The Chile IA retreat and encounter: My impressions

Wow, I’m elated, excited, and exhausted. The past five days have been hectic! Here are my impressions:

The people

My favorite thing about these events is meeting with IA friends and colleagues from around the world. It’s always good to catch up with old friends – but I’m especially excited about meeting new people! And this trip has been particularly bountiful. I’ve finally had the opportunity to put faces to names that frequently show up in the Spanish-speaking IA/UX lists: Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Jorge Barahona, Juan Carlos Camus, Malisa Gutiérrez, Nelson Rodriguez, and many others. I already knew from their websites and comments on mailing lists that these are smart folks doing good work. What I didn’t know was that they are also warm, open, and friendly people.

We also met a group of IAs from Brazil that are doing excellent work in Latin America’s biggest market. I plan to stay in touch with these folks, language barriers notwithstanding. (We communicated for the most part in English.)

The state of the profession in Latin America

In previous IA retreats and summits, I felt like a tourist visiting the future from the past – the state of the profession in Panama is such that the stuff usually being discussed in these events is 5-10 years in the future for our market. Because this event was focused on the Latin American markets, the playing field was more even.

In conversations with colleagues from Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay (the three other Latin American countries represented), it became obvious that we face similar challenges – and opportunities. A shared concern seemed to be the way the common perception of IAs as “web designers” can place limits on our scope of action when dealing with business stakeholders.

It was also clear that the profession is in very different stages of development in our various countries. Of the countries represented, Chile is perhaps the most advanced – there is a vibrant community of IAs there, the profession is recognized in the business and academic fields, and, well, they can hold events like this one and get people to show up. I was also told that clients are starting to specifically ask for IA work as part of their web projects. A far cry from Panama!

Brazil doesn’t lag far behind; the Globo.com IA team, for example, seems to enjoy strong corporate support. It’s a relatively large group, and the value of their efforts seems to be recognized by their organization. What seems to be missing, perhaps, is a local sense identity for the profession (eg. local gatherings). I suspect that this retreat will be the catalyst that will change this. (There is talk already of holding next year’s retreat in Rio!)

The work

I was very excited to be exposed to the work of my colleagues from the region. Again, the presentations by the Globo.com team were particularly impressive; as I wrote earlier, this is world-class stuff. One project in particular – the social photo sharing app 8p – points to the future of web applications in Latin America: it focuses on the social aspects of these types of sites. As I mentioned in my presentation, I believe our latin cultural roots can give us an edge when designing these types of socially-centered apps. I’ll be following 8p with great interest!

Another encouraging presentation was made by Marcela Herbage from Chile’s national health ministry. Her project was the direct counterpart to the one I presented: a website for the national health system that actually works! From her remarks, and in talking with her after the presentation, I could tell that she enjoys the support of a management team with a clear vision for the web and the will (and means) to implement it. Again, a far cry from what I’ve experienced in my own country.

Chilean senator Fernando Flores – an erudite, eloquent, and somewhat confrontational figure – gave us a glimpse into the future of citizen-produced journalism in Latin America. He showed us elmorrocotudo.cl, a website that is changing the way the news is produced and consumed in Chile. It is a model that those of us struggling for change in other Latin American countries should strive to emulate. (Read Peter Merholz’s more extensive review of this presentation.)

The venue

Santiago is a world-class city: European-style avenues and buildings, an impeccable metro, pleasantly verdant sidewalks, fabulous restaurants, and – most importantly – a consistently well-educated and courteous population that seems proud of the country they have built (justifiably so), without being boastful or arrogant. The Andes loom in the distance, humbling even Santiago with their size and terrifying beauty. (Unfortunately, smog cloaks the mountains for most of the day; I’m told there are efforts underway to fix this problem.)

Even though we didn’t visit any of the famous national parks, it’s obvious that this is a country of impressive natural beauty. Our short visit to the Santa Cruz winery in the Colchagua valley revealed a landscape so intensely beautiful as to seem artificially constructed. (If it was a simulacrum, we’d complain about it being too perfect to be believable.)

The Hotel Santa Cruz, where the retreat was held, is quaint and comfortable, yet features all the modern conveniences you’d expect (eg. good wireless access throughout). I’d come expecting great wine, and got it aplenty; what I hadn’t expected was the fantastic variety of foods we were served at the hotel, all of it of exceptional quality. This was a marked change from the past two retreats, where the food was good (but not fantastic). I made a point of sitting next to Ricardo Baeza-Yates on most of my meals; apart from being a great conversationalist, Ricardo is also a gourmet with a penchant for showing off the best food and drink Chile has to offer. He introduced me, among other dishes, to pastel de choclo, a delicious corn casserole that I won’t soon forget.

In summary

This was more than another IA retreat; I believe this gathering will be remembered as a turning point for the profession in our region. This has been Javier Velasco’s dream for as long as I’ve known him, and he did an extraordinary job of pulling it off. We owe Javier a great deal of gratitude for bringing us together in this way.

I look forward to next year’s gathering, be it in Rio or elsewhere!