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This Lockdown DOES Feel Different

How To Facilitate A Barcamp/Unconference

I have been privileged to help create a number of successful barcamps (Wikipedia) alongside an ever growing number of committee members here in Wellington over the past few years both public and internally at client sites. I've also attended others around the country which have been mostly awesome but sometimes missing a certain "something".

During this time I've managed to crystalise what I believe helps create and facilitate (NOT "run) a successful barcamp - here it is, by all means share it around.

Oh, one more thing - barcamps are traditionally held within the realm of the geeks but there's NOTHING about a barcamp that limits it to such an industry and, much like you can hold a traditional conference on any subject under the sun, so you can with a barcamp.

Flickr: SFD Wellington 2008
What do you need for a barcamp?
I've always said you only need the following to get have a barcamp
  1. A venue
  2. A date
  3. A logo
  4. People
On reflection I should also add, "a need" - dur.

The date/venue and people are obvious, I trust.
The "need" is also fairly self evident but be aware of trying to tie it down too much. The whole point of a barcamp is to facilitate conversations and if the scope of "allowable topics" is too fixed it can lead to a stifled experience and issues of control and rule setting.

As for the logo it instantly gives everyone else something to hang off with the next part ...

Flickr: SFD Wellington 2008
How to get it going
Ok, so you think you want to get a barcamp going, you only need 5 things for it to happen ... now what, how do you get it kicked off and organised. You require:
  1. Conversation
  2. A meeting point (normally online)
  3. Some people to sort out the logistics
As a barcamp is all about conversation it must start with exactly that.
Start talking about it, ask people if they'd be interested in it, let people know you're just thinking about it and get them to talk about it with others. It can sometimes be the hardest part but once you've done it you're at least 50% on the way.

Once you've spoken to your immediate circle of peers/colleagues you'll need to expand the conversation out and allow the conversations to happen without you. For this you'll need a central meeting point and, due to the nature of my business, this has traditionally been one of the following online spaces but if you have a geographically restricted audience (ie, a head office building) then it can easily be the kitchen, a meeting room ...
My advice - choose one and stick with it. Don't try and have the conversation occur in many places, even limit your use of Twitter at the beginning :-)

So there you all are, talking about the barcamp, that's right THE barcamp as you really should steer away from the phrase "YOUR barcamp" (and never "my barcamp"). THE barcamp because it is for the participants to own, love and cherish. If there is too much of a dominating voice in the conversation it can lead to a one-sided conversation, and who wants that?

What are you talking about though - the following ...

Flickr: Rego table.
What people "should" talk about
People normally cluster around the following conversations. Of course these are only clusters, the conversation should be about anything that helps everyone have a great experience at the barcamp:
  • Who's going
  • Potential topics
  • Hastags (make 'em short and easy, please!)
  • Logo
  • T-Shirts (yes, no or alternative)
  • Sponsorship
  • Organising committee
  • Helping with the logistics of the day
  • Supporting resources - links, info people want to share etc
  • How many people can the venue take and what to do when you reach that number
  • Publicity, if required
  • ...
Whilst it's best to have the conversation in one place so that everyone can follow along you can use all manner of tools to direct people to the conversation - Twitter (get a barcamp specific account and share the password), blogs, other related barcamp ... this is where the logo really helps tie it all together.

Some other thoughts.
Potential topics: make sure everyone knows that anything proposed is a "potential" and not a guarantee of a slot as the barcamp schedule is (as we all know) generated by all those present at the barcamp kick off. The list of potential topics can give people a flavour of what the barcamp could look like on the day and help others join in or frame their participation.

Sponsorship and committee I'll tackle later on.

Who's Going - the key is to get people to (easily) edit a page allowing them to add themselves to a "I'm coming" list. You can ask people to add a little more info as well, maybe a link to more about them, their Twitter name, required T-shirt size - best way to do this is to seed it with a few people such as YOU!

Flickr: SFD Wellington 2008
Who is the "organising committee"?
How does this committee come about?
From everyone/anyone that can contribute - normally people who are already coming to the barcamp but that's not a golden rule. Remember as well that not everyone has to be helping with every aspect of the organisation; you may decide you can help with the logo and that's all or that you really can only pass on the word somehow - perfect! If everyone contributes one little bit the barcamp will be swimmingly successful as it is owned more and more by the participants.

Committees that include someone passionate about the barcamp theme, someone crazy about community and someone ensuring the details are covered seem to work really well.

Flickr: Agile Barcamp - Wellington, NZ (Aotearoa) 022
What needs to be there before everyone arrives?
This is where all those fine volunteers on the "organising committee" come into their own - on the day you will need to have arranged the following:
  • Named rooms with plenty of chairs (don't worry, you will get the configuration wrong but they'll work it out on the day)
  • Marker pens
  • Large sheets of paper
  • Schedule slots ready to be filled in
  • Whiteboards
  • Yellow stickies
  • BluTac
  • Recycling & rubbish bins
If you have those you are totally ready!
You might also want to think about these "nice to haves":
  • Registration
  • Food
  • WiFi
  • Sponsor acknowledgements (logos on doors is normal)
  • Enough power sockets
  • Datashows for those with laptop presentations (if you must ;-)
  • After match drinks
Some people like registering, getting a name tag etc and some people don't see the need - check with those signed up what people want.

