Unconference notes

Just returned from BIL, an unconference which has, for the last two years, taken place opposite TED, the very expensive, very exclusive conference that you probably read a lot about this week. BIL, like many unconferences is free, and self-organized. Speakers volunteer, often proposing talks right at the conference. Everybody is expected to pitch in.

I’ve been very excited with this movement since I attended the first open unconference, known as barCamp. The first barcamp in Palo Alto was a reaction to an invite-only free unconference known as FooCamp, which I had also attended but was not attending that year. That first camp was a great success, with a fun conference coming together in days, with sponsors buying food and offering space. The second barcamp, in DC, was a complete failure, but the movement caught on and it seems there is a barcamp somewhere in the world every week.

This year BIL was bigger, and tried some new approaches. In particular, a social networking site was used to sign up, where people could propose talks and then vote for the ones they liked. While it is not as ad-hoc as the originals, with the board created at the start of the conference, I like this method a lot. The array of sessions at a completely ad-hoc conference can be very uneven in quality, and assignment to rooms is up to a chaotic procedure that may put an unpopular talk in a big room while a small room is packed to the gills. (This even happens at fully curated conferences.)

Pre-voting allowed better allocation of rooms, and in theory better scheduling to avoid conflicts (ie. noting that people want to go to two talks and not setting them against one another.) BIL also had some spare slots for people who just showed up with a talk, to keep that original flavour.

Still, it didn’t work perfectly. Volunteer A/V is what it is, and the main room was a giant cavern where a more intimate setting would have been better. Response to BIL was overwhelming, pushing the unorganizers to declare the conference full quite early on, due to limits from the venue. This turned out to be a mistake, as when a conference is free, you get a lot of people who say they will come and don’t, and a lot of people who come for only part of the conference. In spite of having 600 registrants and a venue limit of 450, the main room was never more than 30% full, if that. Some of the small rooms turned people away, however.

Here are some notes and ideas. Many of them apply to any level of conference, and in fact the more expensive ones will only happen at commercial conferences unless there are eager volunteers.

Live schedule updates

Even fully managed conferences don’t stay on the clock, and unconferences have a lot of trouble. People will no-show, talks will run long or short. (Mostly long.) BIL did print the schedule for each room at each room, but you had to go back to the main board, or each room, to see what was going on now.

I recommend building a simple app (or just hand editing) to provide a web page which shows what is really going on right now in each room, and what’s going on in the next couple of slots, with times adjusted for reality. Most people seem to have a phone that can fetch a web page. They can refresh this page as needed to see what’s going on now. In addition, one or more screens (ie. laptops) can be set up which regularly refresh the page to show “what’s up now?” There should be a page for full web browsers, and for PDA small screen browsers. Links to fuller descriptions of the talks, if available, should be present.

Of course, for fully ad-hoc scheduling, you can’t easily do this without a lot of typing, but you can take a digital photo of the schedule board and print it out and put it in all the rooms and areas. Multiple photos to tile and make it bigger are even better.

Live video feed

Today, closed circuit video over the internet is easy. A Skype call over a LAN can do nice 640x480 30fps video, and it’s trivial to set up if you have a laptop with integrated webcam to place in each room, and another set of computers in the central area to display these video feeds. (If you want to put 4 video feeds on one computer, it can be done but needs decent speed on that computer.)

Even better, but sometimes harder to make work, is IP Multicasting using a tool like VLC. VLC is free and available for all platforms, which means that, with no extra bandwidth cost, you can put up multiple rooms to show the video feeds, and any attendee, even one sitting in a room, can pull up the other rooms on her laptop without extra bandwidth costs. That’s important because wireless nets don’t have the bandwidth to do lots of ordinary streaming.

But one central place where you can see all or most of the rooms will quickly tell you (and the person maintaining the live schedule page) what’s going on in each room, how crowded it is and so on.

Make sure people are really coming

When people register, let them say if they are only coming for part of it. Tell them to expect a confirmation E-mail a few days before the conference, which they must respond to or their registration will be canceled. People coming from out of town who have booked flights can be counted on, but locals will no-show to a free conference at a rate as high as 50%. Sometimes more. Let people waitlist and mail them when you get the response to the confirmation email.

