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Foo session: Event organizer self help group

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First thing Saturday morning I ran an intimate little meta-session, the not-so-serious Event Organizer Self Help Group. We were a small, but wow, what a group: Maker Faire producer Louise Glasgow, O’Reilly’s own Julie Steele and Sharon Cordesse, William Etundi Jr of Artists Wanted as well XOXO organizer Andy Baio. Combined, there was a tremendously deep knowledge of the ins and outs of putting together kick-ass events.

Instead of re-hashing the session, let me try to jut down just a few of the key take-aways that might be useful for any person organizing events.

  • Let the doc do the thinking! At the very beginning of the project, make sure to set up a spreadsheet (gDoc is recommended) and cluster all tasks by “department”, ie “tech team”, “speaker handling”, etc. List absolutely every task including the time frame (4 weeks out, 2 days out, 1 day after, and so on). Color code if possible. Then sort the spreadsheet by that time, so you get a time line of everything that has to happen. Make sure everyone has access to that. It’s important to do this at the beginning, when you can still think clearly. Later on, when stress and sleep deprivation clog your brain, rely on the doc to do the thinking for you.
  • Related note: Plan for some down time right before the event, even if it’s only for a long walk, to clear your mind and keep you as sane as possible.
  • Wifi is notoriously tough for larger crowds. Make sure to get someone good involved if it’s not provided by the location. (If it is, make sure it’s free for the participants – negotiate if necessary.) If you run a non-profit event, see if there’s a local activist group that can help, in many cities there is.
  • Volunteers can be great, but make sure to coordinate them well. If working with volunteers works out or not depends on the kind of event you run, and on how good a raport you can establish upfront. Also, pick the tasks you give to volunteers with care. If you run a commercial event you might want to not go with volunteers and instead actually pay everyone on the team.
  • Mailchimp or similar newsletter tools can be very valuable leading up to the event to coordinate and communicate with speakers, your team and the audience. Use lists smartly. Make sure to communicate all the truly relevant stuff, and absolutely nothing else so it’s not too much to process.
  • Think in domino effects. As the lead organizer, you’re the only one who has the absolute overview of what’s going on at which time, and how things are connected. Think in these connections, collaterals, dependencies – domino effects, basically. (“If this thing doesn’t happen as planned, how does that change everything else?”)
  • Use sign-up forms for speakers. In these forms, speakers can input their correct links, bios etc. This reduces friction and makes sure you always have the correct data.
  • Build teams & delegate. Everyone should clearly know their roles, and know who to report to whom. It should also be clear who can make autonomous decisions about what, and who they have to include in the communications if they do. As the lead organizer you won’t be able to handle the main coordination leading up to and throughout the event (again, sleep dep, and other things will need your attention). There should be a point of contact for all the teams who coordinates and can decide what to delegate to another team lead and what needs to be decided by you, then communicate your decision back to the relevant teams.
  • If possible, even in a smaller event, get an event manager to help. Early on, so they have a chance to get acquainted with what’s going on. They don’t necessarily have to be involved full time from the very beginning, but do take their advise serious.
  • Before the event, make sure to do a mental walk through of location and program from the point of view of an attendee: What would you see when you arrived, how would you find the things you needed, are there enough signs etc? Put yourself in the participants’ shoes, and in the speakers’ shoes.
  • Work carefully with sponsors: Both sides want this to be good and create value. Work with them to make it good.
  • Bonus: If you expect a large crowd, and the location doesn’t have enough bathrooms, talk to your porta potty provider of choice – turns out they really know how to calculate the exact amount of mobile toilets you need. (I had no idea!)

In the end, though, it’s all about trusting your instincts and staying true to the soul of the event you’re running. So pick the elements that work for you!

Update: You can find a growing list of session notes from Foo Camp here.

Foo Session: The end of the world (or state, at least)

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What seems like it started out as a joke by David Eaves turned into one of the most interesting (and hilarious) discussions I participated in at Foo Camp. I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing, instead I’ll write down a few key points and thoughts.

The premise for the session was this: As we see looking at political struggles like the Arab Spring or the protest against SOPA/PIPA and related bills, and increasing online censorship both in authoritarian regimes and across the Western World, there is clearly a power struggle going on with the governments on one side and the Internet on the other.

(Yes, yes, we never defined who and what exactly is “the Internet”; for the purpose of the discussion and the blog post, we’ll have to make do, and I’ll capitalize it unless I mean the technical infrastructure that makes up the physical internet.)

