The History of Tomorrow’s Internet: Identity (iCards, pt 5)

Long time, no blog. The whole identity space has been busy with conference season, and I’ve taken the last two weeks to get to know my baby girl Fay again. I am officially back though. Whether that is good or bad is yet to be determined. What is definitely good though, is the topic of today’s post, The Pamela Project.

As I’ve explained more than once in this blog, a greater problem than finding reliable Identity Providers is getting the websites we know and love to become Relying Parties. That is exactly the problem that Pamela has deemed to attack with her eponymous project. As the project’s mission statement says, “The Pamela Project is a grassroots organization dedicated to providing community support for both technical and non-technical web users and administrators who wish to use or deploy information card technologies.” Given the difficulties I experienced even USING iCards as a non-technical web user, this seems like a pretty ambitious task, and as part of this post, I’m going to try to get my blog up and running. First, a few words about Pamela and the history of the project.

Pamela first ran into the issues surrounding Identity in her role as a technology consultant in Calgary in 1999. Anyone who’s done any large-scale enterprise software installation has likely had a similar experience–try to do anything and you’ll run into a myriad of (often semi-functional) authentication and directory services before you can even get off the ground. She’d been working at a company that does Peoplesoft installations and with Oblix (an enterprise self-service password management tool later acquired by Oracle), when she attended her first Burton Identity conference in 2001. It was here she first began to think of Identity as a (the?) core technology problem, as opposed to something peripheral to what she wanted to get done. It’s a realization that, once had, can become a little consuming (trust me, I spend WAY too much time building software to be blogging about anything–especially, SOFTWARE).

Her second “ah-ha” moment came when, if my notes serve me correctly, she was “hit on the head with a brick” by Kim Cameron at the 2002 Catalyst conference. There he drew her a brief sketch on a napkin where he showed the three party system (Subject, Relying Party, Identity Provider) that is at the core of most of the emerging identity systems. She was hooked, but it wasn’t until in 2005, when Kim added some sample PHP Relying Party code to his blog that she saw a place where she could contribute. As a sometimes PHP hacker, she took the simple code, and began to port it over to some of her favorite PHP frameworks (WordPress, Joomla, and MediaWiki). Since that time, she and about 10 other contributers have been working to get a 1.0 version of the product out, which, given Pamela’s commitment, I suspect will be about like most other project’s 2.0 release.

Before writing about my experience installing the WordPress v0.9 plugin, a word about the seemingly self-promulgatory name of the project because I think it says a lot about Pamela as a person and the Identity movement she’s part of. According to Pamela it’s the last name she would have thought of as a woman working as a technologist. As she explains, it’s hard enough as a woman to get recognized as a serious technologist without drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. Having a wife who is one the best Java engineers in NYC, but who also is regularly asked if she REALLY wrote the stunning code she produces, I can attest this is true. It’s because of this stereotype though that Pamela chose the name. She was tired, as someone who is self-admittedly “vocal”, of this kind of self-inflicted sheepishness. So in “defiance to self-regulation”, and at Craig Burton‘s urging, she chose The Pamela Project.

This is indicative of Pamela and many others I’ve met in the Identity movement not only because it demonstrates the self-reflection surprisingly consistent in this crowd. It is indicative because it shows a willingness to take a risk and do something insanely difficult in order to do something you believe in. I finished my talk with Pamela asking her why she does it. Why leave a long day of fighting with technology to spend the evening coding on something that she can never hope to gain from financially? Her answer was that it is BECAUSE Identity is still too early for many to make a living at it that she participates. It ensures that the many technologists looking to make a quick buck are nowhere to be found. It ensures that Pamela can spend time with people who do what they do, because like her, they care.

I’ll let you know how my experience actually USING the Pamela project goes in my next post. In the mean time, as you wait in breathless anticipation, why not go over to the project’s site and ask Pamela how you can be of use. This is a big project and they’re going to need all the help they can get.