It’s time for Conference 2.0

Conference 2.0 – A scheduled meeting of people sharing a common interest that takes advantage of Web 2.01 concepts.

Scientific conferences are essential both for the exchange of ideas and for networking. But they don't have to be organized the same way as 10-20 years ago. Web 2.0 tools now allow much broader user participation before, during and after the conference. Technology conferences have seen this change already2. We also already have open source software to organize conferences3. I've collected a few of those ideas and concepts below.

1. Keep the conference small
Active user participation works better in smaller conferences, e.g. not more than maybe 150 participants (derived from Dunbar's number4 introduced by Duncan Hull). This will exclude large or very large conferences – the largest scientific conferences today have more than 10.000 participants. But those larger conferences can still adopt some of the principles discussed below.

2. Allow for user input to the conference program
Even though most scientific conferences ask for abstract submissions well before the conference, the conference schedule is ultimately decided my a small program committee. But conference organizers could well ask for user input about session topics. In the BarCamp or unconference format, the conference program is even decided on the first day of the conference5.

3. Provide free WiFi
This is essential for liveblogging about the conference. And free WiFi in combination with a good conference website with detailed schedule, message boards and practical information would greatly reduce the amount of printed material that needs to be handed out at the conference.

Flickr photo by anikarenina

4. Set aside time for networking
There should be enough time (and space) between sessions to talk to the other conference participants. After all, this is one main reason for many people to attend a conference. And the conference organizers can facilitate networking in other ways. Poster sessions (see below) are one way, a very short introduction by every participant (either in person or on the conference website) is another idea.

5. Pay attention to poster sessions and discussions
Conferences can have other session formats than oral presentations. Poster sessions are an often neglected part of many conferences. But they are a great tool for networking, especially with younger scientists. The conference organizers should set aside enough time and avoid parallel oral sessions. Providing drinks and food also helps. Round-table discussions are another underused format with a lot of potential.

6. Encourage blogging
There should be a clear policy regarding blogging stated at the conference website. And this policy should make it easy for conference participants to blog. This means no preregistration and no required affiliation with a news service or journal. Conference organizers should provide a tag for the conference so that blog entries can be tracked.

Blogging about the conference is encouraged by the conference organizers. Please use the tag conferencename for all your blog posts. Please don't blog about sessions marked non_public in the conference program. They contain information that should not become become public at this time, e.g. because they discuss unpublished results. For further questions regarding blogging at the conference, please contact …_

There are many different ways to blog about a conference, microblogging via FriendFeed is currently a very popular option6.

7. Produce podcasts
Podcasts with audio and video of the slides are a great way to capture oral sessions at a conference. They are espcially valuable for those unable to attend. This week's Science in the 21st Century conference is a good example of how this can be done7.

8. Organize parallel local conferences
The costs and annoyances of travelling, combined with concerns about the carbon footprint8 have led to new concepts. Instead of following the conference from the distance via livestreaming or liveblogging, why not organize several parallel local conferences9? The Singularity web conference next month is using this concept10. Will the next science blogging conference happen in parallel in several locations?

fn1. What is Web 2.0

fn2. Welcome to Conference 2.0

fn3. Open Conference Systems

fn4. Dunbar's number

fn5. In which I am utterly Fooed

fn6. Micro-Blogging Conference Talks

fn7. Perimeter Institute Recorded Seminar Archive

fn8. Carbon Footprint

fn9. Building Conference 2.0

fn10. Head – the global web conference

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12 Responses to It’s time for Conference 2.0

  1. Massimo Pinto says:

    Terrific summary, Martin.
    I think there is a potential trouble with sister, small conferences running at the same time (your point #8). This way, networking is much harder (or not possible) across the sites of the conference. And after all, you made it very clear above how important is time for networking.
    After a positive experience at _Science Blogging 2008_, I am going to suggest (next weekend in Boston) that they adopt, albeit for a minimum fraction of the program, unconference formats in the 2009 meeting of the “Radiation Research Society”:http://www.radres.org.
    I am looking forward to seeing the expression on the faces of my fellow program committee members:
    _Is this guy mad?_
    But I think it would work well. So I am going for it.

  2. Martin Fenner says:

    Massimo, you are right about #8. But I was thinking more about those that would otherwise not attend the conference and follow via FriendFeed, etc.
    _I am looking forward to seeing the expression on the faces of my fellow program committee members_
    Allowing more user participation is scary for many people. They still prefer the oral presentation format, preferably from someone already very established in the field.

  3. Corie Lok says:

    Great post Martin. We at NN have been talking about how our conference went and what we could do to make it better. Part of our discussion centered on your point #2 (allow for input on programme).
    Some of the feedback we got from attendees was that there could have been greater diversity in the speakers (in the country or field they come from, their level of blogging activity, their attitude towards blogging, tetc). Part of that could have been due to the fact that the people who ended up speaking were the ones who suggested sessions ideas here, so they were a self-selecting, Internet and blog-loving bunch.
    So do you have any suggestions for how to balance allowing for user input with the need to make sure the roster of speakers is diverse and balanced?

