eat tea. It's called "lahpet thoke" which is a pickled tea leaf salad. I expect one day young Yangonese will be sipping Starbucks on every corner, but, like even England today, the rest of the country will stick to tea. Donut shops serving coffee seems to be a trend in Yangon though.

10 days without ca phe sua da feels like an eternity

Thankfully, our nice $35/night hotel near the MICT BarCamp venue in Yangon served free coffee in the morning. It was powder coffee which is commonly called "mixcoffee" but better than nothing. Nescafe, being a sponsor of BarCamp, was also serving free sippy cups of powdered coffee all day at the event too, although unfortunately water was harder to find. While there was no free food, the student canteen sold rice dishes cheap enough for two people to eat for a dollar. Everyday Burmese food is not so different from everyday Vietnamese "com binh dan" with various meat dishes with vegetables served with rice. But the grains of rice in Myanmar are huge!

Get a group of nerds together and inevitably the conversation will turn to Bitcoin

One session I attended was by two new friends from two Western European countries who gave a joint talk on Bitcoin after planning independent talks. The room was full and a handful of people in the audience brought up some well thought-out points concerning identification vs. anonymity, and problems where early adopters can take all the value from the network before anything valuable has been created with that "investment" - resting on their laurels while future adopters who have less of a stake and less upside do all the work for them. Without an increasing number of people who both have a large enough stake and believe there's enough upside there will not be enough air to keep inflating the Bitcoin balloon. While the talk went a bit into detail on how Bitcoin works, as in how bitcoins are mined and how transactions are recorded in the blockchain - I think most Burmese who dropped in left as confused as before. One American guy living in Myanmar who came to the talk is mining bitcoin in Myanmar because the electricity, although not very reliable in many parts of the country and especially during the rainy season, is cheaper than in neighboring countries and relative to the rich world. The cost to run mining gear, and definitely mining bitcoin on just a GPU on a normal computer, is usually cost-prohibitive unless you can get free electricity. I guess the government subsidizes electricity prices, and I'm sure it's not so that specialized mining gear from China can turn it into heat and cryptocoins. If only the waste product of computing machinery was ice and not heat then it might be more useful.

Whereas. Another talk went into some of the changes happening in the country, and some of the infrastructure investments that are being made in the various states outside of Yangon. Why would anyone want investment to happen outside the cities? It could be the fact that Myanmar neighbors a number of countries including China, Thailand, and India (and Bangladesh) and these borders are far from Yangon. Yangon itself is not so big yet it takes long and painful drives through heavy traffic to travel even short distances. These outer regions do have large populations though and the land is definitely going to be cheaper than in Yangon which has already experienced a property bubble, leaving opportunities only in the undeveloped outer townships. For those other states though, they just need things like paved roads and stable electricity - and internet connections! Building Myanmar's infrastructure is a huge area of foreign investment now.

Sharing is caring

But attending BarCamp isn't only about sitting in session rooms and learning from others. It's about participation, sharing. And so the group of BarCamp nomads from other countries I stayed with all gave presentations in Yangon. I did too. I talked first about startup-ing e-commerce businesses in Vietnam, mostly based on Taembe.vn, and the next day I gave a broader talk on making money online. For this, each presenter gets a special BarCamp Yangon t-shirt. The normal ones say "I care". The organizers wear ones saying "I plan". And all presenters get "I share" t-shirts until they ran out, which is why I got a BarCamp organizers t-shirt and not a speaker t-shirt.

After BarCamp, Beercamp

BarCamp is neither a bar nor a camp. But after BarCamp, there is traditionally a party. Because BarCamp is also about socializing. At the Southeast Asian BarCamps I've attended, this is called Beercamp, but the Beercamp phenomena might be local to Southeast Asia (and you can have Beercamps separately from BarCamps as we've tried in Saigon - we just couldn't seem to round up enough geeks who love beer though), just part of the culture that BarCamp nomads spread from city to city. Here you'll find organizers, presenters, BarCamp nomads who are also often BarCamp organizers, and anyone else with a strong tie to BarCamp. Here they can relax and exchange notes and talk about improvements for the next event.

Yangon BarCampers party in style. They rented a giant tour bus to shuttle the several dozen organizers (and stragglers like us) from the university to a restaurant serving lots of delicious food that may have been Burmese, but was probably just meant to go down well with beer. This is also a great chance for someone outside of Myanmar to meet and talk to Burmese locals who understand technology and speak great English. Some had even worked for tech startups. Here I learned about the history of Web 2.0 in Myanmar - the rise and demise of blogging platforms, the problems of digitizing new scripts (as in the writing system of the Burmese language), and that Myanmar suffers from blocked social media (like Twitter) as well, but the situation is really different from Vietnam. However, like Vietnam, Facebook completely owns the Myanmar market for social media.

Executive Summary

For me, this sharing of information is what makes BarCamp special. Not only are there 160 sessions where people are sharing their knowledge, but there are all the other interactions that take place in such an open environment when people with similar interests are able to meet each other - for free. BarCamp attendees included software developers, hardware engineers, entrepreneurs, marketeers, English students, traveling nomads, hairy white guys, professional expats, artists, future BarCamp organizers from around the country, PR girls, and more. BarCamp Yangon has been consistently organized every year for several years now and even with Aung San Suu Kyi appearing this year there were still many attendees and there seems to be little to no risk that BarCamp Yangon will perish like BarCamp Hanoi (and which nearly happened to BarCamp Saigon). It has sufficient word of mouth there and a lot of sponsors and BarCamp in Myanmar is expanding among the other cities (two weeks after BarCamp Yangon there was a BarCamp Mandalay).

A makeshift area to hold BarCamp Yangon sessions, this one on photography

The more experienced barcampers may be more inclined to sign up and talk but I've met many younger people who also had a lot of interesting things to share. It's not just the content that they share, it's also a unique opportunity for young people to have a chance to practice public speaking. Even in the age of social media, where everybody can easily step up to their own microplatform, open conferences such as this still serve as unique and important forums for future communities to be built, for future business partners to meet before there's even a business idea, and for the specialists of a hundred fields to let the local community know what's possible. Unlike at traditional, stodgy conferences where you view and assess the lineup of speakers up front, you don't go to a BarCamp intending to meet (or just listen to) a bunch of people - rather you go just having faith that you will unexpectedly meet a lot of people who share the same spirit of openness rather than coming under the pretense of standing up above everyone on a pedestal. And the topics you'll learn about are also not pre-ordained, so that you must think about whether it's "worth" attending. BarCamp is by definition always free, in both senses of the word. And you can expect to learn something new and unexpected. I certainly took away knowledge that I would have been prepared to pay money for, although I didn't think about it before hearing about it. While Google search is great for when you already have an idea of what you're looking for, we still need forums of information exchange that allow for the random encounters between people of different disciplines. If you know of such a place online that can effectively concentrate and collect interesting people in every city around the world please leave a comment below!

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