Unconferences, unplugged and uncut

Have you ever been to one of those conferences where you spend a lot of money, sit in the audience, listen to ‘keynote speakers’ and wonder ‘what am I doing here, why did I ever think this was a good idea?’

If so, an unconference might be what you need without realising it.

So what is an unconference? Well to misquote ‘I am sorry I haven’t a clue’ its the antidote to conferences.

I am speaking (well writing) as one of the organisers of a large unconference Govcamp on 25 January which brought together 200 public sector digital people at the GLA. Here is a nice review of the event in Government Computing.

If you check your diary you will realise that 25 January was a Saturday. So the first point about unconferences is that they often take place at the weekend, though not always. It just tends to be easier to organise and helps people feel relaxed.

Why a Saturday? This is because attendees often are there because of a personal commitment to a topic not because someone told them to attend. Indeed the topic might not be directly related to their day job.

So who organises unconferences? Well not the typical conference organisors such a Kable who run them to make money. No, usually the organisors are very similar to the attendees, volunteers who want to draw together similarly interested parties to talk about common issues.

So for Govcamp the organisors met after work once a week to agree what to do next. Using the online project management software Basecamp also helped.

Who speaks at a unconference? Here is the wierd bit, potentially everyone who attends can speak but not in the traditional way. There are no invited speakers.

What happens is that at the start of the event everyone introduces themselves very briefly to the rest of the group. There then follows a pitching process. Anyone who feels inclines joins a queue at the front of the room to pitch a slot. For example someone might say ‘I would like to run a session on website user experience’. There is a quick show of hands from the audience to gauge interest and the size of the room needed.

After say 30 minutes all the pitches have been done and the various slots allocated to the available rooms – usually by sticking post-its on a big board. There can be a bit of negotiation between people if they want to join up a topic.

Then the sessions start. Everyone looks at the board and decides which session they would like to attend and goes to the respective rooms. There can be just as many people in a session who will be running a session later on as people who might not be. So on Saturday we had roughly 40 sessions.

The trick now is that once you are in a session there is no compulsion to stay if you get a bit bored or think that’s not what I expected, or I had better look into that other session that clashed but seemed relevant. Its the ‘rule of two feet’. You are free to circulate and those running the sessions expect people to drop in or out.

Perhaps this sounds like organised chaos? Not really and that’s what the organisers help co-ordinate.

So what is the result?

Well if you have a topic that you have worked on recently that you would like to share with other interested people you get a chance. If you have a range of interests you get a chance to learn a bit about something purely for you own needs. Equally as there are very rarely slides used there is a real conversation and exchange of ideas and views.

Typically there are as many conversations in the corridors and around coffee as in the sessions themselves. Many new friends are made and plans made for the future. Also Govcamp tends to pull together people who are parts of other specialist networks so its forms a glue to hold together the digital community in government (central and local).

Does this still sound odd?

I was very suspicious the first time I attended an unconference but I am a convert. Govcamp on Saturday was the seventh year in a row and has had massive positive feedback online since and there are clearly lots of new ideas being followed up. We are already working on next year’s event.

If you want to do something different why not try an unconference you might actually like it.

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