Sunday, August 19, 2007

Organizing BarCampBlock

Here's a few notes on my experience with planning BarCampBlock.

A few weeks beforehand we expected around 100-300 people. We had emails from around 5 different office locations in Palo Alto letting us know we could use the space. We could not block off the street because the permit process from the city was expensive, time consuming (requiring months of work and meetings). Also, some of us felt that blocking off the street was unnecessary or would not help us have more room for speakers and sessions. Two weeks before the event we started kicking into high gear. Chris was designing the gear for the event and ordering it, Tara was working to do the maps and signage and registration info packets, I was going physically to all our locations to talk with the BarCamp hosts about what the event would be like and what we would require. Ross, Chris, and Tara did the fundraising. Chris was extremely good at knowing everyone and knowing who to ask for what. Tara Anderson did a considerable amount of the shopping and equipment rental. Ross spread publicity far and wide and used his personal mojo to get people excited about the event. For promotion, I put the event on Facebook, Upcoming, and of course we all contributed to the wiki. But it was Ross, Chris, and Tara who had the social capital to pull a lot of people to the event, and then once a few Internet Famous people like Mike Arrington and Robert Scoble signed up on the wiki and blogged about it, we knew a ton of people would come. (Though I did promotion and outreach, my own social pull runs to more like 50 people, not in the hundreds; this was interesting to think about.) I also had a private wiki page with phone numbers and contact information for everyone involved with the planning; a large amount of people since we had increasing amounts of locations and volunteers. Gathering that information was a lot of work. Mostly, I thought ahead to what would be required to make a comfortable, useable, useful space for participants. And I thought about who would need to know what information to make that happen.

About this sort of logistics. As a military history buff I would say that it is a bit like being a general. You can look at a map, but nothing substitutes for going to a location, looking around, and envisioning crowds. What will they need? How will the landscape change with extra people in it? People need a constant supply of food and drink, and they generate a constant stream of rubbish. They need seats, surfaces, light, and shade. They need small private spaces and large gathering spaces. They need bathrooms and a lot of toilet paper. They need information; thus they need maps, signs, fliers, arrows and other geographical orientation tools. Though BarCamp and other unconferences and temporary implementations of anarchy are about the distribution of authority, people need to know who to go to for information or help. In a role playing game for example (another collaborative activity that is oddly relevant here) I am great at worldbuilding, at creating a feeling of solidity. For any discussion (as with a classroom) we need whiteboards or paper up on the walls, and projectors are nice; blank paper scattered about was also useful. Just as Sam Gamgee mutters constantly in Lord of the Rings about the usefulness of rope, I mutter about tape. Duct tape! Blue painters' tape! Clear packing tape on giant rolls with metal teeth! It is great to have all kind of tape and just salt every space with it; I also carried several kinds of tape around with me in my backpack. With giant post-its, tape, and several kinds of marker, I was able to change the lay of the land when that was needed, with a minimum of fuss.

I loved how smoothly registration went, and the unloading of all the materials at the last minute. I also loved the wireless team, the guys from Meraki and Etheric and Griffon Walker who does IT and network for Socialtext, and Cliff who totally rocked but whose last name I did not know. So many people pitched in to help, and they worked incredibly hard. I really do love that feeling, which I often had at the big housing co-op I lived at for years. Burning Man has spread that idea very well among my generation. For me it comes from being a commune-loving freak at heart. I enjoy reading socialist poetry about the beauty of wheelbarrows, and I like to do hard satisfying work while other people are also working.

What did we do well?

- We provided good space and structure.
- We distributed power, authority, and responsibility.
- We didn't micromanage or overstructure. There was a large amount of freedom and unstructured space and time.
- We encouraged people to have good habits of thinking for themselves and finding things out and stepping up to be active participants.
- We reached out to many people to invite them to the event.
- We brought many people into doing the work; volunteers!
- We listened to people, what they needed and wanted, and their priorities.
- We raised a large amount of money at the last minute; thanks, sponsors!
- We connected many creative, intelligent people who might not otherwise have gone to a tech conference and spoken to each other.

