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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Review of BarCamp Bangalore 4

So BarCamp Bangalore 4 has come and gone. It was interesting as always. Lots of interesting people and things going on. I already wrote a post about Anand and the Open Library project and I'll be writing a few more detailed posts about the other stuff that I found interesting at BCB4. In this post however, I want to concentrate on the event itself.

Also, on the topic of BCB4 reviews, some other posts from across the blogosphere - To start off, the event was huge. Around 600 people turned up I believe. Now whether that is a good thing or not is something that we'll discuss in the last section of this post.

Another interesting innovation was the introduction of collectives. A collective is a group getting together to discuss a common topic. This was in response to the last time when a complaint was that if someone was interested in one topic it was hard to know where all it was happening. This time you could just head out to the collective venue and sit through all the collective sessions.

Now to dissect the event ;) I'll start out with the broader principles and finally come to the minor areas.

The law of two feet

To start off, one thing I liked the large number of parallel sessions. This is an area where a number of people complain - too many parallel sessions - but according to me, there needs to be way more sessions than you can possibly attend. This is because a crucial cornerstone of an unconference, borrowed from open space technology, is the law of two feet. Harrison Owen, the creator of Open Space says this about the law:

This law says that every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person -- each participant.

The basic principle is that if you are not getting anything out of a session, use your two feet to move to a better session. The law can only be useful if there are enough sessions to choose from. So for the law to be successful, you need to have a lot of stuff going on. By "stuff going on," I don't mean formal sessions only. Hallway discussions and informal or ad-hoc sessions also count.

One of the things that I really enjoyed this barcamp, and thought was an improvement over last time, was the amount of stuff happening in parallel. I was able to extensively use the law of two feet to good effect and ended up in a number of good sessions.

Small groups in a circle

Another thing that I took away from Owen's writings on open space technology was the role of the circle. I've seen this validated time and time again — the best discussions happen with a small number of people facing each other in a circle. Take a look at this photo from the social tech session. I can't display it here since it is all rights reserved :( -

Studies have shown that the design of an interaction space has a profound effect on the types of interactions that go on there. Put people in a classroom and there is a clear divide between the presenter and the audience. The result is that you will likely get a presentation plus Q&A format, with a mostly passive audience. Put people in a small circle and you will get a completely different set of interactions.

Again for first timers, it often seems that the thing to do is to sit passively in the sessions. This often leads to confusion when a lot of interesting discussions are happening in the hallway.

I thought the classrooms at IIM are too big. I liked the rooms at Thoughtworks from BCB2. Probably the right size for having a session.

Whenever they start is the right time. When it is over, it is over.

These are two more principles of open space. Basically what it means is that a group will start when it needs to. The discussion will run its course. And then the session will end. "Run its course" could mean 5 minutes, half an hour, one hour, whatever. As long as participants are interested, the discussion is on. When the energy drops, the discussion is over and the session is closed.

The conclusion to draw from that is that it is impossible to fix an exact start and end time on a session. Some sessions start late because you are waiting for people. Some start early because there are interested people around.

I am reminded of Prayank's hands-on tutorial on flex (a detailed post on this will come later), a very nice session that was conducted in the middle of the lunch session when everyone was out eating. But there were a few people interested and the room was free, so the session was held then.

Again, sessions finish when they finish. Some discussions go on for a while. It can be a killer to cut the session short due to time constraints. Some sessions only go on for 15-20 minutes. It makes sense to move on rather than to fill the time.

I thought that the idea of encouraging sessions outside the rooms were brilliant in this regard. When the session is held on the garden or in the hallway or in coffee day, there are no time constraints and the sessions follow the principles automatically.

The paper wiki

The paper wiki just didnt work properly this time. One of the by-products of having a collectives system is that each collective had its own schedule. This is great if you plan to sit in one collective, but it was confusing if you wanted to move from room to room and wanted to see what was going on at a particular time across collectives. In the end I just went to the rooms to see what was happening instead of relying on the paper wiki. This was kind of messy and definitely one area to look at.

For instance there were a lot of corridor sessions scheduled for post lunch, 3pm on Sunday - Bikers, Photo, Speed Geeking, Python, Functional programming, and virtually nothing for 4pm. Session coordinators didn't realise this situation because there was no centralised paper wiki where you could see the timings across collectives properly.

I liked the paper wiki at BCB2. Very straightforward and everyone knew at what time a session was happening.

Dissecting the hallway discussion

The interesting thing about a hallway discussion (or any session outside the classroom for that matter) is that it follows these principles automatically. No one needs to tell anyone anything, it just happens like it is just the natural state of things. Hallway discussions are by nature limited to 10-15 people due to practical constraints. The participants are almost always in a circle facing each other. Those not interested almost always move on, and interested people join in. It is almost always participatory. And hallway discussions just start on their own and end when its over.

Amazing isn't it? Can we replicate these in planned sessions? I say yes. Hold the session outside the rooms — in the corridor, garden or coffee day or anywhere outside — and it will automatically follow the principles.

Getting the first-timer oriented

The thing about a barcamp is that it can be extremely disorienting to a first timer. Almost everything is structured in a way that is counter-intuitive to previous experience. The large number of parallel sessions, sessions that start late or early, sessions that end late or early — it can all be very disorienting.

A good paper wiki can be critical here. I also think if there are a large number of first timers, it probably makes sense to have an introductory session on 'navigating through a barcamp.'

Other minor points

An issue was that many uninterested people came along. This might be true, but it could also be a case of first timers not knowing how to get the best out of an unconference. The main thing is to get interested people into the event. I think pitching the event to the mainstream is a bad idea. Whoever is interested should come. If that is 50 people then that's okay. If that turns out to be large, then that's okay too. But it should happen organically. There need not be a deliberate focus on doing a big event. BCB is popular enough that it doesn't need to focus on publicity.

One more point that irked a lot of people was companies that did repeat sessions in the rooms because 'they didnt get enough of a response the first time.' Guys, the idea in a barcamp is to share and learn, not to use a captive audience as a focus group. I have no problems with companies showing a demo of their product. These sessions can sometimes be pretty interesting. But to do it again in the room is probably not correct. If you really, really want to do a repeat, use the corridors. Especially if there was not enough response the first time. If there was a great response then maybe its okay, but even then I'd suggest a corridor for the session.

Many complained about sessions overflowing their time. This is the problem with rooms. It's hard to apply the "when its over, its over" principle because the next session has to start. This was hardly an issue with the corridor discussions because there is always more corridor space.


Okay, this post is big enough already. What did I like? I liked the stuff happening in parallel and the hallway discussions. I thought the session rooms were too big and the paper wiki was very confusing. On the whole I was mostly in the hallway discussions, so it was a very good barcamp for me, though I can see how those who tried to decipher the paper wiki and plan the sessions to attend would have had a tough time.

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