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Daniel Ben-Horin

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The Kids Are Alright: Campus Party, Silicon Valley Tech Festival Rocks NASA

Posted: 11/21/11 02:02 PM ET

Paco Ragageles is not concerned with looking the part of a global entrepreneur who has created the biggest techno-social phenomenon that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of. Forty going on 20, short, in jeans, with three days stubble, his concern is raising $12M in ten months so that 10,000 of the smartest aspiring computer scientists in the U.S. can spend the week of August 12, 2012 camping in a huge tent at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. Why? To watch the Mars landing, access blazing fast servers, listen to talks by the biggest names in technology, code like crazy and work toward making the world better.

Paco has done it before. Over and over. Just not in this country. And now Al Gore, Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, his Campus Party USA co-chairs, are betting he can it again, in the U.S. and around the world.

Unfortunately, Campus Party is one of those names that doesn't translate perfectly. It's not a political party, and it's not Spring Break, and it doesn't happen on campus, it's....

Well, ask anyone under 30 who lives in a Spanish-speaking country about Campus Party.

Since 1997, in Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Colombia - and soon in Peru - Paco and his team have been serving up their magic brew. With the avid support of Telefónica, the Spanish teleco giant (and its mobile business, branded Movistar), Campus Party rents an enormous space, installs thousands of pup tents and thousands of server connections, sets a low ticket price, lines up the coolest tech speakers on the planet, serves good food and sells sponsorships like crazy. Campus Party Brazil in February, 2012 is already sold out - 7,000 Campuseros.

There are over 150,000 registered Campuseros in the world, meaning 150,000 of the smartest young technologists in the Spanish (and Portuguese)-speaking world. Under the banner of Campus Party, they try to figure out what it means to be young, talented, teched up to the gills and looking for identity in the confusing and often depressing world that awaits them.

But where technology is concerned, the U.S. is still different than the Spanish/Portuguese-speaking countries where Campus Party has had so much success to date. Where conferences and festivals are concerned, the U.S. is different, as well. These differences were on Al Gore's mind, Paco told me recently in a San Francisco bistro.

If you're talking about crossing the culture and language gap and playing on the English-speaking stage, said Al, you've got to be crystal clear about where you sit in the eco-system. What's your niche? How are you different from SxSW, Burning Man, Bar Camps, TED, Poptech, etc? What is your purpose?

And now Paco is telling me his answer to Al: The purpose of Campus Party U.S.A. is to make the world a better place. He intends to challenge the U.S.'s smart young geeks to code tools that address the huge problems identified in the U.N.'s 8 Millennium Development Goals. Nonprofits and agencies working on the ground to solve these problems will participate in challenges, a separate challenge for each Goal. Winners will get cash prizes, loads of attention and, perhaps best of all, access to the considerable skills and talents of the Campuseros, brought to bear on implementing their solutions.

It's simplistic, it's not totally thought through (as in, who will actually implement and sustain the solutions), it's audacious. And I think it will work. I saw the prototype of this meme at Campus Party, Mexico City at the end of July. It's highly compelling because it simultaneously responds to the young geeks' taste for altruism, professional development, social bonding... and identity.

A personal note: In 1987, I was a 60's leftie, tiring of the left, frustrated by the Reagan years, and then incredibly energized to discover the sharing impulse of the emerging techno-class so well chronicled in Steve Levy's The Hackers. I started TechSoup Global (then called CompuMentor) to channel this impulse toward the social sector. But there was no web, connectivity was iffy and case management was costly. Much has changed, but high tech volunteerism has remained a largely untapped resource to this day. Now, with Crisis Camps, Hackathons, Code4America, Random Hacks of Kindness (a particular favorite of mine), and Campus Party, we're seeing a new surge of possibility for welding skills, innovation and social needs.

Campus Party USA officially launches at Cape Canaveral the day after Thanksgiving when the Mars Science Laboratory takes off. It will be a wild ride, for the Science Station and for Campus Party. I'll be covering it here and here.

 

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