The Leeds Digital Festival 2019 kicked off last week and what a first week it was. With the biggest lineup yet, there were certainly plenty of events to attend; some might say too many.
So what did the first week of festival madness have to offer? Well, as many of us have come to expect, there were as many panels, lectures, workshops and networking sessions as you could shake your virtual stick at. Like the Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, an almost endless wave of events descended upon us. By the time we packed into the All In. Leeds. social at Avenue HQ, you could easily spot those who had been setting the pace. Just one more conversation, just one more beverage, but as the night drew on, many started to flag. The early days of the Festival had already started to claim their first casualties.
It’s not an exaggeration to say there is a bit of everything, but as with any festival, there are always the highlights.
Simon de Timary, Head of the Innovation Labs at BJSS, ran the sold out ‘Chatbot Hack Night’, giving attendees a chance to use the Company’s innovative accelerator programme to design their own bot by the time the event was over. As far as we are aware this event holds the record for the fastest sell out this year.
It’s fair to say, festival sponsor BJSS has been one of the standout players this year, not only with their own events but also in support of the many health and care themed events in support of mHabitat.
Simon Sear, Chief Innovation Officer at BJSS, had this to say on Velocity “It’s been really inspiring actually, to hear people’s ideas. Despite the influence of technology, it’s about people at the heart of all this“
Festival favourite Code in the Dark returned once again, with one of the most sought after events in week 1. Event newcomer, Jem Henderson from Tech Nation, had this to say “Code in the Dark was an unexpected treasure. I don’t know what I expected but it was warm and friendly, welcoming to those of us who don’t know our HTML from our python, and with excellent beers and music – I’ll definitely be back next year!”
Jem, who is often outspoken about gender and diversity in the sector, was also happy to report on the Diversity and Data event at ODI Leeds. “It was inspiring to hear that our very own Yorkshire Water are breaking new ground when it comes to diversity. I’m feeling confident that the conversations that we had that day will mean that the whole region will be soon striding forward with diversity as one of our core principles in business for every company here.”
leeds.tech also held their first ever event, the first in a planned series of workshops in association with the new Hippo Campus space on Aire Street. First up was Agile, run by IndigoBlue in collaboration with Graft Talent and delivered by world-class Agile trainer Laurence Wood.
Owen Williams, Designer at Intermarketing and who you may know as one of the organisers of the popular Leeds Digital Drinks events, took a designer’s perspective. “Stickeyes threw an ace one-off event called “40×40”, inviting 40 designers to deliver their top piece of advice to a packed out room in under 2 minutes. Tips ranged from technical to career focussed, each talk as unique and empowering as the next. Despite the number of speakers, the event ran seamlessly, generating tons of laughter and key takeaways to put into practice.”
Like many in the design community, Owen also attended the packed All In. Leeds event at East Parade Social. ”There was a true buzz, creating the perfect opportunity to chat with other creatives working within the industry over a drink or two. We’re now entering the second week of the Festival, so I’d recommend signing up to some of the remaining events and let’s make this a memorable one!”
It’s not all fun and games during the Festival. Some of the events focus on the more serious side of the industry and at times tackle some challenging subjects. One such event was brought to us by another of this year’s sponsors, Crisp, who has been working with InHope to combat the exploitation of children online. It was in equal parts engrossing and disturbing to hear how technology developed here in Yorkshire is helping to stamp out child sex abuse.
It’s been a welcome sight this year to see events outside the Festival’s main core of Leeds. Deb Hetherington had this to say. “The first week of the Festival has brought a real buzz to the City. You can feel the collaboration and excitement in the air. My personal highlight was the Leeds Beckett Business Breakfast that we ran in our business centre in Halifax. It’s great to see the Festival branching out geographically, and having fringe events in the likes of Halifax and York this year. Who knows where this could lead in the future – a Leeds City Region Digital festival? A Yorkshire Digital Festival? Watch out, San Francisco!”
It’s not just the widening of the Festival across the region, but there’s also more of an international feel this year. Stuart Clarke explains “What a great start to the 2019 Leeds Digital Festival! The first week saw around 90 events with 150 still to come. The sheer variety and quality of the events confirm Leeds as the most collaborative City in the UK. We’ve also seen more international interest in the Festival, with delegations from China, The Netherlands and Saudi Arabia attending this year, plus many more international speakers“.
There’s a limited respite over the middle weekend to give our minds and our livers a rest before we head full throttle into the second week. With a total of 240 events over the whole 11 day Festival, week 2 shows no sign of easing up and once again there’s sure to be something for everyone, whether you’re a seasoned professional or just starting out in the world of tech.
As with previous years, the events held throughout the Festival are always essential dates in the diary for anyone involved in the tech scene, but the largest Digital Festival outside the Capital isn’t aimed purely at those who work in the sector. With such diversity, it would be hard to find many people who wouldn’t be interested in at least one or two of the events on offer; to keep up with the latest digital developments, to network, learn, build up your skillset or simply get involved in some eye-opening discussions about the many possibilities technology can bring to Leeds.
If you’ve not already experienced any of the events, then we urge you to check out the schedule. With many of the events are already sold out, you’ll need to act quickly if you don’t want to miss out. We’re not exaggerating when we say there’s something for everyone; whether you’re a student looking at the potential of starting a tech career or the CEO of a business that could benefit from new digital developments, you’re bound to find the right event for you.