Food is always an interesting one to which I say, if you've got enough sponsorship don't hold back! Whilst this is a community lead conference it should still provide all the comforts and amenities of a paid for/traditional conference and every barcamp I have attended has surpassed my expectation. Don't be daunted by it; ask around to see who has experience in catering or knows someone who knows someone.

Flickr: Agile Barcamp - Wellington, NZ (Aotearoa) 021
Sponsorship - is it really free?
No, nothing in life is free and someone somewhere is paying for this event.
After admitting that you'd like to run a barcamp getting someone to stump up sponsorship can usually be the next hardest task. But, do not despair as we've already made it easy by ensuring that everyone and anyone can be on the committee and by limiting what you need.

Firstly, get the venue as sponsorship - maybe your workplace can be opened on the weekend, you know of a public space not used during certain times (schools, libraries etc). Approach businesses and government agencies that shut during weekends and ask if they sponsor the event by providing the venue. Of course having someone on the committee who works for such an organisation can make this fly.

Once you've sorted out the venue sponsorship create a budget - what's the maximum number of people it can hold and you can quickly get a price for lunch.

Then it's all hands to the deck and everyone to find sponsors.
Traditionally barcamp sponsorship has been limited to $250 per organisation which may mean you need to get a lot of sponsors but you're not calling on large amounts. I am, though, of the opinion this is a minimum and anyone that gives more is thanked appropriately once the money falls into the (newly created for the barcamp) bank account but receives no more or less thanks/presence on the day.

Start early and start with those organisations you know will have people coming along. With every request for sponsorship be professional - explain to the sponsors what a barcamp is; what this barcamp is about and what the benefits for their organisation will be.

Do not be embarrassed to ask for help outside the committee as any barcamp can only happen if everyone pulls together and chips in somehow, maybe writing a cheque for $250 will assuage the guilt of not doing anything else - all good.

Flickr: NZ Govt Open Data Barcamp
Bookending the day - kick-off and wrap-up
Even if your participants are old hands at barcamps please make sure someone stands on a chair, gets everyone's attention and does the following:
  • Welcome everyone
  • Covers the venue housekeeping - toilets, fire alarms/exits
  • Outlines the start, lunch and end times
  • Reminds everyone that a barcamp is about participation
    • vote with your feet (Kiwis hate this ;-)
    • get the most by joining in
    • do not be a lone voice, particularly the session convener
  • Reassure session conveners to not take it personally if no-one attends your session, get up and join in with another
  • That we are all to stick to the timetable - be respectful of those waiting for the next session
  • Remind people that the timetable is likely to change during the day, keep checking back
  • Points out the official barcamp hashtags
  • Explain how to create the schedule
    • Paper with session times on wall
    • Yellow stickies and pens for all
    • Put topic on paper (title, your name, brief description)
    • OK to move other sessions around
    • OK to join two sessions together if similar topics - ask conveners
There is also a great tradition within barcamps of everyone introducing themselves at this welcome session with their name and three words. Your call but I would suggest that if you skip this because of attendee numbers or timing then you replace this "ice breaker" / "I want to know you because of your three words" exercise using another means - three words on name tags can help.

And then let everyone get on with creating their barcamp schedule.

I've noticed that there is always a lag as everyone mills around asking themselves, "Am I really allowed to put up my topic?", "Can I truly move Joe's to a later slot?", "What will everyone else talk about? I'll wait and see.", "What if no-one comes, god that'll be so embarrassing". If no-one is moving put up a topic of your own and buddy up with someone who looks close or you know has already indicated they have a "potential topic" - once one or two do it the rest will follow. Of course this might just be reported Kiwi reticence and in the States it's a mad rush of egos to get the prime slots, who knows :-)

And then can come the hardest part for the long standing committee members ... let go!
The barcamp is now on its way and no longer needs anymore input from you. Sit back and relax, congratulate yourselves for kicking it off ... and then rush off to your first session and the rest of the conference.

How formal you want to make wrap-ups are entirely up to you and your community.
Don't forget that it will have been (hopefully) a long and productive day and most people will be thinking, "Man, I am bushed. My brain is so full!" Any wrap-up should be future focussed and quick.

Also, thank everyone for coming, re-thank the sponsors and ask that everyone does one little bit to help clean the venue (if required). Also remember that the people who started the day may not be those that end the day as people will be coming and going - expect around a 15-20% churn so if there's anyone particular you want to thank check in the morning if they will be around at the end.

In my experience there has always been an after match function in a nearby pub to which about 40-50% of the attendees come along to. And no, this isn't the reason it's called a bar-camp ;-)

Flickr: What does Government 2.0 look like?

Further resources
There are a number of excellent places to gain from others experience of running barcamps, check out the following:

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