Some unconferences that could be free have put on fees just to stop no-shows. One idea is to charge a fee — and then tell people that they will get their money back at the conference. Ie. free if you show up, but costs you $25 if you are a no-show! Of course this means having a refund station, which costs time and money and requires trusted volunteers. However, if people paid via paypal, it can be fairly easy to do the refunds — verify ID, then click to refund. If they prepay with cheque, it’s a bit harder.

Chances are you would still get a fair number of no-shows, and this could support the conference and pay for the refund station. Or if not, you could tell people that all but $2 would be refunded, which nobody will care about, and would support the conference. Truth be known, a lot of people would not bother with the refund just to support the conference.

It might be interesting to see what the right price to set for a free conference is. Too high and of course you discourage people who might want to come but fear losing the deposit if they no-show. In addition you would get fewer people leaving in their fee as a donation. Too low and people still no-show too much and you don’t get enough support.

Print badge at home

Most free unconferences do little more than a hand-filled “Hello, my name is” badge. Tell people to bring a badge holder — we all have many of them left over from other conferences — and create a simple web form where they can type in their name, and whatever else they like, and it generates a badge they can cut and print, possibly in a range of sizes. So you get nice badges with logos and easily readable names. It’s fun if badges also can contain space for “Ask me about” phrases that are conversation starters.

If they don’t have a badge holder, just offer some double sided tape or something else to stick the badge to their clothing.

Have a printer on the network

People who fly out at the end of a conference all need to print their boarding pass. It’s a must for a quick trip through the airport. A computer with printer, or a very standard printer on the network is a nice plus.

Room switch

Sometimes rooms are just allocated wrong, even with advance voting. While it will cost about 5 minutes, sometimes it might make sense to declare a room switch when a big room is mostly empty and a smaller room has them packed out the doors. Flexible scheduling can make the lost time get made up in certain ways.

Totally flexible scheduling

While it generates problems — because the start of talks can overlap with the end of other talks — but a live schedule could allow completely flexible scheduling. Talks could go a bit long or a bit short, and just end when they end. However, there’s also a lot that can go wrong with this — people need to know their time is constrained, and stick to it.

Schedule downtime

Because so many people want to talk, there is pressure to schedule talks all the time, and to have many tracks. This should be resisted. There should be official time when no talk is happening, and even official time between talks if possible. BIL this year shifted to more 30 minute slots and fewer 15, which is good because 15 is too small for most talks. However, this does not mean that people should not be encouraged to do a 15 minute slot if they can.

I also recommend considering a forced time for Q&A, perhaps of just 3 minutes. If there are no questions, then have more open hallway time, which is always good.

Have a center

All conference spaces should have a center which you typically pass through on the way from room to room. That’s where you run into people and have hallway conversations. It’s a good place for the video screens and the live feeds if you are going to have them.

Have people vote on talks

If you don’t pre-vote on talks on a web site, then have a short session where people announce there talks. Get a rough show of hands for those who are interested, and assign rooms only after seeing that show of hands. Don’t let speakers just pick their rooms unless they want a smaller room than interest deserves because they want the intimacy.

If you can, do better A/V

When it’s all volunteer it’s hard to do A/V just right. The speaker should be able to see their own laptop to read their slides, because it ruins a talk if the speaker has to keep looking backwards to see their slides, turning away from the audience. Even better, if you can afford it, is to have a projector putting the slides on the back of the room, as well as the front, so the speaker can see their notes while never lowering their eyes.

And, of course, it’s really good if you can have some system (such as two projectors) so that people can set up their laptops while the last speaker is finishing. Annoyingly, many laptops won’t go into driving the projector until they are physically connected to it. The best system allows them to connect to a second projector (thus speakers alternate back and forth) or an expensive projector switch. It’s amazing how much time is wasted setting up A/V at even the most expensive conferences. This is another reason to have forced Q&A — the next speaker can be setting up with the projector during the Q&A.

Encourage rehearsal

Sure, it’s an ad-hoc conference. But strongly suggest that speakers do an audio recording of their talk into an mp3 file, and listen to it. First of all, it will improve the talk. Second of all, they will see the length of the mp3. Remind them that in the real talk they will take longer due to A/V snafus, and questions.

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