So, what can you expect from week 2 of Leeds Digital Festival 2019? Here’s what some of the key players have to say about the highlights, benefits and exciting events on offer.
It’s already shaping up to be one of the headline events for this year. The Women in Leeds Digital (WiLD for short) all day event at NEXUS is certainly one you don’t want to miss. It’s incredible to think that in such a short time, founders Deb Hetherington and Sarah Tulip have begged, stolen (maybe not) and borrowed from their vast networks of people in the sector to put together this impressive lineup of over 50 speakers as your first event.
You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking they had been doing this sort of thing for a while, but it’s been no walk in the park. Speaking of the challenge, Deb said, “There’s a lot to it. I mean, just the thought that you’re coordinating more than 50 speakers in a day and you’ve got something like 500 delegates coming through the door is scary! And it’s not just the speakers, either. We’ve got drop-in sessions, we’ve got workshops, we’ve got all sorts of different things.”
There’s a lot of money in tech and in some circles, the industry can get a bad rep. In a way that’s understandable, when millions are spent every year on one failed startup after another. To buck this trend there is an increasing number of people who are using their skills and experience to help those in need, and at this year’s Festival, you’ll find some good examples of this.
Hot on the heels of the popular Tech for Good event by Ayup and mHabitat in week 1, there’s All You Good Good People by Rich Sutcliffe at Agency for Good. Rich recently set up the agency to offer ethical digital marketing services to the third sector and nonprofits. Rich hopes to bring people together from the tech and third sectors to start some interesting and much-needed conversations.
A big part of the Digital Festival every year is highlighting all of the amazing work Leeds’ tech organisations are doing throughout the City. But this isn’t about companies showing off; their developments and creations are shared at the Festival’s events so everyone can see how tech can help improve businesses, essential services and even lives.
For example, HealthTech is a huge industry in Leeds, and it has many wide-ranging applications. Victoria Betton – founder and managing director of mHabitat – continues her impressive lineup of events for 100% Digital Leeds, the health and care theme for the Festival.
“You’ll find everything from digital inclusion in relation to refugees and asylum seekers, through to the ethics of artificial intelligence, through to children, young people, digital technologies and mental health,” Victoria said. “It’s a real celebration of digital health and social care.”
Yorkshire Water is not one of the first names which spring to mind as a tech company, but it has huge tech capabilities and wants people to realise just what these are – especially potential employees, starting with local talent.
The company’s Leeds Digital Festival event invites people to come to their offices to find out – about their innovation, their tech and careers on offer.
Mary Baldwin, who manages Yorkshire Water’s solution architecture and is reviewing their IT strategic operations, said “For a lot of people, ours is a bit of an invisible service to a certain extent. We take it (water) for granted and people aren’t always clear about what goes into water production. They don’t see the magic that happens behind the scenes when it comes to delivering clean water. So it’s a good opportunity for us to have those conversations, as well as to explore with people what our technology does to deliver that.”
The amount of information that flows during the Festival is immense, and attendees will have a chance to really broaden their knowledge and develop their skills. “No matter what sector you’re in, no matter what organisation you’re working with – public sector, private sector, it doesn’t matter; it’s a chance to come together, share experiences and learn together,” said Liz Whitefield, Director at Hippo Digital.
You could head over to the new University of Leeds building, NEXUS, on May 1st to find out about how digital technologies can be used to augment learning. Helen Billington, Manager of the University’s Digital Education Service, is running the event to highlight how “digital skills are the skills everybody needs for the future”.
There’s no need for any prior knowledge with most of these events. While some will take you through advanced concepts, there are plenty of opportunities for people with no digital experience whatsoever to dip their toes into the water, whether that’s to see if it might be a good career or just as a matter of interest.
“The things that stand out for me are where you see people coming away from events and actually chatting to people afterwards and building up those real partnerships,” said Stuart Clarke, one of the Festival’s founders and organisers. He’s not alone; one of the most popular elements of the Festival is the way in which it encourages collaboration between people of all different stripes.
For some organisations, this is an opportunity to find new talent; and, of course, it’s a great place for budding professionals to make the contacts they need to start their career in tech. For example, John Hutton from Yorkshire Water said: “For us, the Festival is the perfect place to meet like-minded people, learn about where they’ve gone with their journeys and understand the talent that’s out there and whether or not there’s the potential for those people to join the company and help us with our programme of work.”
For others, it’s a matter of meeting like-minded businesses to collaborate with, strengthening each other’s offerings. This is something that’s happened time and time again in the Festival’s history and it’s clear that’s happening again.
Karen Burns, Events Manager at BJSS “It is great to be at the heart of the Festival and this year helping to steer things. I have made so many connections but mostly friends and have seen how collaboration is at its BEST in Leeds. Proud to put on an event with an 85% turn out rate for senior leaders with comments such as ‘the best event I have attended in years’ and ‘great to see a 50/50 gender split at a senior leader tech event’. It’s comments like this that make me very happy.“
Whatever you’re hoping to get out of it, Leeds Digital Festival will be there to meet your needs, and for those who can keep up the pace, it runs until 3 May. To see all of the Festival’s events and to book your place while you still can, please visit their website.
Event photography (excluding All In. Leeds.) kindly supplied by Kane Fulton
This article was first published on Leeds Living 29/04/2019 Further updates made 30/04/2019