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RailsConf Europe 2007

Image credit: Zeno Crevelli

RailsConf Europe was larger than I expected. There were 300 of us last year in London; in Berlin we were 800-900. That’s impressive.

On the down-side I think only a dozen or so were women. I don’t doubt this is representative of the (Rails) development field. But I am certain that we are all impoverished as a result.

For me the highlight was Mike McKay’s talk on the wonderful changes he and his team are bringing to Malawian healthcare. More on that below.

DHH: Enjoying Rails

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson

Rails 2.0 will be about polish rather than a bold, new idea. (That in itself is perhaps a bold, new idea for a software framework.)

DHH gave several examples of incremental improvements, all of which are directly applicable to my current projects. Coding is going to become even more enjoyable.

These included namespaced routes — particularly useful for administrative controllers — initialisers to clarify configuration, built-in HTTP authentication and RESTful scaffolding. Others have covered these in detail.

But most impressive to my mind was the incorporation of the Ruby debugger. In theory one’s tests eliminate the need for a debugger. In practice theory isn’t always, well, practical.

In other news, Report #12 is now the one true path for patches.

Dave Thomas: Inspiring

Dave Thomas observed that nothing had really changed since Fred Brooks wrote The Mythical Man Month 30 years ago. That’s embarrassing.

He talked about how we can remedy this through prototyping, tracer bullets, exploratory testing, acting on worry, knowing when to stop, and satisfying the customer (illustrated with the real story of the Fisher Space Pen).

He devoted the rest of his keynote to encourage us to blend engineering with art; to take pride in our work, to sign it and stand by it. To create great things, to create beautiful things.

It was another wonderful keynote from Dave — but I wish it had been scheduled at the end of the conference. Then we would all have departed with his inspirational words ringing in our ears.

Instead there was no final keynote and the conference fizzled out rather unsatisfactorily.

Mike McKay and Africa On Rails: Saving Lives

Image credit: Carsten Peter

Malawi is a beautiful, friendly country. Everybody should visit at least once.

But it is also the poorest country in the world with a GDP of $171 per capita. It has 12 million people; 1 million of them are HIV positive. There are 160 doctors. Life expectancy is 37 years.

I was particularly interested to hear about Mike’s work in Malawi because of an indirect but strong link I have to just this sort of work: my great friends Mikey Rosato and Sonia Lewycka are living in Mchingi running a large maternal and child health project.

The two main barriers to HIV healthcare are patients not being seen and prescription data not being collected.

Mike and his four developers at Baobab Health Partnership are building a touchscreen Rails app that eliminates the dependency on physicians, so more patients are seen, and eliminates paper forms, leading to higher quality data for monitoring and analysis. They’re building an entire electronic health records system — a result that neither the U.K. nor the U.S. has been able to achieve.

They’re not just writing cutting-edge, open source software; they’re also building hardware. For example, they are soldering custom circuit boards to donated computers to convert them into touchscreen boxes powered by DC over ethernet, drawing just 12W of power; building their own UPSs; and erecting wireless base stations to cover the country in a wireless mobile phone network. Amazing.

To date they have deployed 200 clinical workstations and treated 12,000 HIV patients (and a further half million non-HIV patients). They are saving lives everyday.

If you want to help, join the Baobab Volunteers Google group, donate some time or money or go to Malawi for a few years and get stuck in.


Image credit: me

Berlin is full of handsome, modern architecture: steel, stone, glass, water. Olly Headey and I had a great time exploring Mitte. The Arte Luise Kunsthotel was an excellent place to stay. Central, high quality and, er, arty.

Although I look forward to returning to Berlin for next year’s RailsConf Europe, I’m disappointed that it won’t be held elsewhere. Florence, Evian, Barcelona, Syracuse, Prague — with so many excellent cities to choose from, why stay put? Indeed, why not bring Rails home to Copenhagen?



Thanks for the writeup - it is much appreciated. Please come and visit us! :-)


Mike McKay • 26 September 2007

Andrew Stewart • 22 September 2007 • RailsConferences
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