Hackfests, Open Space Technology, BarCamps, and other self-organising events for science purposes

March 11, 2024 — March 22, 2024

collective knowledge
how do science
information provenance
Figure 1

When I was an undergraduate, there was a brief moment when we thought ordinary conferences were over, about to be supplanted by unconferences, which were more democratic, more participatory, and more fun. The idea was that the participants would set the agenda, and the sessions would be more like conversations than lectures. Instead of pre-committing to dull lectures on some boring stuff which would be obsolete by the time the conference actually occurred, we would, in the future, treat (un)conferences as a chance to work on our current thing together.

Anyway, that moment in history vanished into the memory hole, and from conversations with my colleagues, perhaps that moment was not only localised in time but also in fields of study, because non of my current colleagues have even heard of this moment, or the concept it was about.

Unconferences never took off in academia. I think they were too hard to quantify and turn into performance metrics; whereas publication of a paper in a top-tier conference or journal is a clear indicator of winning academic brownie points. Who cares that conferences are not efficiently designed to maximise the exchange of knowledge and ideas? At least they are unambiguously prestigious. Maybe the need to look respectable killed the idea in academia

Or maybe the idea died because academics have had too many bad experiences with meetings that were supposed to be participatory but were actually just a waste of time, box-ticking exercises or training courses designed to make it look like the institution was doing something, rather than doing something.

Or maybe the idea is terrible.

BUT! I have data that suggest the idea of self-organising conference is not terrible. Datum: I went to Prof Kelly Snook’s session at MTF Labs Stockholm 2018. That was amazing, and inspiring, and in one step persuaded me that these things can be worthwhile, if you commit to the bit and actually get skilled facilitators to run the show. I reckon Kelly is a rare breed; I suspect that few facilitators have a solid STEM background, and few STEM people have invested in the skills to facilitate a session like that.

Some people do run them; Barcamp, rOpenSci… others? How do they get it right?

1 Unconferences

Lazy wikipedia reckons

An unconference is a participant-driven meeting. The term “unconference” has been applied, or self-applied, to a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid hierarchical aspects of a conventional conference, such as sponsored presentations and top-down organization.

2 Open Space technology

Open space technology:

Open space technology (OST) is a method for organizing and running a meeting or multi-day conference, where participants have been invited in order to focus on a specific, important task or purpose.

In contrast with pre-planned conferences where who will speak at which time will be scheduled often months in advance, and therefore subject to many changes, OST sources participants once they are physically present at the live event venue. There is less organised before the meetings than usual.

The agenda and schedule of presentations is partly or mostly unknown until people begin arriving. The scheduling of speakers, topics and locations is created by people attending, once they arrive. At the end of each OST meeting, a debriefing document is created summarizing what worked and what did not work.

3 Potential providers of expertise in Australia

LinkedIn recommendations, not yet validated:

4 Examples