  4. Hilary Spencer says:

    A couple of other suggestions:
    * Allow users to upload brief bios or profiles prior to the conference. This can allow people to brainstorm conversation topics prior to meeting in person. (Plus, if there’s free wi-fi, you can always frantically look someone up while you’re at the conference if you’re at a loss for conversation topics. And yes, I once retreated to the bathroom to frantically look someone up on my iphone…)
    * Make suggestions for pre- or post- conference entertainment / networking opportunities. If people are coming from afar, it’s likely they won’t know restaurants/pubs/etc in the area. Reserving a couple of tables, especially if it’s a small conference, doesn’t hurt and can make the end of an intense conference a bit less jarring.
    Finally, I was thinking that conferences are in some ways very similar to speed dating events. (Ok, and in other ways they’re clearly not ;) But I’m not alone [“1″:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2007_Sept_11/ai_n27370245, “2″:http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/02/business/network.php, “3″:http://radar.oreilly.com/2008/03/seeking-ideas-for-conference-s.html

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    Corie, I think the “Science Blogging London”:http://www.nature.com/natureconferences/sciblog2008/index.html conference did rather well in terms of this Conference 2.0 stuff. This is also true for #2. Having an open discussion of topics people want to “hear”:http://network.nature.com/forums/sciblog2008/1565 or “talk about”:http://network.nature.com/forums/sciblog2008/1566 plus three unconference sessions is much better than your average science conference. Maybe it would help to set up a conference Wiki fairly early, as “ScienceOnline09″:http://www.scienceonline09.com just did for the conference in January.
    Another suggestion would be to use the unconference format for the whole conference (which probably would require to start on Friday evening).
    Hilary, I like your suggestions. Having a list of the registered attendees with links to their blogs was very helpful with Science Blogging London. And we had wonderful “pre-conference”:http://network.nature.com/forums/sciblog2008/1959 entertainment / networking opportunities. Phil Selenko did something very special at the recent Genetics conference in Berlin by setting up “several dinner events”:http://network.nature.com/groups/berlin/notice/2008/07/17/blogs-and-pics-of-the-genetics-conference-and-the-nn-dinner-events. But speed dating is new to me…

  6. Maxine Clarke says:

    Corie, we all forgot about “manners in the blogosphere”, which we promised each other (collectively, on Nature Network) that we would discuss at Sci Blogging. An outstanding issue, I believe (I have seen at least one blog summary of the conference, not on NN, with spiteful comments. To absolutely no end except to show off for being nasty. Puerile. Great advert of blogging for senior scientists NOT.)
    Massimo, well done to you.
    Speed dating, hmmm, probably not for the 151 year olds among us.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hah, you made _Nature_, Martin :)

  8. Heather Etchevers says:

    Excellent set of tips, Martin. I amply agree with Hilary’s suggestions, though the second one is usually covered at the conferences I attend, at least.
    Having a list of the registered attendees with links to their blogs was very helpful with Science Blogging London.
    And in the case of the smallish-sized conferences you recomment, Martin, that should be possible but with lab webpages, for example, or any other linkable information. It’s really quite helpful, because then you can also plot your interactions (I MUST meet so-and-so!) the way larger conferences allow you to plot your concurrent sessions based on the abstracts.
    @Corie, I don’t want you to think that user-determination of the content of the conference the day it occurs is a universal panacea. Two problems I see with it are: bigmouths are more likely to take the floor, with the self-selecting properties you mentioned, and lots of people might prepare a presentation while only few actually get to make them. I quite liked the fact that there were both aspects to SciBlog ’08 – an unplanned, spontaneous aspect, but also making sure we cover a diversity of topics and – this is up to a conference selection committee – a diversity of speakers within the realms of possible.

  9. Maxine Clarke says:

    Interesting point Timo Hannay made last night at the BL “social notworking” evening. One of those “oh how obvious” moments for me – ie something I knew but had not “realized” properly. He said that traditionally publishers are good at “publishing articles”, and in the web 2.0 era are (or some of them are) doing the same think in new formats. However what he thinks publishers are bad at is “linking”, and they (NPG included) should be doing much more of that. (Articles, entities, words, etc.) This is something that in my view publishers really need to think about more – this comment was sparked by this discussion thread here, particularly Heather’s comment immediately above this one.

  10. Maxine Clarke says:

    Richard – trying to spread the word of the usefulness of it all to the great unknowing-of-web2.0 masses ;-)

  11. Martin Fenner says:

    I agree with Heather about the potential problems of user-determined content. And the small dose of unconference sessions at the Science Blogging conference worked very well.
    What I would like to see for Science Blogging 2009 is a poster session (I know it wasn’t possible this time because of spaace constraints). A poster session gives a lot of people the opportunity to present their ideas, and is a great way to network.
    Maxine, it is interesting that publishers have problems with linking. A paper is a perfect object for linking, both through the references and because it has a persistent DOI. And journals care a lot about linking – at least to them, as it increases their impact factor.
    The latest iTunes has a feature called Genius, and last.fm does something similar. Both find songs that are similar to the songs you are listening to. I haven’t seen this feature nicely executed for journal references. Pubmed (“related articles”) is certainly not good in this. Are there good examples for tools that link to related articles in a meaningful way?

  12. Maxine Clarke says:

    Martin = journals are good about linking references (eg pubmed, chemport, Thomson (ex-ISI), Crossref etc. But they are in general I think less good about linking words into dbases. This is technically quite hard to do via the old web 1.0 format most of them are published in, plus the print-first workflows most have. That isn’t to say they aren’t thinking about these things, but it certainly is not easy or cheap to do lots of nice linking things on top of the existing workflows. And you can’t just reinvent a journal workflow from scratch, or at least, not easily and certainly not cheaply.