Volunteers on Saturday were incredible. I particularly want to thank Sarah Dopp and Hilary who works out of Citizen Space. Sarah is someone I knew I could rely on to do anything; given a sketchy description of a situation and a possible solution and pointers to tools, she takes charge, thinks through details, and gets everything done. Hilary headed up quite a lot of moving trash around; early in the day I pointed out we could put boxes of trash bags next to each trash can, and asked her to rope people into doing trash patrol every couple of hours, and to pass off that job to someone else once she got sick of it; it happened throughout the day like magic. Adina Levin and many more people asked what needed to be done and then just pitched in and did a ton of work. I appreciated their intelligence and hard work.

I was happy about a moment where there was a problem; we had mistakenly put the Searchspark conference rooms - three of them - onto the schedule in the afternoon, when their space needed to close at 2pm. But luckily, the Echosign and Riviera spaces were almost completely empty for the afternoon. So I sent people to put up signs at Searchspark, and told everyone around me to look at the names on that block of time for the schedule and find the people involved and tell them if possible; and then I moved the sticky notes from one block of space to the other and crossed out the original time slots. I made sure that sessions in rooms with projectors went into new rooms that had projectors. As far as I know, this caused only minor confusion and hassle, and the sessions went smoothly.

The inclusion of children. We might have more kids today; it was just 2 or 3 on Saturday. I like for children at a conference to be around and visible, not stashed away somewhere remote. It worked well to have a room full of unstructured creative toys & comic books. With more kids, we would need to pull in more volunteers and have a schedule. I think this is quite doable. Infants and toddlers are much more difficult and would need more space for there to be noise.

The vibe. The vibe was good. It was mellow and friendly and not snooty or cliquey. It wasn't frantic. Instead I felt people were relaxed and curious, thinking and talking. That made me really happy!

Flexibility and adaptability were our main virtues as organizers. I think to situations I have been in, and events I've headed up. I can say that Chris and Tara are people I like to have at my back. They have lots of practical common sense as well as vision, and they work very hard when push comes to shove, which I respect a lot.

What could we have improved on?

- Less party focus. I was not in agreement about the usefulness and value of the Blue Chalk space for sessions and DemoCamp, and was dubious of the need for the party. During planning phase, I was a bit of a party pooper. I fought to make sure the main BarCamp rooms remained focused on talks and discussions sessions, not on social space and beer. On the other hand, serving beer outside in the courtyard would bring us into various difficulties I did not want to deal with. I would prefer for BarCamps to be BYOB. Big parties in a nightclub are so 1999 dot com boom. And, most geeks of the BarCamp type would prefer to sit around talking, with laptops at the ready, rather than being at a loud party with music. (See what I mean about my being a wet blanket for parties!) Ross likes a party, and Tara Anderson likes to organize a party, so we clashed somewhat on this.

- More advance planning. If we had done more logistic work and ordering of the schwag a few weeks before, it would have been cheaper. On the other hand, if we'd done it all a few weeks before, we would only have ordered 200 of everything rather than 500-100 of everything. So, our leaving things to the last minute may in this case have helped.

- Earlier setup. Since it is a somewhat nomadic conference and has to spring suddenly out of nowhere and disappear again, it has to happen fast. But, I would have liked to have more physical prep, and equipment and supplies, on the ground in our HQ, a few days earlier. Even one extra day of prep would have been good -- I can't physically pull an all-nighter, so have to plan work in advance; I think many people were up till 3am on Friday night doing the prep work. Yet even with out that advance time for setup, everything still got set up on time! And the event went smoothly on Saturday.

- Nailing down the details on the "camp" part of the evening. We didn't organize this, and we didn't know who, if anyone, was planning to sleep over in the Socialtext offices. A day or two before the event, I realized this, and tried to get a person to commit to stay and keep the office open at least late if not all night. But that person did not materialize; in retrospect I should have put out this call on the wiki as soon as I knew it might be a problem. Since I went home early, and did not hand off my office key, I don't know what happened in the evening!