So let’s assume there are two major power blocks, in any given country: On one hand, the government, in most cases with an inherent interest to preserve the status quo, which is permanently endangered by the internet’s capacity to empower activists, citizens and all other groups alike. On the other hand, the online community, including civil society and the individuals, political activists, consumers etc etc. The latter is extremely vague of course, but there you go, but let’s assume the Internet strives to be as free as possible, with access to as much information as possible and as little restrictions as possible.

We know that in many cases, the Internet has won that particular battle, or at least helped win it. The Arab Spring or SOPA/PIPA are just two examples. In other cases, not so much: Iran, China, the more subtle types of filtering going on in Western democracies like Germany.

So that’s where we stand, but (1) what does it mean, and are we even asking the right questions? (2) And is there really a battle of state v Internet?

(1) We don’t know yet, and (2) probably not. Instead, let’s look at some of the aspects we need to dig into much, much deeper to really find answers. I’ll just collect them here, as I also don’t really have answers, and neither did the group. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who could make anything better than an informed guess.

  • What are the possible outcomes if those are the lines of conflict? No state, strong Internet? No free Internet, but a strong state? Neither are likely. Should a state truly collapse, it would most likely mean a breakdown of infrastructure and services, and thereby also mean the end of the internet in that region. On the other hand, hardly any state can afford to really shut down the internet anymore, as basically all of the essential services a state provides are at least affected, if not based on the internet. More likely is a new balance, one that might be shifting back and forth, some slightly more regulated internet than today or 5 years ago, but still with plenty of wriggle room.
  • Did we even identify all the major parties in this constellation? Probably not. As some folks pointed out, corporations might be one of the major forces at work. Companies that try to influence both government and Internet in order to preserve the freedom they strive for to do their business, and potentially keeping each other in check. Maybe a more distinct civil society could also be a party of sorts.
  • Which role do the inter-dependencies between traditional military action and cyberwar play? Will a country get into a military conflict over a cyber attack? What about pre-emptive cyber attacks? What about semi or fully autonomous, networked drones? What about retaliating with a full-blown country-wide DDOS-style attack as a reaction to guerilla cyber warfare? And should there be a NATO equivalent for the civilian Internet, pooling resources to protect the free web?
  • Which role will a nationstate play in a time where networked knowledge workers work, play and live globally, constantly on the move? It probably won’t provide much identity, it won’t provice basic services as long as the person doesn’t happen to be on that nationstate’s soil. That leaves the state as a passport provider and somewhat of a permanent mailbox.
  • Are we headed for a new kind of citizenship that isn’t primarily based on the traditional nationstate? And what would that be based on? Is the uniting factor a corporation/employer, a tribe (West Coast, East Coast, Euro geeks, etc), something more local or regional (city states), or based on your access to information and network (ISP, data haven, or similar)? Stephenson, Doctorow & Co have drawn up a number of scenarios, all of which might be plausible.
  • Will governments around the world try to either crack down on the Internet, or become much, much more responsive to citizens?

One thing is for sure: There’s a good chance that the role of the nationstate will change dramatically over the next 5-15 years. How? Hard to tell. But it’s not likely to stay the way it is.

Foo Camp

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My first Foo Camp is over. Feels like a bit of a graduation thing, a rite of passage almost. Or maybe I’m just tired. Anyway, what an amazing crowd and atmosphere. The O’Reilly team really manages to pull off this event with some of the smartest people around while somehow establishing and nurturing a culture where there’s no ego to get in the way. At all. It’s all humble, curious, fun. And so conversations go from geeking out to letterpresses to neurophysics to apps to whisky and back in the space of five minutes, and it feels all natural. (At one point, we discussed in detail the end of the world, or at least the nation state, as you do.) One thing that stood out for me was the constant feeling that everyone in the room was way smarter than I; The other, that everybody else behaves like they feel the exact same way.

And so in between sessions and all the hallway conversations, there were all kinds of games and activities, like helicopter jousting, soldering red robot buttons, 3D scanning faces and the like. No chance of getting bored, or much sleep for that matter. And that’s well as it should be.

Most important, for me personally, is the feeling that I went in knowing a handful, maybe a dozen of participants, and left knowing a whole new bunch of super smart people to do cool stuff with at some point down the road. Building connections & cross-pollinating, this is what successful conferences are all about as far as I’m concerned. And if that can be done in a relaxed, familiar atmosphere, it’s all the better. Kudos for creating that atmosphere, where despite the high-profile audience no ego got in the way of things, and the participants were just themselves. It’s not easy to pull that off, and the O’Reilly team managed.

Congratulations, and thank you, Tim & Sara & Brady and all the others.

I’ll try to write up some my thoughts on some of the sessions that stood out for me over the next few days.

