Last week, PLOS hosted an Open Knowledge Foundation Meetup at our San Francisco office.
Despite some technical difficulties (more on this below), the house was packed, our lightning talk speakers gave a great showing, and group discussions carried on, engulfing participants into the evening.
So what happened behind the scenes? What did it take to hold a good event?
A handful of us on PLOS staff previously coordinated a few hackathons and a salon event on Open Access movement-building. This put us in a great position to organize another event. First-time coordination may take a bit longer, but it also offers the most eye-opening experiences and an opportunity to strengthen your team. Do what works for your community and your needs as organizers of any event–you’re experts at what you do, who you work with, and how to collaborate. Focus on the outcomes you’d like to see from the event, translate these into goals, isolate tasks to accomplish those goals, and divvy accordingly to complete them in time.
All institutions have bureaucracy–and it’s a good thing! Formal processes can help ensure there are pathways to get things done, while various needs are addressed along the way for collective benefit, ultimately storing insight and knowledge for later use as culture and routine. “Bureaucracy hacking” means starting the right conversations, bringing folks on-board, and getting through check-lists of needs and steps to get you to your goal as best (and quickly) as possible: hosting the event.
Many Hands Make for Light Work
Sometimes it is difficult to incorporate lots of folks into a process. However, with a little bit of elbow grease, it can be quite easy and rewarding. Reaching out to the whole office brought in co-organizers with different skills (great to have on-hand), new staffers with fresh perspectives, and a few lurkers with a bit too much on their plate to get involved (but good to have their eyes and ears around for feedback). We held a brief kick-off meeting, reviewed the opportunity of hosting the event, shared our thoughts about the potential costs and benefits, and came to consensus on a plan to move forward–including precise action items and corresponding owners for each item.
Justifying the wide-invitation to participate, a new staffer, Angela Melkisethian, brought a great boon to the effort. Aware of the various moving parts (i.e. a few of us were charged with seeking speakers), Angela reached out to science journalist Annalee Newitz of io9 after attending a book signing event–and Annalee accepted. This expanded our view of available speakers and helped our group increase its capacity to communicate and coordinate. A few emails and we had another lightning talk set.
Accountability and Progress
With our explicit list of To-Dos, it wasn’t hard to send quick reminders, ask for follow-up or help on individual items, and keep everyone abreast of overall progress. We met a second time as the event approached, and tackled new needs like sensitively finalizing the agenda (addressing the trade-off between listening to speakers and holding discussion), ensuring good estimates for food and beverages, marketing through social media, and inviting guests personally who would likely be interested in the topic area. A major factor that took the edge off marketing was hosting a meetup of an already-bustling group in the bay area–the Open Knowledge Foundation community. Demand was (and remains) high for these sorts of gatherings!
The Main Event
On event day, we were all set. There were a few final items to wrap-up: checking in about previous tasks, especially logistically weighty components like food and beverages (quantities and scheduling). Given our early planning and good collaboration, things were in working order. Everyone who was available to set up gathered to move furniture before the event began, reconfiguring the space to suit our needs.
Nothing is Perfect
At PLOS’s SF office, we have a large conference room with a glass wall facing a reception area. For staff meetings, some sit inside the room and we line up chairs outside to watch presentations through the glass. For a simple audio solution, we phone in to the room’s telephone and use a speakerphone to hear.
It’s not perfect, but sufficient for a presentation’s purposes. Unfortunately, we set the room up with a regular telephone instead of swapping out for a proper speakerphone.
Lesson 1: Always test your A/V equipment, a dry run will go a long way.
Lesson 2: A/V and IT needs are sometimes taken for granted, it’s always better to have at least one volunteer on-hand, ready to troubleshoot problems as the show goes on.
Rolling with the Punches
When it came time to bring everyone together, start the talks, and get on with the evening, the audio constraint presented itself visibly but quietly (through glass). After a bit of trial and error, we made do with a few scratchy announcements with the phone, then opened doors to let some sound out. Ultimately, an audience member suggested we have the speakers stand in one of the door ways, straddling both crowds, permitting audible presentations with sufficient visibility–and it worked quite well (as you can see in the photo below)!
Overall, the event was a tremendous success, the likes of which we hope to see again at PLOS, at new places with new hosts in the bay area, and in Open Knowledge communities elsewhere. Mishaps, mistakes, and snafus are inevitable, but more importantly they are an opportunity to connect with participants, to win them over in a moment when the wall—between presenter/viewer, organizer/attendee—becomes both clear and reflective, like glass.