- Trash logistics. I worry that we did not do recycling very well, and that we could have done trash and recycling more responsibly, planning to haul it and dispose of it rather than filling up the dumpster space for our community, and possibly inconveniencing our neighbors.

- More advance notice to neighbors. I did flyers and email through the property management company and condo association for the residential neighbors on our block. But I thought of this and did it last minute (when it became clear we had a 1000 person event not a 100 person event.)

For all the people I promised to have a Real Talk with later, please take me up on it. Email me or call me next week, and let's have lunch or coffee or you could come by the co-working Palo Alto office and we'll conspire.

Thank you to everyone who came to BarCampBlock. YOU ROCK!!!!

A next-to-last note. I had no problem handling this event from a wheelchair (and often, with some responsibility for one or more children). At this conference, less people bothered to ask me about my wheelchair or about disability issues. (Hard core geeks: "What? your mere physical shell has a minor modification? Why would I even notice, let alone comment on it?") Mostly, people had good wheelchair manners, and did not bump into me excessively or do the more obnoxious things like ask me if I'm dying or degenerating, or start pushing my chair around or leaning on it; thanks, geeks.

Also, a final note. Clean up your trash! 8-)

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Unknown said...

Sounds like you are having fun... But for those far away - why no streaming today (Sat)?

Anonymous said...

It was a GREAT event. Well organized. I enjoyed every moment and it was an awesome learning experience.
One more item on the better next time list:

1. find a more easy way to publish and put the dynamic agenda so you dont have to come back to the "big wall" to find out where to go next session. If we had a website someone updated (since everyone had wifi) with the latest agenda, that would be ideal.

Liz said...

Hi Ehud! I did not try to coordinate streaming - Chris Messina might have, or someone else who signed up on the wiki to be on that team. So I'd guess that no one stepped up to take responsibility for doing video. It would have been great, and I think some videos will show up over the next few days from participants. check back on the wiki, , for links to them. Anyone who's got a video of a session up somehwere, please put a link to it on that wiki!

Mukund: Thanks so much! I'm really glad you had a good time and thanks for participating.

About the dynamic agenda: I agree with you. Here are some ideas:

- low tech way, labor intensive in the moment: assign someone to check the chart every hour and update future events on a wiki chart.

- medium tech way: assign someone to photograph the chart a couple of times an hour and upload it to a pre-designated public place. a laptop/camera station would be positioned conveniently for this photo.

- dream way: Whiteboards should have built in sensors and upload their junk to special web publishing platforms. If you make a grid on this whiteboard with marker, the web app senses that, and makes a table or a grid on the web page. Now wouldn't it be neat if it were 2-way and a wiki and you could edit the wiki page, and the "whiteboard" were a wall sized screen...

I think the photo station positioned near the schedule, with a sign on that station inviting people to take a photo and send it to the web, would be ideal. It could also be set to be automatic, but I think inviting participation would be more fun.

Anonymous said...


These are AWESOME notes...and I agree on every one of your 'what we did right'/'what we did wrong' points. I, too, wasn't crazy about the party idea and it proved to be something most BarCampers cared less about, too (we were BEGGING people to take drink tickets).

I would like more emphasis on the kids stuff as well. I had my 14 year old there, who isn't a 'kid', but may open up to giving a session on his love of scripting in WoW if he actually had others his age to give it to.

You put so much hard work into this and really picked up the slack where we would drop balls. You rock.

Anonymous said...

Oh...and streaming happened here (some captured):


Unknown said...

Hey Liz, re: wheelchair...I didn't know what happened and was sort of intimidated to ask. Like, if I was in a wheelchair, I'd probably get sick of being asked "What happened?" all the time. So that's why I didn't ask you. Probably not the right way to handle what is the right way to handle it, in your opinion?


Anonymous said...

"Sarah is someone I knew I could rely on to do anything; given a sketchy description of a situation and a possible solution and pointers to tools, she takes charge, thinks through details, and gets everything done."

Liz, you flatter me!

And BarCampBlock was AWESOME, primarily because you were so busy making it KICK ASS!