Recipe for a Good Event

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?



Mackenzie Smith, UC Davis University Librarian. Photo courtesy of Sameer Verma.

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.

Bureaucracy Hacking

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.


Image courtesy of Lindsay Kelley.

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.

Martin Fenner presenting on "Markdown for Science". Photo Courtesy of Dario Taraborelli.

Martin Fenner presenting on “Markdown for Science”. Photo Courtesy of Dario Taraborelli.


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4 Responses to Recipe for a Good Event

  1. Martin Fenner says:

    Matt, thanks for the writeup, and for featuring me in the picture :). From my experience organizing events I would like to add two things: a) good WiFi is very important and b) make sure that you as an organizer have time to take part in the meeting and don’t spend all your time running around organizing.

    • Matt Senate says:

      Totally agree, (a) is yet another aspect of information technology we take for granted and is worth stress-testing. Also, I strongly believe co-organizing promotes (b) through sharing responsibility, taking turns, and hopefully having enough eyes overall where unknown issues are few or zero, and capacity to handle various circumstances is greater. Further, good design work for the event makes a difference, such as scheduling time for free-form discussion or using multiple facilitators / MCs throughout to leave breathing room for individuals.

  2. I’d like to suggest additional ingredients to this excellent event recipe, especially for people eating online with remote or asynchronous diets :) Like many events in the Bay Area, this one enjoyed attendees from other places and at other times.

    First, thank you for this post! I added a link to it from OKF America’s group-authored post documenting the event, at

    You mentioned several ingredients relevant to making it work online; a few more we found useful:

    (1) Hooking up on Twitter: Connect with supporting organizations like ours in advance, so the channel is open when you need it. To get organizers on the same page, a direct message back channel is sometimes better than open @ messages, and more convenient than email or a phone call. Taking a quick count, I see more than 30 direct messages to and from PLOS staff Twitter accounts and our shared account @OKFNUS that are related to this event. DMs were useful before, during, and after. Most of them are about getting details right before sharing them publicly, or asking each other for specific help that we would not expect anyone else to provide. Following each other also facilitates the obvious — public resharing and interacting, which we did plenty of around this event.

    (2) The right hashtag: Openly tweeting about which hashtag should be used can lead to misunderstanding, broken semantics, fractured conversation. Direct messages came in handy to establish the right hashtag. Before the event, OKF America informed PLOS organizers of the hashtag that had been used at an earlier 2013 OKF event at Wikimedia — #okfSF. Consistency between events combines with Twitter’s recently improved search caching for a better archive, in this case at This also improves analysis of reach and engagement for organizers like us.

    (3) Blogging: We started a blog post, weeks before the event. With that, we could share more freely than in the Meetup thread, e.g. by embedding media and we could pre-write some of the event documentation. Via Twitter and email, we shared access to the blog so that post could be co-authored. Edits from a handful of people during the event improved the post greatly, making it possible for me to publish a final-enough version just a few minutes after. We also, of course, have edited it a few times since :)

    (4) Open notes: We created and hosted an Etherpad at before the event. It was most useful during the event as a quicker, more open space than the blog, more editable and focused than Twitter. Both remote and in-person attendees used it, and it was also used a bit for live chatting. An additional advantage of having OKF America involved was starting the notes with conventions in naming and structure from other OKF events.

    For this event, that was most of what OKF America added. There are more ingredients we can add to other event recipes, in large part by raiding the cupboards of our parent organization, the Open Knowledge Foundation:

    (5) promotional support. This is sort of a mashup of the above but could also include use of our email listservs, or promotion from OKF and its other people and projects.

    (6) topic and speaker suggestions and connections

    (7) if there will be hacking, open code like CKAN, PyBossa, and others

    (8) educational materials, like the Data Journalism Handbook and experiences, like the School of Data or

    I should note that Open Knowledge is not only data and code, science and technology, and so OKF have many projects that are not really scientific or technical. These include the Public Domain Review and OpenGLAM, and those are also open to contributions and make for great events.

    Our US chapter and meetups have been gathering steam for only about half a year, but OKF’s US connections run much deeper. My own experience goes back about five years, and includes being an advisor to and member of its Open Science Working Group per my role with the Open Science Federation. Other Americans have been involved even longer, so with OKF’s support we can bring a lot to the table.

    • Matt Senate says:

      Thanks for the notes, Brian! These are excellent additions. Glad you shared the remote experience and highlighted the value in synchronous and asynchronous connection. A large benefit to these types of happenings are getting to work with a myriad of folks offering support, connecting people, sending invites, tuning in, participating, catching up after, and re-using resources later. This is emblematic of the many ways we can celebrate and strengthen our interdependence in this social movement. I look forward to much more activity, and many more people getting involved.

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