Suggestions: Conferences and festivals

I recently attended FOSSMeet 2016 at NIT Calicut. The organizers did a fantastic job of setting up the venue, making travel convenient, and putting visitors up in hostels and guest houses. I realize most of the work involved in setting up a successful conference goes on behind the scenes, so it's a testament to their efforts that it went off so smoothly. The gang asked me for feedback multiple times toward the end of the conference. Verbal feedback is always difficult to remember and digest, so I figured the old #openletter format made sense here.


Document!

If everything that goes into a good conference happens invisibly, it's hard to know how to run a conference of your own. In the free/open-source spirit, I hope the folks from FOSSMeet (and other conferences) start documenting their procedures, contact points, processes, and materials.

How did you find speakers? Who did you reach out to for content and sponsorship? How did you make the website? How did you coordinate organization? How did you arrange the conference with faculty? What were some of the pitfalls the next organizers should watch out for?

Even if this "document" is little more than a blog post with an appropriate title, it could really help someone in the future. Preferably, organizers could publish a living document under a free/open license so other people can iterate on it. I've had multiple conversation with the HasGeek folks about documenting and publishing their procedures.


Zero Waste

I always ask people why they are FOSS proponents and what their desired outcomes are. Answers vary wildly, but building a community (or maintaining one) is often high on everyone's list. Every Indian metropolis is facing a garbage crisis at the moment and events organized and attended by educated, privileged individuals should be setting the standard for city living. I was pleased to see chai served in paper cups at FOSSMeet but disappointed to see food served with styrofoam plates and plastic spoons.

Students at NIT Calicut (and other respected universities) may not even be aware that their privilege puts them in the spotlight. When they move to a city like Bangalore or Mumbai, they are the instantly the new educated middle-class of that city. Their behaviour influences others in profound ways and their preferences shape the economy. Demonstrating and advocating for Zero Waste in public spaces like University-hosted conferences is a fantastic way to raise awareness.

Zero Waste events are entirely possible and the resources exist to learn how to run one. Check out 2bin1bag.in, write to them with questions at 2bins1bag@gmail.com, and download their Zero Waste Event resources.

It's not necessary to go completely paperless -- I was happy to have my paper schedule crumpled in my pocket as I jumped from one workshop to the next talk. But a single A4 printed schedule is probably plenty.


Beautiful Things
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." -William Morris
I would take this suggestion from Morris one step further: having nothing that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. Dr. Sasi Kumar mentioned this in his opening keynote: why give a bouquet of flowers? Why not a single flower? Why not a book?

At FOSSMeet, we received plaques thanking us for our time and participation. This is a wonderful gesture and I do feel the plaque falls into the "beautiful" category. However, now that I'm back in Bangalore, it will do little but engage its own beauty on the bookshelf of the nilenso library. If I had been given a book, I would have ample opportunity to think back to my weekend at FOSSMeet and to share that with others. I can hardly imagine a gift I would rather receive than a book, for any occasion.


Reach Out to Reach Out

Most of FOSSMeet was orchestrated through the NIT Calicut alumni network, which I think is fantastic. This approach could be taken one step further: Have the network reach out to their networks, as much as possible. A conference on Free and Open Source Software is bound to have a wide appeal, since there is likely to be little or no marketing for joining such-and-such company or buying into such-and-such product.

Free and Open Source Software (as far as this conference was concerned, at least) is in use in every corporation, in every office, and in almost every role. Often the network of FOSS, open data, open networks, and free documentation is non-obvious. This means that a conference focused on FOSS is likely to succeed by reaching out to more companies, non-profits, and user groups. At worst, you'll be ignored. But it's very likely you will find a whole new branch of free and open society you didn't even know existed.

The networks in the post-university world are vast... but surprisingly tight. Make a point of using social media to engage with potential speakers and attendees months in advance. Not everyone will make it to FOSSMeet 2017 but hopefully we will all know about it.


Centralize Communication

For FOSSMeet, it would have been nice to see heavier use of the @fossmeet twitter handle. Usually events like this have photos and quotes coming out of such a handle left-right-and-centre. That Twitter account can also be a triage for other communication, as it's easy for people to reach out with a quick tweet before they are pointed toward the correct IRC channel, mailing list, email address, or phone number. The 8 contact points at the bottom of the fossmeet.in website are a bit daunting. If I weren't sure how to travel to NIT Calicut (or any other university) or what my residential arrangements would be, my first preference would be to tweet or email a central contact point.


These are all minor feedback points, but I hope that everyone running conferences at least takes a serious look at the first three (Document, Zero Waste, and Beautiful Things) as these could quickly create a feedback loop fostering increasingly positive events, year on year.

2 comments:

Kartik said...

Hi Steven

Member of organizing teams for some previous editions of FOSSMeet here.

I am glad to learn that you enjoyed attending FOSSMet and thank you for the feedback, I'm sure it will help organizers improve the event even further.

Some of the things that you have pointed out are somewhat known among us from the inner circle. Documentation, especially, can help keep things in shape and improve year over year.

Second point is completely new, but I perhaps wouldn't call students at NIT Calicut as privileged (I might have when I was back in college, but being at Brown now my perspective of privilege has changed a lot). But indeed, university events can set an example for the rest of the society.

FOSSMeet has had an illustrious past. I tried to document some from my time at http://techglider.in/post/2013/04/14/of-fossmeets-at-nit-calicut/

Steven Deobald said...

That's a great post, Kartik! Thanks!

As for the question of "privilege", I would definitely consider the students at NIT Calicut to be part of a privileged class. As privileged as students at Brown? Obviously not. But the two schools live in two very different countries with very different economies and very different social structures.

That said, I don't think the delta is quite as wide as many would perceive it to be. Privilege is often a factor of education more than anything. The surface wealth of long-industrialized nations can distract from the true advantages of the middle and upper class in any nation.

Privilege is a spectrum, and the students of NIT Calicut easily fall ahead of the vast majority of Indian citizens. When they enter the workforce, engage society, and possibly even venture into politics, they will have a huge impact on India's future. That sort of agency is privilege in action -- and I hope to see these students use it to better society as much as they use it to better themselves.