Foo Session: New interfaces for making things

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Over the next couple of days I’ll try to write up a few Foo Camp sessions that I participated in and that particularly resonated. More notepad for myself than anything else, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

MIT Media Lab’s Jennifer Jacobs and Sean Follmer invited us to a session about personal fabrication, 3D printing, laser cutting, mass customization, and more generally: making things. What works, what’s (unncessessarily) hard, implications etc.

While I haven’t really done much with the available tools so far, I’ve been following what’s going on pretty closely. In this group, there was a huge amount of experience and in-depth knowledge about techniques, history and visions about the future of personal fabrication.

As Jennifer pointed out, it feels like the field, as vaguely defined as it is, is at a point where there’s a window where the rules of the game are being negotiated, and that window is now. And we don’t know how long it stays open, so let’s not waste time and help build an environment that’s open, inclusive, innovation friendly and allows for a healthy mix of non-commercial and commercial activities.

On one side we see an (in the best sense of the world) amateur DIY culture with knowledge transfer, peer learning and openness at its core. The product may not be perfect, but they are yours and you can change them. On the other side we see a highly controlled, commercialized production chain. Imagine an Apple iPrint 3D product store where you can one-click buy gorgeous, highly functional and completely DRM-crippled printouts of other people’s designs.

Both sides have something going for them, but I’m not going to pretend I equally like them. There’s room (need, even!) for highly professional printing services, just like in 2D printing. You send a file according to certain specs, you receive a small run of printed items shipped to your house a few days later. There should also be room for the tinker-oriented, mostly pre-commercial sphere where the process is the goal. That part is largely about empowerment. And I sure hope that we can find a good balance between the two.

One problem to be solved on the way there is big one: How to narrow the huge gap between the first steps of a newbie (download a file, print it) and actually edit or create an object (needs coding skills etc etc). That gap is still huge today. In my view it’s not very different from web making in the early days, where commenting on a website was super easy, but building a website was tremendously intimidating for most. By now, a whole slew of services and initiatives like Codecademy and Hackasaurus have emerged that help move beginners along and up the ladder to web maker. That took time. I hope similar groups and mechanisms will emerge around the maker scene, only slightly faster. I’m confident that they will.

Another problem to solve is much more concrete: File formats. There’s still a plethora of file formats and a distinct lack of interoperability. In other words: file format hell. Exchange formats are super important. Again, this can be done, and I expect it will emerge sooner rather than later.

Let’s go build a future where we can all tinker freely rather than just download a glossy piece of Apple-produced plastic. This starts with teaching kids how to make things.

Spending time in the Bay Area

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Morning run: success, at least in terms of views along the way

Yesterday evening, while the plane was slowly rolling towards the gate of SFO, two kids sitting behind me started humming the Imperial march from Star Wars. A worthy way to arrive if there is any, and along with Urbanvention founder Benjamin Mateev I shared a ride downtown. We had bumped into each other at Munich airport, and judging by what I’m hearing on the backchannels we’re just a small part of a large Berlin contingency that’ll get to the Bay Area over the next couple of weeks: Apple’s WWDC is around the corner and attracts plenty of visitors from all over the place.

I’m neither a developer nor in town for Apple, instead I’ll head over to Sebastopol on Friday to spend the weekend at Foo Camp. As you can imagine, I’m psyched! (Also, intimitated just a little. It’s a killer crowd.)

So I was lucky, it seems my body ended up in the right time zone right away. I’m making sure to keep it there, with an early morning run and some fantastic coffee at Ritual, and catch up on the work I missed due to a full day of travel.

Getting into San Francisco last night, and spending a few days here, one thing became blatantly obvious to me. It’s something I’ve known deep down for awhile, but this trip surfaces it: Just like New York, San Francisco is one of the cities I’ll have to spend some time at. As in actually living there. Could be a few weeks, a few months, a few years. But it clicks more than many other towns. No wonder, it’s one of the cities where our tribe lives, and there’s likeminded folks galore.

I’ve worked for a few weeks at a time from different places in the past, and even as a freelancer that worked remarkably well, given that you’re open about it with your clients and they trust you can be reached. In my case that meant the occasional awkwardly times Skype call to make it easy for my client’s time zone, but that was always more than worth it. I imagine it to be a bit different working in a team, but I’m curious to learn how to make this work. I know many people that have successfully done that, and some where it turned somewhat sour, but I’m sure it can be worked out given the right kind of prep. So if you’ve done this, let me know what worked & didn’t work. It’s not an urgent thing, but one I’m constantly interested in.

But for now I’m just going to enjoy the time in the Bay Area, meeting lots of people. Speaking of which – if you want to meet up, ping me via Twitter or email.